‘Black Lightning’ Boss and HUMANITAS Trustee on How an Artful Life Inspires His Work
If you bury me in a grave, don’t ever come visit — because you won’t find me there. You’ll find me in the books that I’ve read, the music I’ve listened to, and the art I’ve created,” Salim Akil tells his family. The creator of “Black Lightning” who was previously known for “The Game” and “Being Mary Jane,” surrounds himself with works that inspire him to create both at the Akil Prods.’ office that he shares with his wife, executive producer Mara Brock Akil, as well as his home office. Up next for the creative duo is “Love Is___” for OWN, which is based on their own relationship.
Akil has a few pieces by Peter Beard, whose art he is drawn to because of its “raw nature.” One is of an elephant in Africa that makes Akil feel “closer to the Earth, closer to reality”; another includes a lion and a naked woman. “What appealed to me was the totality of it — she’s fearless, the lion is fearless,” says Akil. “A lot of people don’t turn their children’s heads away from violence, but they do turn their children’s heads away from nudity. To me, that’s one of the most natural things about life. It doesn’t have to be sexual. It just is.”
Put That Record On
Music has been a big influence on Akil, using Kamasi Washington when he wants to expand his mind, and Carmen McRae and Billie Holiday when he needs to get in the romantic mindset for a scene. It’s not just the sound that matters to him, but also the physicality that comes with selecting and placing a vinyl record on a turntable that makes him gravitate toward the old school, even though he admits he also loves tech. “Emotionally, the idea of being in there writing and then walking and lifting and pulling something out — you’re touching it and you have a more intimate relationship with it,” he says. The love of music runs in the family: Akil’s son Godholly put together “Black Lightning’s” main theme song, as well as a number of other tracks the show used throughout its first season.
Before ‘Black Panther’…
When he brought “Black Lightning” to life onscreen from comic books, Akil wanted to keep the theme of the titular hero being “someone who wants to protect his community and someone who is grounded to the community.” Those were the elements he was most attracted to in the books, and he had the comic creator Tony Isabella sign his favorite issue for him to have it framed and displayed in his office. “The story is him reflecting back on his life, which if you watch the first season finale, ties in greatly,” Akil says.
Poetry Causing Motion
Akil collects first-edition books, and when he stumbled across a first edition of James Baldwin’s “Jimmy’s Blues” that just happened to be signed by the author, it felt like he was getting a personal message from the man. Akil connects with Baldwin’s work because he says it’s about being conscious and staying connected to the people. “A lot of people who are going through their daily lives in rural America and in the cities are trapped in their own communities by violence or drug use,” Akil says. “In ‘Black Lightning,’ we start in the community and we work our way out to say how are these guns and these drugs and why are these guns and these drugs in the community.”
Honoring His Queen
Akil feels like he has an “angel that keeps him grounded” in his life: his mother. “She always told me I was going to do what I’m doing. She told me I would meet kings and presidents and queens — and I have,” he says of the woman who was an artist herself. (She was a singer who cut a few albums and opened for performers such as James Brown.) Because she is the “supreme inspiration” for everything in Akil’s life, he made sure to hang her photo a little higher than the other pieces in the space.
A Family Drawing
After Barack Obama won the election for the second time, Akil, his wife and his two youngest sons had a chance to pose for a photo with the president. When Akil received the print back, though, he noted that the photo didn’t really reflect his family because it was just them, posed, in front of a solid-color wall. He doodled on one copy to give it a little more life and hung it on the wall opposite the table at which he sits and writes to remind him how far people can come. “This man’s name is Barack Hussein Obama — and he’s black. If that doesn’t tell you anybody can accomplish anything if they really put their minds to it!” Akil says. “If I ever get a little big for my britches or a little down, I look at this and I’m like, ‘Man get over yourself.’ ”