Mustafa Shakir found acting by chance. He was studying business and finance at Cornell University but numbers left him cold. Words were what moved him, writing poetry in his afternoon English class. He shared his doubts with his mother and she took him to the Negro Ensemble Company, the famous theatre company whose alumni include Denzel Washington, Samuel L Jackson and Danny Glover among others.
Shakir planned to attend the writing workshop but there was a mixup and he found himself listening to actors perform various scenes and monologues. The moderator spotted Shakir sitting at the back of the room. “What are you doing here, newbie?”
Shakir explained he was in the wrong class. “And then my mum told me to go up there and do a poem…”
The kool aid was drunk, bug duly caught, and before long Shakir was making his screen debut in police drama New York Undercover. Now his moment has very much arrived. He has played the villainous Bushmaster opposite Mike Colter in Luke Cage. He had a lead role in the Netflix anime adaptation Cowboy Bebop. And next year, he’ll star in the Will Smith thriller Emancipation.
Shakir discusses all these projects and more with our interviewer – his on-screen nemesis and real-life friend, Mike Colter.
Mike Colter: When you and I first worked together on Luke Cage, you played a villain. A really great villain by the way! This is a turn for you because now you’re on the other side now – now you’re a ‘good guy’. There’s grey, but you’re on the other side. How does that feel and what do you like better?
Mustafa Shakir: I like playing villains more, quite honestly. I just think that they’re more complex and fun. That’s not necessarily true, but I have a lot of fun with it – just because I don’t do that in my real life so it’s like a good way to vent my evil! It’s art therapy, for sure.
Doing Jet Black [Shakir’s character in Cowboy Bebop], it’s fun. He’s not your straight and narrow good guy – as you say, there’s grey areas there with him, too. So there’s some complexity to play in. I’ve had fun with that. He’s really an oxymoron: he’s super caring but this gruff dude. I can get behind that, you know what I mean? Playing that contrast.
MC: I think a lot of actors feel like the villains are more complex. Does it then stand true that sometimes, when you’re playing a good guy, it’s more difficult? You have to find ways of making him a three-dimensional character, you have to make people still want to see him succeed? Does it feel harder?
MS: No, not necessarily. I think I’m just speaking from me embracing what the industry has given me so far. I’ve played quite a few villains and so I’ve found my motivation: OK, cool, if I’m going to do this I’m going to have fun and this is why. But at the same time, there’s mad complexity in the good guy. They’re not one dimensional! How about you – how do you like playing a good guy?
MC: If I’m going project to project, I like to do one of each. It gives you a chance to stretch your muscle and balance it out. I feel like I get bored and I don’t want to do the same thing. But sometimes you get a couple of things in a row that are in the same vein, and if it’s really great and the writing’s great, you want to try it.
So it’s not a general rule – I’m gonna try this and try that. You kinda take what comes your way and hopefully it will challenge you and hopefully you will be fulfilled. Because I can’t always say that everything’s gonna plan out just the way I want it to.
MS: Yeah, that’s not life. Totally. I hear that.
MC: Talk to me about the music. Cowboy Bebop obviously has a great musical score and a phenomenal composer; you yourself are a very accomplished musician.
You’ve put some dope tracks out, you have some really good stuff, man. And I’m still waiting for the rest of the world to understand how good you are – because a lot of times people try to put you in a box but I see you as a phenomenally talented person that can probably do both.
I wanna know, do you feel like at some point you might be able to lend your skills to the show and put out a track or two?
MS: Yeah, absolutely! Yoko Kanno kills this, man. It’s been echoed so many times on press week, she’s the heart and soul of Bebop. That sound, that jazz. As you say, music is hugely important. For Bebop, it sets a tone for sure.
In terms of my own music – thanks, I appreciate the love on it. I do it cos I have to. It sort of haunts me. I wish it didn’t sometimes! For sure, I want to do some, I can see me soundtracking some stuff. In fact, it’s loosely in the plans. It’s just a matter of finding its way. I’m doing a lot more licensing now so I’m right for that format. Yeah, I’m playing around. Everything’s possible!
MC: Just before we get off the music thing – what two tracks of yours would you say to people, listen to these if you have time?
MS: I think for contrast, I would go with ‘King Shit’ – which is the last song that I put out. It’s more the dancey, bouncy vibe which I was playing around with. Then maybe ‘Ali’. ‘Ali’ is a really fun track that’s more ‘hip-hop’ and driving. But if you go on Spotify and check me out, there are loads.
MC: I remember ‘Ali’ – I was actually in the car listening to that track! It was fire. As to being a musician and an actor – what happened, who happened, when did it happen, that you decided this is what I want to do?
And then, when did you know that you had made the right choice? Whether it was because you were making it financially or you just felt in your heart and soul that you were on the right path?
MS: Wow, I’ll try a concise one with this! It was kinda serendipitous. I was at Cornell for International Banking and Finance.
MC: What? I did not know that! OK.
MS: Man, I was up there, I was in it, all the numbers. But it was driving me crazy. Literally. I have done business my whole life so I knew the basics of it; I was just going to formalise the degree. But I was like, Goddamn – y’all complicating shit.
Then I’d go to the English class in the afternoon and write poetry and people loved it! I was like, man, I feel something in my soul. So when I went back to the city in that summer, I was like, ‘yo mom, I’m not really feeling this.’ It was eating at me. There were a few other factors there. She was like, ‘I’mma take you to the Negro Ensemble Company, boy. You always writing something – let’s see if they can find a place for you.’
So I was supposed to go to the writing workshop, because I’ve always been writing my whole life, before anything. I got there and it was not a writing workshop, it was a scene and monologue workshop. I sat in the back; it was all full so I couldn’t leave, and I didn’t want to. All these performances – this is fire!
Chuck Patterson, the manager from The Five Heartbeats [1991 musical drama], he was the moderator. He was like, ‘yo, what are you doing here, newbie?’ I was like, ‘well, I came for writing but this is obviously not the right class.’ And then my mum told me to go up there and do a poem. Did a poem, long story short they told me to go get this play Zooman and the Sign [1979 play focused on the murder of a 12-year-old African American girl]. Giancarlo Esposito originated this one – it’s funny, I got to meet him later on. I came back and I did that monologue and the rest is history. I did a bunch of plays out there.
MC : Did it give you chills? When you were doing the monologue, when did you feel it? The response?
MS : Yeah, yeah. That’s a good moment to focus in on. When I first went in there and I did that monologue, I wasn’t in my head at all. It was just that fresh newness, that pureness, and I felt that rhythm, and everybody else did. They were blown away – ‘you need to go do this.’
Essentially that’s why they gave me all these opportunities outta there. I booked my first television show, New York Undercover, based on the referral of Carol Khan White, the director of the programme at the time.
I didn’t know what a manager was, I didn’t know what an agent was. I didn’t know nothing. But got the guest star on one of the most popular shows! That was confirmation; I just fell into it! I joined the union, I got taxed!
MC : Once you pay that money to get in, you’re like, this is a commitment here because I can’t just break even! Now I owe you money.
MS : I was like, what? I have to pay my whole cheque to them?
MC : Yeah, it’s wild! You realise – I have to continue to work!
MS : I borrowed $150!
MC : I remember that! I had to borrow from my brother. Yeah I had to borrow that because what I got didn’t pay enough to do it.
MS : On top of the pay cheques! But it was cool when that residual came around. What? The same amount again?
But yeah, putting one foot in front of the other, it challenged me in a way that nothing else did. I had to master myself, my emotions, going into an audition room. How to be detached yet be passionate. All of that just thrilled me. It kept me busy. But I was always in the back of my mind thinking, ‘imma go back to school!’
That was it. That whole sequence of events was a telltale sign that I was in the right place at the right time. It just happened way too serendipitously for me not to notice. I mean, it did kick my ass later on because you have to earn your stripes. I got in easy, but then once I was in, I had to earn my stripes.