For Actor Mahershala Ali, Hip-Hop Has the Strongest Influence on His Life
One of the best actors in Hollywood right now is Mahershala Ali. The Oakland-born star has seen his stock steadily rise over the last 15 years. On television, Ali got his start as Dr. Trey Sanders in Crossing Jordan and went on to play big roles in Threat Matrix, The 4400, Treme and Alpha. When it comes to film, the 42-year-old creative played key roles in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Place Beyond the Pines.
However, within the last three years, Mahershala Ali has become a household name for his scene-stealing performances in major works like the Netflix series House of Cards and the Hunger Games franchise. Ali stars as Remy Danton on Beau Willimon's hit show House of Cards. He followed that up with arguably his biggest role as Boggs, the personal bodyguard of Katniss (played by Jennifer Lawrence) in the final two chapters of the Hunger Games.
This year, Ali has been on fire. In 2016, he's featured in three major films -- Free State of Jones, Kicks and Moonlight -- as well as in Netflix's newest hit series Luke Cage. He was also cast as Vector in the upcoming movie Alita: Battle Angel and will be in Hidden Figures when it debuts on Jan. 13 of next year.
With all of that on his plate, some of his biggest projects this year have strong ties to hip-hop. Kicks, directed by Justin Tipping, features rap lyrics from artists such as Nas, which serve as chapter markers in the movie. In Luke Cage, Ali plays the villain Cottonmouth, who has The Notorious B.I.G's iconic 1997 "King of New York" photo hanging in his office. Also, each episode of Luke Cage is named after a Gang Starr song. For Ali, this hits home because he's a huge underground hip-hop head.
A scroll through Mahershala Ali's Instagram page finds pictures of the Juice Crew, Brand Nuban, graffiti and art that live within the hip-hop culture. So XXL got Ali on the phone to discuss growing up in the Bay Area, his roles in Luke Cage and Kicks and why hip-hop is so important to him.
XXL: Kicks is a really great coming of age film set in the Bay area. You being born in Oakland, how cool was it to be a part of the film?
Mahershala Ali: It was great, man, because I hadn’t had the opportunity to work at home yet, not in film or television. Up until that point, I’ve been working for like 15 years or so. I really appreciate... often you have people who are from wherever and they write about a specific location, local, the fact that [director] Justin Tipping is from the Bay area, from Richmond, he knows it and has seen it and has grown up in it. I felt he just did a really wonderful job of capturing a certain aspect of the Bay area that is honestly kind of disappearing because of gentrification and what not. He was able to tell that story in a way that will really resonate in a way for a lot of people and reminds me of some of the things I seen as a kid growing up in the Bay area.
What was it like growing up in the Bay?
I was born in Oakland and was raised in Hayward. When I was younger, Oakland was and it still has its parts. Oakland by far is really gorgeous; it still has these pockets that are really dangerous. Certain things are kind of normal. I think kids out there can be tested in a way where his right of passage ties into a bit of violence and how that has become these markers in masculinity and you being kind of validated after having to pass through things. That it felt dangerous to some degree. It’s a lot of wonderful things about the Bay area and Oakland that I absolutely love. I wouldn’t change being from there by any stretch. There are things about it that are really challenging for young people and [Justin Tipping] definitely hit that on the head.
The movie blends hip-hop really well with its story. There's the cut scene being given rap lyrics, the music being played and the artists in the movie. As a hip-hop fan, how exciting was that for you?
I loved the choices [Justin Tipping] made but if you got to see what was in the script originally, like you talkin’ Souls of Mischief songs, Biggie songs, Wu-Tang songs, they were different chapters. There was a Nas song that had a chapter. But then you get into having to license those songs and that ends up affecting what he was able to use [laughs]. [Justin Tipping] likes some of the same music that I grew up on.
We’re 20, 25 years out of that time so seeing those folks kind of pop back in a way in these stories that kind of adds something to the stories. It’s pretty remarkable to see Souls of Mischief’s “93 ‘Til Infinity” pop up. Those are songs I carry with me in my youth. So to see those groups of people like them, popping up and having a part in the soundtrack of these stories in some ways is really exciting to me.
What did you grow up listening to?
I grew up on The Wake Up Show [with Sway & Tech]. Growing up in the Bay was one thing but my dad being a New Yorker, I would go to New York in the summer. At a earlier age, I was kind of into a pretty large scope or range of music from Hieroglyphics and the Hobo Junction guys and all that to like a lot of stuff that was in New York like Diamond D, Nas, Brand Nubian, of course Biggie, OC, Organized Confusion, Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Digable Planets who I just saw recently and they killed it.
I grew up on a wide range of stuff. OutKast, they been around for over 20 years, and some of the L.A. cats like Defari, Dilated Peoples and Likwit Crew. I was always going to these shows and catching the KRS-One tennis ball, as he would throw those out, EPMD. I could go on and on. But those are the groups that I grew up on and are still very much in the rotation.
What new hip-hop artists do you like?
One I’m definitely into is Ka from Brownsville, [Brooklyn]. He just released a new album that is phenomenal. Roc Marciano, Hus Kingpin, Planet Asia, there’s a group in Atlanta called EarthGang that’s pretty dope. Mick Jenkins, Westside Gunn and Conway. More of an underground layer I kind of find myself gravitating to. I like and listen to some of the commercial stuff but the stuff I really spend time on is the stuff that you got to look for.
Did you see the Ka controversy with the New York Post article? They outed him for being a firefighter captain and also ridiculed him for being a rapper. It was a disgusting take down piece that had no merit.
It was an article about how his two worlds can’t coincide?
Huh, that’s crazy. The thing is his music is so intelligent. If you understand or respect lyricism, the way he puts his thoughts together, so much of what he’s describing is art. It’s extraordinarily artistic. That’s frustrating to hear. But it’s also more of a conversation about the fact that hip-hop is not necessarily as respected as an art form. So if he was in a rock band he would probably be adored and appreciated but the fact that he’s a rapper that is looked at in a certain way.
Luke Cage looks amazing, man. How was it being a part of that? The fact that every episode is named after a Gang Starr song is awesome.
Cheo Hodari Coker is a big hip-hop head and he used to write for Vibe and I think The Source. He’s been around forever. The music is very much the heartbeat of this project. It has a hip-hop spirit. I’m excited by it because part of it is that it has a superhero that happens to be Black. But with that, often you don’t see projects get the push that they deserve.
I feel like in this case, Marvel is really excited about it and they are giving it its fair push. The production value is on par with Daredevil and Jessica Jones. I think there are some wonderful actors in there. They casted it in a way that it felt truthful and grounded and what they needed to tell the story. I think we have a really good shot of making a lot of people happy to see this come to life.
I heard you used to be a b-boy. Is that true?
A little bit, yeah. I definitely used to break dance a bit. Hip-hop has definitely had a strong, perhaps the strongest influence on my life. I don’t think I’m at all unique with that. I think there’s so many people of color, and even White kids, that have been tolerating the stresses of their own problems and what not and were able to navigate so many things through the culture of hip-hop and create jobs, have opportunities and been able to express themselves and finding their identity in. I think that’s true with so many people, definitely with me. It’s an appendage. It’s a part of me.
What are some of the important albums you listened to?
Definitely [Nas'] Illmatic. I think that’s the greatest hip-hop album ever. I think second to Illmatic is [Raekwon's] Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... that’s a pretty remarkable album. When we start getting into groups I definitely think [Digable Planets'] Blowout Comb is up there because that’s an album I still play. I think Diamond D’s Stunts, Blunts and Hip Hop is remarkable; EPMD’s Strictly Business, Jaylib’s Champion Sound, Ghostface’s Supreme Clientele, Wu-Tang’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), GZA’s Liquid Swords.
One of the albums I like that recently came out is Roc Marciano’s Reloaded that’s an incredible album. Ka’s Grief Pedigree is phenomenal. I can go on. Souls of Mischief for me is one of the biggest. Just being from the Bay area and kind of putting the Bay area on the map and show that we could do it on that level. Soul’s of Mischief 93 ‘Till Infinity would be the one that kind of brought hip-hop home and reflected the Bay area and gave a lot of people a lot of confidence that we had a seat at the table.
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