Rotimi: Hustler, Actor, Musician, Jay Z Favorite
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because pulling off a few entertainment careers at once is no easy feat.
By Andreas Hale
On the small screen, he is a drug-dealing protégé of 50 Cent, with a menacing stare and a disturbing penchant for violence. But in person, actor-slash-musician Olurotimi Akinosho (aka Rotimi) is far from the character he portrays on TV. Up close, he possesses a disarming smile and a warm personality. Here’s one thing the up-and-coming actor shares with the villains he often plays, though: He is a hustler.
At 26, Rotimi has soared to popularity in recent years, playing that dealer on the Starz series Power, and as the star of last year’s Sundance-accoladed Imperial Dreams, alongside John Boyega of the new Star Wars. And then he pulls double duty as an R&B star, opening for everyone from T.I. to Jennifer Hudson. The parallel work has him knowing a nice percentage of everyone there is to know in Black entertainment. His next steps — including signing with 50 Cent’s label G-Unit — have him inching closer and closer to the big-time mainstream spotlight where so many of his connections dwell comfortably.
The task ahead is to handle that hustle and the juggling of so much. But Rotimi swears it’s in his blood. “I’m a Nigerian man; we’re always thinking about five or six ways of how we can go get it,” he tells me with a wink. Growing up in New Jersey in a strict Nigerian household, the son of an investment banker father and a government grant writer mother, Rotimi had a childhood that was about hard work and diversifying his portfolio. A top athlete with high honors who excelled at soccer, basketball and football, Rotimi could have tried his hand at collegiate sports. But when you win a singing competition at Harlem’s Apollo Theater at age 15, chances are that your aspirations may change.
That was the first time Rotimi figured he might have the chops for the big time. After the Apollo competition, he joined the group Natural Born Hustlaz, which happened to include Jay Z’s nephews. He soon found himself performing at high schools and colleges — and, he says, in Jay Z’s living room. “That’s kind of a big deal for any kid when Jay Z is telling you, ‘Wow, you have a powerful voice.’”
But Rotimi still didn’t go all in on the music. He headed to Northwestern University, and though a few record labels came calling, none presented the right opportunity for the young artist to drop his education. With a music career in limbo, Rotimi’s then-manager decided it would be wise for him to put his good looks to use, spread his wings and try acting. Having no prior acting experience at his disposal, Rotimi’s first audition in 2011 — meant for him to “get his feet wet” — found him in a room with Farhad Safinia and Gus Van Sant and reading for the part of soft-spoken drug dealer Darius Morrison on the Starz original series Boss, starring Kelsey Grammer.
“I was super nervous,” Rotimi reflects while shaking his head in embarrassment about his first attempt with the casting director. “I just froze.” Rotimi was told to return later that day and give it another shot. “At that point I was like, ‘It’s whatever,’ ” he says, figuring that he’d bombed already and would never get the part. One week later, he was on set. After two seasons on the show, Rotimi went on to land small roles in films, including Divergent and Black Nativity. But meeting rapper T.I. put his music back into play — T.I. wanted to sign Rotimi to his label. Sounds like the start of a breakout, right? Wrong. He “wasn’t ready” and passed on the deal. He doesn’t give me much more, saying he and T.I. get along fine but it just “didn’t feel right.” T.I.’s publicist did not respond to a request for comment.
Perhaps he’ll kick himself later for declining T.I.’s offer, but Rotimi maintains that he’s at a great point in his career. Success is no sure thing, though: “There’s a long road ahead for Rotimi to prove he’s more than just the actor you’ve seen on Power,” says music journalist Georgette Cline, who believes Rotimi has the vocal chops to make it as an artist but might spread himself too thin. “The challenge that lies in living in both worlds is that time isn’t always on your side and he may find himself having to choose one career focus over the other for the moment.”
There’s another kind of artistic duality, though, that seems an even more interesting thing to juggle. Rotimi will continue his nefarious ways in the upcoming third season of Power, while the sweet sounds of his Rotation EP will drop later this year. He says he hopes the worlds of acting and singing might eventually converge: “I want to be the leading man in, like, a romantic comedy. I’m a lover and not a fighter.”
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated one of the films in which Rotimi stars.