/ 9 March 2024

My seven minutes 28 seconds with Malik Yoba

The Pink Awards 2023
Spotlit: Malik Yoba, in South Africa for the Johannesburg Film Festival, says he would like to be remembered as someone who cared. Photo: Derek White/Getty Images

It is a muggy Wednesday afternoon in Johannesburg, almost lunchtime, and I am about to meet American actor Malik Yoba.

The last time I saw him was on screen as Janet Jackson’s husband in Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?. Granted, not Oscar material, but then he is also known for the popular movie Cool Runnings and acclaimed for his role as detective JC Williams in the TV series New York Undercover.

But this time I’m seeing him in person for an interview. He is here for the Johannesburg Film Festival, his third visit to South Africa.

Parked, I literally skip out of the Sandton basement — I have a weird fear of underground parking lots. It always feels as if something or someone, such as a baddie from a Yoba movie, will pop up out of nowhere. And I would have to ninja kick them — and cross the road while dodging the supercars roaring around Africa’s flashiest square mile.

I pause at the entrance to the Sandton Convention Centre. “This is the Joburg Film Festival, why is everyone in suits?” I wonder and double-check the invitation — perhaps I missed the part where they mention the dress code. 

The muscular security guard, all bullet-proofed with a crackling walkie-talkie, saunters over and says, “Ma’am, you are blocking the entrance, please stand aside.” 

“Is this where the Joburg Film Festival is held and why is everyone in suits?” I ask. 

He laughs. “The festival is upstairs — these people are here for the Meetings Africa conference.” 

I make my way through the suited men and women to a much lighter crowd — hacks and movie types. 

I get my accreditation, sit at a corner and go through my questions. I then get in touch with Yoba’s PR to ask where I will be meeting them. I head there and find him in the middle of an interview. 

I am told to wait outside. 

The nerves kick in. He’s the American actor in the Tyler Perry movie, for goodness sakes! The door finally opens and there he is in a cream suit, a white round-necked shirt and brown dress shoes. 

I sit down again because the other interview is still on. There is a camera crew shadowing him, recording his every move and word. The 56-year-old Yoba is in the middle of the room, hunched over a small, round white table with a bowl of dried mangos on it. 

The other journo exchanges goodbyes with the famous man and I approach to do my interview. 

My editor and I have this nice profile in mind because, according to the press release Yoba — they call him “Doctor” — is a bit of a polymath: “ACTOR, DIRECTOR, MUSICIAN, AUTHOR, ENTREPRENEUR, EDUCATOR, PHILANTHROPIST, SOCIAL JUSTICE WARRIOR,” it says, in all caps.

As I walk towards him, he asks the PR person in that familiar deep purr, “Another one? Did you not say that one was the last one, so we can go have lunch?”

I pause and wait for the team to address his concerns. The man doesn’t look happy.

“She is the last one before we take a break,” they say, with their hands in prayer-like pose.

“You have eight minutes,” the PR lady says as she turns to me, tapping her watch to stress the point. “Great,” I reply, not convincing anyone. 

I sit down opposite Yoba, notebook in one hand, cellphone in the other and my brain reverting to IsiZulu. It happens when I panic. Fortunately, my questions still come out of my mouth in English.

I ask him how he balances the entrepreneurship, the acting, the music — as well as planting seeds back into the community… 

But before I can finish my question, he asks: “Did you go to school? High school? How many subjects did you have? You know, like, they had a schedule. And, like, one day you did maths, one day you did science. So, same thing. 

“I think that when you are multi-hyphenated, you just have to schedule your time, so that you can do as much as you can, in those different areas that you work in.” 

Perhaps not my strongest opener ever, especially for a hungry man with only dried mangos to nibble on and a nervous dreadlocked young woman between him and lunch.

I pose questions around the importance of black people telling stories through the medium of film and how we can continue to tell our stories uncensored and undiluted.  

“We come from a tradition of story­tellers. So, I think it’s just an extension that we need to see stuff to believe it. And I think everyone does. 

“You’re a woman, right? If you see films with only men all the time, you’re gonna start feeling some kind of way. Right? 

“It might motivate you to do some things the same way. 

“We need to see ourselves … and we have to tell the stories, not be afraid to tell them,” he says. 

I feel as if we are getting somewhere with this interview, even if Yoba has used those lines in hundreds of interviews in the “over three decades of commitment to the arts”, as the press release tells us.

But then a flustered fellow journalist walks in — and immediately gets ushered out, just like I was.

The PR lady taps her watch and tells me to start wrapping up. We have a minute left.

I lose my train of thought and jump straight to Yoba’s music. He mentioned somewhere that he feels music is his abandoned child, he does not do it as much as he would like to. 

“Why is that?” I ask. 

Dried mango in mouth, he sits back and says, “Because I am busy. I got too much shit going on.” 

I feel I must have ticked him off with that question, so I comment, “And we just spoke about finishing things,” riffing on him telling me earlier that he makes sure he completes the things he does. 

I use the line thinking I can get him to laugh and lighten up. I am wrong.

He sits up, stares at me, and says: “Well, I finished a lot. I have done a lot of music, so it is not like I have never done it. 

“I’ve performed all over the world. So, it’s still part of what I do.” 

The interview is over, I am told. 

Popping a last, quick question, I ask him how he would like to be remembered.

“I will say that I’m glad that I have work that can be seen forever in the films or TV I’ve done. 

“But, more than that, it’s just like he lived and he cared. I tell people I’m in a give-a-damn business. 

“Like I actually care about improving, not just my life or my family’s, but the lives of other people, genuinely.”

I give Yoba a firm handshake, which I hope he appreciates, but I will never know.

The other journo is there. Ready for her eight minutes of fame.

I stumble out, find a quiet place and check the recording of my interview — actually it is just seven minutes 28 seconds.

A few minutes later, the colleague who did the interview after me emerges from the room. 

“How did you find the interview? Mine was quite stale,” I say. 

“Lesego, they are Hollywood and we are not,” she says.  

“Perhaps we will get something at the masterclass he is having in a few minutes,” I counter. 

“I just inquired from the PR, and I asked him [Yoba] as well, what the masterclass will be about and they all confirmed it will be about property,” she laughs. 

I text my editor, asking if I should stay for this.

He immediately responds with  loads of exclamation marks and language that could well get him into court with litigious Americans.

It is a “no”, then, and I make my way back to the spooky Sandton City basement parking.