When I was preparing to interview Obba Babatundé for this article, I read over his bio and felt a strong sense of inspiration…
Of course, there are obvious inspirational facts about Babatundé. He has had a successful and award-winning career as an entertainer that has spanned four decades. He is adept at a range of arts including acting, singing, dancing, directing and producing.
For example, Babatundé has acted in numerous television shows such CBS’s The Bold & the Beautiful, for which he won a Daytime Emmy Award, as well as Showtime’s Dear White People; CBS’s Madame Secretary and NCIS and ABC’s Boston Legal and Grey’s Anatomy. He has appeared in films such as HBO’s Miss Evers’ Boys, for which he was nominated for an Emmy, as well as The Manchurian Candidate, John Q and That Thing You Do!.
He has been lauded for his performances in theatre productions, receiving an NAACP Trailblazer Award for his work in A Soldier’s Story as well as a Tony Award nomination for his role in the original Dreamgirls.
Among his many additional talents are being a skilled horseman, a highly regarded rodeo competitor and being fluent in sign language. More, Babatundé believes in giving back to the community. So, he and his brother Akin Babatundé co-founded an arts school in Brooklyn, New York. And he regularly gives seminars to children and young adults.
All of those qualities and accomplishments are reason enough to feel inspired – but that didn’t quite round out a holistic picture of Babatundé for me. After I spoke with him, however, I came to see how his pursuits and passions have taken him beyond the sum of his accomplishments to become a fully realized human being and to help others to do the same – to live a holistic life beyond accomplishments and beyond stereotypes, preconceived notions and self-imposed limitations.
Babatundé’s journey to becoming a fully realized human being began at an early age. He described an occasion when his neighbor, Alma Smith – the mother of a close friend – set him on his path to reach his full potential. “I was having a difficult day at school, and my head was down. And she, being my neighbor, put her hand on my chin, looked in my eyes and she said, ‘It’s going to be OK. You’re special,'” Babatundé told me.
“And for whatever reason, I heard her and I believed her.”
With that encouragement and shift in perspective, Babatundé came to embrace the ways that he was special. And this meant being open to finding his passion in the arts. “I don’t believe that you choose the arts. I believe that the arts choose you,” he said.
“Because I see that which I do really as a calling.”
Soon he realized how much of an impact the arts, particularly the media and entertainment industry, can have on people’s lives. “The entertainment industry is very powerful … and because it’s entertainment, it also is something that is very powerful in terms of shaping viewpoints, ideas, reflections of the world we live in,” Babatundé explained. “It’s why it’s been used all these years to sell people things. There was a slogan based on a song years ago for a cigarette called Winston. It would go, ‘Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.’ Now, anybody over 45 years or more could complete the phrase, ‘Winston tastes good’ … and they’ll say ‘like a cigarette should.’ And the ad hasn’t been on television for over 45 years. But they heard it all the time. And they heard it as a song – which made it even more apt to be snatched and held onto by the subconscious.”
Just as harmful products such as cigarettes could be sold through entertainment, so could malignant concepts such as racism.
“White characters tend to be represented in all the spectrums,” Babatundé explained. “But for us it’s a different story. It goes in differently. It has a different outcome because of the historical misrepresentation of who and what we are. Because of the industry that I’m in, I represent a large sector of the community because of my hue.”
And the key to Babatundé’s success as an entertainer and educator has been his commitment to make sure that whatever character he played, he represented that individual as a whole human being, supplanting stereotypes and caricature.
“All the characters I’ve portrayed – I always made sure that I did my best to make sure they were fully realized human beings,” Babatundé described. “I have taken careful consideration to always do the best I can to represent a full human being even if he is a villain. “Because there is a difference between villainizing and dehumanizing.”
Babatundé explained how his commitment to this approach caused tension on the set of Introducing Dorothy Daindridge, in which he played the character of Daindridge’s husband, Harold Nicholas. Babatundé feels that he was being pressured to portray Nicholas as a one-dimensional womanizer – but Babatundé pushed back on this portrayal.
“There was a scene when Dorothy has the baby, and Harold, her husband, is late getting to the hospital. And so we’re shooting the scene, and there is a point where they bring the baby – this nurse brings the newborn. And as I have the baby, they instruct me, ‘Hey you have to check out that nurse a little bit,’ Babatundé recounts.
“I’m saying, ‘I’m sorry?’ … They wanted to represent that he was somewhat of a womanizer. And I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t even see this nurse.’ … I was met with a barrage of ‘Oh Obba come on, the man was a dog…’ And I stood there and I listened and I said, ‘Well, we all have opinions. I’m just as entitled to mine as you are to yours. Now I’m portraying a real human being here. The situation we are aware of, because it was documented that he was late getting to the hospital. It was not documented that he ogled some nurse the very first time his child was given to him. It was documented that he was excited about the arrival of this child … Now it is my experience that when new life enters into a room, be it animal or human, it is the focal point of all attention.
“I will not defame this man’s legacy by ogling some nurse the first time he saw his own child.”
Similarly, when Babatundé played a role as the father of a transgender child, he resisted the notion of playing the character simply as a hateful man. Rather, he wanted to explore the complex feelings that the father would have toward his child.
“It’s the indoctrination of the way something is presented that becomes perception and, therefore, is not even seen in context. Because it’s been indoctrinated in a way that it is the norm,” he described. “On the soap opera, I play the father of a transgender child. And initially they were going to write me – as they do in soap operas – well, the dad is a jerk, a mean asshole who just doesn’t get it … I railed against that.
“This man I was portraying wasn’t hatched –he was born.”
And for Babatundé, he wants to convey his message of being a fully realized human being not only by personal example and in his work, but also in his direct communication to people – particularly young people trying to figure out their way in the world. And he draws inspiration from his simple but powerful experience with Alma Smith.
“I always try to present to people that they are in control. All of us have the potential in someone’s life to be an Alma Smith… where you can stop someone and say, ‘It’s going to be ok.’ And they may hear you,” he explained. “I always saw human beings as imperfect creatures, as I am. And I’ve gone forward in my life to be that kind of individual to someone else – an encourager, one who inspires, one who enlightens, who entertains, who educates.
“Because I think those are the things that help inspire one for greatness.”
At the end of my interview with Babatundé, our discussion turned to my artistic pursuits and soon I was sharing some of the struggles I’ve had with how to approach writing. Interestingly, we concluded that maybe I was taking too narrow of an approach to the craft. I wondered aloud if I should be more multi-dimensional and whether I needed to approach the work from different perspectives.
Babatundé listened to me, and said something that I suspect will guide my future work: “Let it rip my brother.” Somewhere, Alma Smith is smiling.