Obba Babatundé On Working With The ‘Get Empowered!’ Team, Sammy Davis Jr., Favorite Roles, And What’s Ahead

An award-winning actor, dancer, director, producer and singer, Obba Babatundé has been seen in dozens of major movies, including Philadelphia, The Notebook, The Manchurian Candidate, and Miss Evers’ Boys. Babatundé has also appeared in episodes of plenty of key television shows, including Madam Secretary, The Bold and the Beautiful, Grey’s Anatomy, and Friends. In turn, it is not surprising that Babatundé has been honored with a Daytime Emmy Award, an NAACP Image Award, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Peachtree Village International Film Festival; he has also been the recipient of a Tony nomniation.

Obba Babatundé also remains active off-screen with a variety of causes. As the leader of the Get Empowered! Unity Arts Tour, Babatundé is a major supporter of arts education. Currently out with Get Empowered! on a cross-country tour, Babatundé just wrapped three performances in New York State, which took place on September 15, 18, and 19; the first New York outing brought the Queens native close to his roots with an event at Flushing Meadows Park. More on the Get Empowered! cause and upcoming events — which include September 23 at the Southeast-Rio Vista YMCA and an on-going collaboration with the Aspire Triumph Technology School and North Oakland Community Charter School — can be found at www.getempoweredall.com.

On behalf of the Inquisitr, I had the pleasure of conducting a Q&A with Obba Babatundé about his various projects of the past, present, and future. Follow Babatundé on Twitter via @ObbaBabatunde.

As an Emmy Award-winning actor and a noted musician and dancer, how do you like to describe what you do for a living? Do you use the term “entertainer?”

Obba Babatundé: When asked what I do for a living, I describe it by saying that “I’m living my purpose and at times I want to enlighten and inspire, at other times educate and entertain and sometimes all of the above at the same time.” Yes, I also do use the term “entertainer.”

Does your being a multifaceted performer have anything to do with Sammy Davis Jr. mentoring you? Or were you already aiming to be a triple-threat when you had met him?

Obba Babatundé: “Mr. D,” as I affectionately referred to him, was certainly a great inspiration because growing up he was the image that I saw that I patented my style of performing after. He acted, he sang, he danced, he played musical instruments, he did impersonations, and he did on the level with the best of the best. I met him in-person for the first time in 1978. I was starting the world tour with the amazing Liza Minnelli, and after our opening show at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe, he knocked on my dressing room door, I answered “yes?” He said, “Ob, it’s me Sam.” I opened the door and there he stood, he looked me in the eye and said, “You my man are a b***h on wheels.” Stunned and shaking I invited him in. He paid me several compliments about my performance and then I said, “Sir, I want to thank you for coming in through the kitchen, so I could come in through the front door.” A tear ran down his face and he hugged me and said, “Thank you for that, thank you for that!” I will never forget that moment for as long as I live.

How would you describe Get Empowered! to someone who hasn’t yet experienced it? What takes place at one of the events?

Obba Babatundé: To describe in simple terms, Get Empowered! — to someone who is yet to experience it — is very challenging because it is an experience that to each individual represents something so incredibly powerful that it would be different with each person who would describe it. The music, the dance, the energy, the shared love and respect, the fun and the unifying of spirits are some of the terms that I would use when trying to put it into words. To watch people regardless of age, race, financial status, political persuasion, cultural diversity, come together and join in the circle of positive energy being expressed through drumming and dancing and clapping and call and response, is like something you can only describe after experiencing it.

How did you get involved with the Get Empowered! team?

Obba Babatundé: I’m always looking to align myself with that which unifies us as the human race, and after experiencing one Get Empowered event, I contacted Emi Gittleman and asked if there was some way that I could participate in helping further the work of the organization.

What about this organization attracts you the most?

Obba Babatundé: Simply put, what attracts me the most about this organization is their work in community building and a commitment to inclusion and that their methodology is based on the use of the power of creative arts.

Does doing Get Empowered! change the path of your career in any way? In other words, do you think it may keep you from pursuing certain kinds of roles?

Obba Babatundé: In the 47 years of my career, I’ve always invested no matter what they are or what their purpose was that they are fully-realized human beings and with all the aspects that make us human. And so I don’t believe that in any way this will have a negative effect on future roles or work.

The first roles of yours where I really noticed you were The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Temptations, That Thing You Do! and How High, four very different roles. Is there a role that you usually get recognized most for?

Obba Babatundé: I have been very blessed and fortunate to have had the opportunity to portray many different types of characters. Be it working on Broadway in musical theater or regional theater, or in straight plays as a dramatic actor, as well as film, television, night clubs, the dance world all of these experiences have afforded me exposure to a broader audience nationally and internationally.

Having portrayed real living people like the great tap dancer Harold Nicholas of the great tap dance duo the Nicholas Brothers, co-starring in the HBO feature Introducing Dorothy Dandridge with the lovely Halle Berry, or Motown mogul and icon Berry Gordy in The Temptations has caused me many times to be mistaken actually as those men. Now with the groundbreaking role of Julius Avant on the CBS soap opera Bold and the Beautiful has brought me — sometimes into the crosshairs — to even more people who identify me as him. Then there’s the wild and wonderful culture classic How High that continues to introduce me as Dean Cain to multiple generations.

The dancing you did in How High, was that improvised?

Obba Babatundé: A funny story about my dancing in How High, they had brought in a person who was to do the dance parts for my character. I looked over and saw the gentleman and asked, “Who is he and why is he dressed in the same costume?” They said, “He’s going to do your dancing.” I said, “I don’t need anybody to do my dancing.” They said, “Do you dance?” I said, “Watch me.” The rest is history and, yes, it was all improvisational.

Is there a role or project that you are most proud of?

Obba Babatundé: Asking me if there is a role that I would identify as my favorite would be like asking me which one of my children do I love the best. I love each one of the characters because I see them as fully realized humans and I put as much love and attention into each one. Although I must say that I hold a special place in my heart for Willie Johnson, the character I was awarded the Emmy nomination for my portrayal of in the HBO movie Miss Evers’ Boys. It is probably because of the historical relevance it had as well as the what resulted after — the president at the time — Bill Clinton did after seeing the film. He offered an apology on behalf of the country to the survivors and their families for the horrifying wrongs committed by the country to these men, women and their families.

Get Empowered! aside, what is coming up for you in your career?

Obba Babatundé: I am proud to announce that we have a second season on the Netflix series Dear White People, and I’ve just completed filming Showtime series I’m Dying Up Here. I have a movie coming out with Johnny Depp, LAbyrinth, as well as my one-man show Once in a Lifetime, a tribute to the late great Sammy Davis Jr.

When not busy with work, how do you like to spend your free time?

Obba Babatundé: As a horse whisperer, I love the time spent communicating spiritually with pure spirit creatures that are called horses.

Finally, Obba, any last words for the kids?

Obba Babatundé: My message to kids of all ages… Please never give up on your dream, because through dedication and commitment, your dreams can become a reality. Remember always, “they cannot take from you what they did not give to you.”

[Featured Image by Emi Gittleman]