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Exclusive: Malik Yoba On ‘Empire’

Exclusive: Malik Yoba On ‘Empire’ Posted by Wilson Morales

February 23, 2015

Empire cast pic 1

Currently breaking records on TV is Lee Daniels’ blazing hot new series, ‘Empire,’ which stars Academy Awards nominated actors Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, along with veteran Malik Yoba and newcomers Trai Byers, Jussie Smollett, and Bryshere Gray.

LUCIOUS LYON (Howard) is the king of hip-hop. An immensely talented artist, the CEO of Empire Entertainment and a former street thug, his reign has been unchallenged for years. But all that changes, when he learns he has a disease that is going to render him incapacitated in a matter of three years. The clock is ticking, and he must groom one of his three sons to take over his crowning achievement, without destroying his already fractured family.

After prompting his sons to vie for the empire, Lucious’ new plan is thrown into chaos when his ex-wife, COOKIE (Henson), emerges seven years early from prison, where she’s been for almost two decades. Brash and fearless, she sees herself as the sacrificial lamb who built an empire with Lucious and then took the fall for running the drugs that financed Lucious’ early career.

Empire pic - Malik Yoba as Vernon Turner

As the Lyons slug it out, a battle begins that will either cause the family’s destruction or redemption. Lives and loves will be lost as the complicated family will come together and fall apart over each member’s desire for the elusive throne. Will the family unite and learn to love each other before it’s too late? Love, war, family, sacrifice, money and music: this is EMPIRE.

For Yoba, a veteran of many TV series and is best known for his starring role as NYPD Detective J. C. Williams on the Fox police drama New York Undercover back in the 90s, seeing this new wave of excitement is old hat. He’s been there, done that, and wants others to know how to make it last.

As Lucious’s longtime friend and Chairman of the Board, Vernon Turner, Malik’s character is a bit of a mystery. From what we have seen thus far, not much is told about his character, but things should start to clear as the first season nears conclusion.

In speaking with, Yoba gave some insight to the show’s success and why it’s baffling critics and breaking records as the show continues to grow.

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What’s the feeling like being on a hit show?

Malik Yoba: Yeah. It’s good, man. It’s definitely good to be part of a show. Especially, this particularly show, but especially when all the predictors are there before it all happens.  I knew that this would happen so I wasn’t surprised. The show has the DNA of ‘New York Undercover’ for me and I was part of something that was revolutionary and groundbreaking twenty years ago. For me, from the beginning it was like déjà vu. So, with all the accolades and the love that it’s getting, it’s crazy. I’ve had that experience before.  It’s just nice to know that people have finally decided if you put people who are underrepresented on television they’re going to show up to see themselves. And if it’s smart, if it’s funny, it has the right music and has the right fashion and has the right attitude then you’re going to win. You’ll win every time. It’s one of those things that you feel like, obviously, it’s great performances and music, and it’s a great cast. It’s all those things. But I think it speaks to a larger issue, which is people want to see themselves. I think that that’s really what it is. Obviously, specific to the show, I think that there’s a lot of drama. There’s twists and turns and there’s shock value. Some of it’s over the top and it’s salacious and all those things, as well. But it’s the confluence of all those things that, in my humble opinion, has made it what it is.

Malik Yoba and Terrence Howard

You yourself just mentioned, you’re the veteran of the group here, having experienced this nearly twenty years ago. So when you see it’s happening, it’s not old hat for you. But it’s a cycle. Have you been telling these people as much as they’re seeing the love that it’s getting from its ratings wise and everything else, and said, ‘Okay, it’s great. But let’s make it last’?

Yoba: How do you tell them that?

Have you had that conversation? Like, ‘Okay, this is season one so far. We just gotta keep going.’

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Yoba: I just think that you have to move with integrity. You have to move with a larger sense of purpose. Because that is Malik Yoba’s personal philosophy. I don’t do this business for fame or money. I do it for purpose. I think that our show represents a huge opportunity to stay in the culture beyond entertainment value and there’s an intrinsic nature of you have the gay factor, right? So, obviously, Lee is gay. That was an important storyline for him. I think it’s important for people to see themselves. Even within the Black community. But if you aren’t really, really taking it off of screen and making it live in the community in a significant way…like I know Jussie, he is gay, and he’s very committed to issues around the LGBT community. He and I have a very close relationship. There a lot of things that I’m doing. I have a company called We create or enhance cultural movements for social good using pop culture.

Back then you only had ABC, FOX NBC, CBS, as opposed to four hundred channels now. You’re already fighting for an audience one way or the other.

Arrivals at the Los Angeles Premiere of FOX's 'Empire'Yoba: Oh, I understand. But you still have the same amount, relative to the larger population; you still have the same amount of African Americans in this country. So, yes, that’s true. And sixty seven percent of the viewership of this show is African American, which is great. So, yes, that’s true. But I’ve been here before. I can only celebrate to a certain point because I had the same ideas when I did ‘New York Undercover’. That show would have never been off the air had we…you asked an important question. You said, ‘How do you make it last?’ You can make it last just on the entertainment value, in and of itself. But I carry a deeper mission. So I can’t be part of something without being able to exercise my full purpose. You want to be in situations…and not that people were like, ‘Oh, Malik, that’s retarded. We won’t do it.’ People are just focused on getting the show done.

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So when you have the vet, it’s like I’m Derek Jeter out there like, ‘Yo, coach, put me in. I can…I see it. I know what…trust. I know.’ And so, ‘Nah, nah, nah, we gotta…we’re busy over here. We’re laying…we’re painting the wall.’ And I’m like, dude, you gotta paint the wall but you can dig a deeper foundation, too. So you just asked the question that is the tip of the iceberg for me. So, yes, there are fifty-three or something platforms for scripted content across Hulu and Netflix and Amazon and all those cable networks and everything. There’s much more competition. But the people still need to be fed beyond entertainment, in my opinion. And this is just me speaking, obviously.

Here’s a preview of Empire episode #8, airing on Feb.25

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