To be from New Jersey is to know that your determination to succeed must always be greater than society’s desire for you to fail. Sitting in the shadows of Jay-Z, Times Square and Madison Square Garden, New Jersey is often linked with the culture of New York, but it stands out on its own two feet. The Garden State has watched the careers of Whitney Houston, Frank Sinatra and countless others blossom before the nation’s eyes.
Nestled in the northeastern corner of the state is a garden that has grown talent from the soil decade after decade. Too many, Columbia High School is a traditional public school tucked in Essex County, but it has offered much more than it has ever been thanked for. Lauryn Hill, AJ Calloway, SZA and many more have walked through the halls of Columbia High School. For Rotimi, Columbia High School is much more than a brick building or the school that Lauryn Hill attended. It’s home.
Before portraying Andre Coleman in Power or collaborating with Wale, Rotimi was a junior at the iconic high school. Playing point guard for the varsity basketball team, he rarely spent time acting. In fact, he never led any productions put together through the school’s black box theater. He was a first-generation student raised by Nigerian parents who were looking to take his passion for music to the next level. With acceptance letters from Princeton University and other top-tier institutions, he elected to take his talents to Evanston, Illinois and attend Northwestern University.
Moving from New Jersey to the greater Chicago area, Rotimi was able to develop his sound and style. Packing his vocal ability in his bags, he would make his way through the college circuit before an agent told him to try his hand at acting. With a role in Boss, an appearance in Law & Order, and success in Power, Rotimi still returns home. As he prepares for the world to see his portrayal of Idi Izzi in Coming 2 America, he returns to the Garden State area. Catching up with his barber Shizz, he reflects on his time at Columbia High School, growing up in a Nigerian household, working with the legendary Ruth E. Carter and much more.
Ryan Shepard: Recently, you’ve been working with Crown Royal to help promote Coming 2 America through the content series, Royal Cuts. Earlier this week, you posted a clip from the series with the caption, What does legacy mean to you? To me, it’s celebrating my community and its heroes.”
When I hear you talk about your community, I automatically think of Maplewood, New Jersey. As a native of North Plainfield, New Jersey, my neighborhood is vital to who I am as a writer. For you, I’m sure Maplewood represents the same thing. How did growing up in Maplewood prepare you for your journey to success?
Rotimi: That’s a great question. Maplewood was a melting pot of different people. There were people with different energy and people of different races, mindsets, beliefs, faiths, etc. Through that, I was prepared for the world at a very early age.
In school, I also played sports. We didn’t really have a good sports system until my class got there and we developed a winning mentality. Those experiences helped me develop a sense of self that helped me grow as an artist. It also helped me find out who I was as a man and realize that I was part of the next generation that could take things to the next level.
It’s interesting that you brought up crown because those are the reasons why it made sense to partner with them. The Royal Cuts series represents new royalty and leaving a legacy behind. It also represents the goodness of community, the Black community.
Overall, my life had just been a cool, natural progression. It all started in Maplewood, New Jersey.
Expanding upon what you said about Maplewood, I think it’s important to note where you went to high school. You attended Columbia High School. It is also the home of people like SZA, Lauryn Hill, AJ Calloway and several other prominent figures in pop culture.
During your answer, you mentioned that you played sports. You played point guard for your school’s basketball team. When I say the name Coach Hill, what does that mean to you?
Man, Coach Hill. He was the first general in my life. He taught me discipline. He’s a true basketball coach and he made me the captain as a junior. Imagine being a captain for seniors as a junior? So, it was a lot. I always knew that I was capable and he always pushed me to be the best that I could be. That’s what he brought out of me. He brought that beast mode out of me. Having him place that responsibility on me and believe in me, it did a lot for me. It was a beautiful time.
Circling back to the Royal Cuts series you worked on, you connected with your barber, Shizz. The spot that you did was set up in a way that you both could participate. For a lot of people, specifically Black men, their barber is like a family member and the barbershop is like a second home. Growing up in Maplewood, what role did your barber and the barbershop play in your development?
The barbershop was where you got your news. We didn’t have the Shade Room, Instagram or any of those other sources of information, so you would go to the barbershop. You would find out what’s going on in sports, music and your community. It was like the first community that you were a part of.
Partnering with Shizz and Crown Royal for this series felt like a little piece of home for me. It felt like I’ve been doing the Royal Cuts series forever. I was happy to be able to be in the barbershop and share those moments.
The barbershop was such a beautiful part of my upbringing. While you were there, you would learn how to speak to people and understand what’s important to the culture.
Definitely, I agree with that. Growing up in the barbershop, you would hear the dumbest things and the most intelligent things all in one conversation.
You would hear it from the same person, too.
The barbershop is one of the most important parts of the original Coming To America film. My favorite scene from the first Coming To America was when Prince Akeem first came in and they were arguing about Muhammad Ali. When did you first watch Coming To America and what was your favorite scene?
I was about six years old when I first saw Coming To America. We were living in a one-bedroom apartment in East Orange, New Jersey. I just remember my parents laughing so hard. I was six years old, so I didn’t get the jokes. I just knew it was two hours that my parents weren’t mad at it me, so it sounded like a great movie to me. Whatever they’re watching, this is great.
After seeing that, I grew up, understood the jokes and the brilliance of it. From the love story to the comedy to Eddie Murphy to Arsenio Hall, there are just so many factors that make the movie great.
My favorite scene is when he [Eddie Murphy], went out to the window and said, “Good morning, my neighbor.” Then, everyone gives their genuine reaction, but he’s just still super happy because he doesn’t understand what’s really being said. I think that just broke down who the character was and how pure and humble he was. It was just so funny and I think it was a brilliant moment, for sure.
“I think it’s very, very simple, but it’s hard. I think it’s just being persistent. You to have an unbelievable amount of trust in yourself and you have to have a great team. “
Wow, things have truly come full circle. Twenty years after you watched it with your parents in East Orange, you’re now in the next installment of the franchise. I can only imagine what your reaction was when you learned that you would be a part of the movie. What does it mean to you to be a part of Coming 2 America?
Man, I was in disbelief when I learned that I’d be a part of the movie. This is one of those movies that you feel like everybody wants to be a part of. When your name is called and you’re around the greatest of all-time at what they do, it’s beautiful. You feel like you’re a part of that new royalty. You feel like you’re a part of that next generation that will carry on the legacy because they’ve kind of ushered you into that. These are the kinds of things that you dream of. You dream of having endorsements, opportunities and doing what you love in front of millions and millions of people. I still pinch myself. I’m in one of the most, if not the most, anticipated sequels in movie history. It’s been 30 years. That understanding is just priceless.
Previously, you mentioned that you watched Coming To America for the first time with your parents. They’ve also been a part of your journey through music and acting. What was their reaction when you told them that you were in Coming 2 America?
Being a first-generation Nigerian, that’s legendary for my family. There are very few movies that you can say that you’re a part of when you walk into a room and the conversation changes. My family is doing a countdown until the movie comes out. My fiancee’s family is in Tanzania and they want the login, so they can watch it. It’s just a beautiful thing when you can bring joy to people through art.
I know we have a limited amount of time, but I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about other roles you’ve had. You played Darius Morrison in Boss and of course, you played Andre Coleman in Power. In Coming 2 America, you take on the role of Idi Izzi. Oftentimes, fans will only want to see someone through the lens of their favorite shows or characters. How do you evolve as an entertainer in a way that allows fans to see you in a variety of different roles?
It comes down to making undeniable music. It comes down to making incredible content with comedy like the Mr. Butterscotch character. It also involves showing people parts of my personal life, so they see me as a real person. I’m letting them see parts of my engagement and things like that.
For a while now, I think people are understanding that I’m a renaissance man. I’m an all-around person. It’s a blessing when people can love you for something that they know you do very well, but now they’re evolving with me. Now, the conversation is about when is the next record coming. People will say, “Oh my God, ‘In My Bed’ is my favorite song.” There’s a lot of things people can say and we’ll just keep doing that.
Bringing everything full circle, I just have one more question. You’re from Maplewood, which is not too far from where the original Coming To America was filmed. You’ve made it through Columbia High School, Northwestern University, Boss, Power and so and so forth. You’ve worked with Wale, Kranium, 50 Cent, and so many talented people. What advice would you give to the next person that is trying to make that breakthrough and do what they love in front of millions of people?
I think it’s very, very simple, but it’s hard. I think it’s just being persistent. You to have an unbelievable amount of trust in yourself and you have to have a great team. If you’re spiritual, spend a lot of time praying for the b.s. to leave your life. It’s a process. You’ve got to take it piece by piece. If you’re realistic about it, you’ll knock your goals out one at a time. No one is a success overnight. That’s not real. That’s just not a real thing. Once you get that mindset out of your head, you’ve got to put in the work consistently. You might have heard it popped off for someone in one day, but that person probably worked aimlessly for years and years. It’s all about being consistent and challenging yourself.