Yoba, Malik 1967—

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Malik Yoba 1967

Actor, singer, musician, youth activist

Loved Make Believe

Arrested Audiences

Motivates Youth


Malik Yoba was an accomplished talent and community activist before being cast in the Fox network television drama New York Undercover in 1994, a show with the noteworthy distinction of being the first primetime network television drama to feature two actors of color. Set in Yobas hometown of New York City, its plots usually engage his character, the New York City Police Department detective J. C. Williams, in crime solving activities with his partner Eddie Torres, played by Michael DeLorenzo, along the rough streets of their Harlem beat. Secondary storylines in the hip, jazzy drama feature Williams working toward establishing a good bond with his school-age son and the vagaries of romance with his upwardly-mobile fiancee, all the while worrying about keeping his son from meeting the same fate as he sees other boys in the city encounter on a daily basis.

Yobas success on New York Undercover is in part due to his screen presence and the believability of his character, two factors whose roots lie in the actors assured sense of self. With his sculpted physique, the six-foot three-inch Bronx-born actor could have easily been a successful model, noted Deborah Gregory in Essence during the first successful season oí New York Undercover.Instead he spent the last six years being a real-life role model to black teens.

Since 1986, Yoba has been involved full-time with several different community organizations that target underprivileged youth in the New York City area and has served for many years as vice president of CityKids Foundation. He is also a singer and songwriter with a record contract and a style he terms urban folk, as well as the head of a company called Nature Boy Enterprises, which offers keynote addresses and motivational workshops headed by the challenging title Why Are You on This Planet?

Loved Make Believe

Ironically, Yoba grew up in a home without a television set by decree of a strict Muslim father. Born in 1967, the actor was one of six children raised in a single-parent household; his father also created the surname Yoba for his family so that they might take pride in their own heritage. Yoba spoke of his childhood to Vi be magazine

At a Glance

Full name, Abdul-Malik Kashie Yoba; Born September 17,1967, in Bronx, NY; son of Abdullah Yoba and Mahmoudah Lanier,

Actor, singer, musician, and youth activist City Kids Foundation, New York, NY vice-president, 1986-93; ABC-TV, co-musical director of Henson Productions City Kids, 1992. Nature Boy Enterprises, New York, NY president and chief executive officer, 1994, Why Are You on This Planet? (youth self-esteem program), founder, 1994, Film appearances include Cool Runnings , 1992; Smoke, 1995; and Blue in the Face, 1995. Television appearances include guest spots on Law and Order and Where I Live and lead role m New York Undercover, Fox, 1994-% Signed to Chaos/Columbia Records, 1995,

Member: Reach, New York, NY, (board member, 1992); CityKids Foundation (advisor, 1993); Hale House (committee member, 1995); Childrens Peace Memorial. Also a member of several semi-professional entertainment groups.

Awards: Named one of 30 young artists under the age of 3D who will change American culture in the next 30 years, New York Times Magazine, 1994.

Addresses: Office Nature Boy Enterprises, ine, 163 Third Ave., New York, NY 10003,

reporter Scott Poulson-Bryant, recalling how he and his siblings would script and perform plays for friends and family. We didnt have a lot of toys so we wrote songs and performed those.

Yobas growing performing experience led him to seek a larger audience. His first stage role was in a production of Alice in Wonderland that ran off-off Broadway. The magic of the theater, the lights, and the music, and the fact that it was a fairy tale come to life probably set it off for me, Yoba told Ethnic NewsWatch writer Heather Keets. Despite his stage ambitions, Yoba led the life of a rather typical New York City kid until a gunshot wound at the age of 15 changed his perspective enormously.

Surviving the trauma inspired me to challenge the climate of violence that almost took my life, and I began working as a volunteer with youth organizations in my community, Yoba explained in an introductory letter for the motivational seminar Why Are You on This Planet? Working for many years as a youth activist in New York City, he came into contact with young people from all walks of life and from around the world.

What Ive found with most kids is, no matter how rich or poor they are, or which cultural or ethnic backgrounds they represent, most dont have a clue what their purpose in life is, Yoba clarified in the missive. I believe that we all have a mission in life and kids especially need to know this. They need to know that they do have a voice, that they can find that voice and use it to affect positive changes in their own lives, their communities, and in the world.

In his capacity as a youth activist, Yoba took a guitar and his ideas of empowerment to junior-high and high school students. His prominence in the community eventually led to invitations to appear on television talk shows like Oprah and The Arsenio Hall Show.Over the years he had balanced his career with some experience in semi-professional entertainment ensembles and on a whim decided to audition for a role in a Disney movie based on a true story about a Jamaican bobsled team that competed in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. I didnt have an agent or even a head shot. I went to an open casting call, and they chose me, Yoba said in some press material about how he landed his role in Cool Runnings.I guess it was that I had perfected my Jamaican accent hanging out with the Jamaicans in Washington Square Park.

Arrested Audiences

The success of the movie led to other roles for Yoba, including guest appearances on the television shows Law and Order and Where I Live.His presence so impressed Wolf Productions, looking to cast one of the two leads for a new show about young, hipster police detectives in New York City, that he was invited to read for the role and won the part. New York Undercover debuted in the fall of 1994 to laudatory praise by critics and soon developed a cult audience.

The storylines engage the detectives played by Yoba and DeLorenzo in a plethora of urban drama, ranging from the shooting of a graffiti artist by a vigilante to a biker gang enmeshed in black-market computer fraud. The show is also popular for its cutting-edge soundtrack that features noted African American musical artists.

Many, like Teddy Pendergrass and Boyz II Men, appear in special guest-star spots as performers in a nightclub frequented by the characters.

John J. OConnor, television critic for the New York Times, favorably described the look of New York Undercover.Wandering around the city, the two detectives slip-slide against each other easily, goofing through routines that often leave older colleagues mystified, OConnor wrote. The beat and the look are unmistakably urban, taking clear aim at the networks trendy, youthful target audience. But the strength of this show is in the characters of Williams and Torres.

New York magazine writer John Leonard, also pointed out the uniqueness of the shows Harlem setting, which doesnt mean entirely desolate, the critic asserted. If theres a sense of subject peoples in occupied territory, of sullen tenements, night-shriek car alarms, and ghostly transactions on the crack exchange, theres an expan-siveness too (broad boulevards, theater marquees, hospital spaces), and a vitality (street markets, churches, basketball), and a civility (genteel stoops, jazz liquidities, the occasional brother from another planet).

New York Undercouer catapulted Yoba to certain fame and made him one of the hottest new actors of the 1994-95 television season. The New York Times Magazine named him one of 30 artists under the age of 30 predicted to shape American culture over the next three decades, and female viewers swooned over Yobas drop-dead handsome looks coupled with impassioned, intelligent persona. When asked by Essence special reporter Garcelle Beauvais whether he considers himself a sex symbol, Yoba replied: I think that were all sex symbols. Because our parents had sex, were symbolic of that sexual consummation.

The irony of Yobas role as a member of the establishment is not lost on the street-sawy actor. Undercover gets real, not just because the show is really filmed mostly on the Uptown streets of New York City, but also because the characters and the actors who portray them are from the same place, wrote Keets in Ethnic NewsWatch after interviewing Yoba on the shows set. Hes philosophical, almost poetic, about growing up and the irony of playing a cop on TV when blacks and Latinos, perhaps rightly so, have less than favorable things to say about police activity in their neighborhoods. Keets recounted.

Yoba sees his starring role in the much-lauded primetime drama as a continuation of the work Ive been doing with young people for many years. Its in large part why I was cast, the actor noted in a press biography, recalling that the woman who helped make that casting decision averred when you get Malik Yoba you will also get his spirit. Thats my whole trip.

Yobas new high profile led to other roles in feature films, including the Miramax art-house dramas Smoke and Blue in the Face, both released in 1995. As the second season oiNew York Undercover got underway Yoba had landed a recording contract with Chaos/Columbia Records and was working on an album of original music. Music can be a conduit, Yoba proclaimed in his press release. You can reach people through music.

Motivates Youth

The sound of contemporary African American youth, rap music, is an especially significant force, Yoba went on to remark. The genre is a new entry point into success for young minority kids. You dont have to sing or even play an instrument. You just play your vocals. In the interview with Essence reporter Beauvais, Yoba cited the late Jamaican reggae star Bob Marley as an influence. Bob wrote about the suffering of everyday people and oppressed people. I dont think that half of the stuff thats on the radio now really needs to be heard. I mean, how much more can you hear about sex, violence, and guns?

Despite the vagaries of a career in entertainment, with the mercurial nature of its success, future accomplishment seems assured no matter what avenue Yoba decides to pursue. In the Essence article the actor told Gregory that he feels grateful to have been made aware early on what his own goal in life should beto help young people. Yoba plans to continue with his motivational message as CEO of Nature Boy Enterprises, giving the inspirational Why Are You on This Planet? workshops to youth groups and other organizations but on an international scale this time.

Yoba seems very certain about why he was put on earth. Very few people have a sense of mission in life, Yoba noted in a press release. If you have it you can affect the lives of other people simply by being who you are. However, if you are a role model, you have an obligation to keep your personal life in order. But thats what I would do anyway!


Essence, October 1994, p. 64; July 1995, p. 76.

Ethnic NewsWatch, March 31, 1995, p. 31.

New York, September 5, 1994, p. 48.

New York Times, September 21, 1994, p. C18.

Vibe, April 1995, p. 95.

Additional information for this profile was provided by Nature Boy Enterprises and The Lippin Group.

Carol Brennan