The word 'charisma' is defined as "a divinely conferred power or talent." Most people tend to remember—in vivid detail—the first time they took serious notice of an artist, particularly of one of their favorites. And when one speaks of their favorites, invariably charisma plays a significant role in why they gravitated towards them in the first place and why they held their interest.
For example, I can vividly recall the first time I discovered each of my five creative muses. In three of these cases, it's been over two decades since I first discovered them. Their charisma made me take notice, their talent has kept me engrossed and invested. My appreciation for each has remained steadfast over the years. Suffice to say, this fan stays loyal.
Ask anyone to list their favorite artists, and you'll get a cavalcade of differing opinions. At least that's been my experience.
During one such conversation recently, I was compelled to ask who everybody's five favorite hip-hop-artists-turned-actors were, and I got some interesting feedback. Some chose artists with a long list of film and television credits, while others chose artists with just a few parts who hadn't necessarily parlayed it into a new side hustle, or a new post-hip hop career, likely due to lack of interest and/or talent. Lack of further acting opportunities may also come into play.
As you might expect, the usual suspects (Will Smith, Queen Latifah, Ice Cube, Ice T, LL Cool J, and 50 Cent) were well represented. While some not-so-usual suspects also were mentioned, including Mary J. Blige, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Cliff "Method Man" Smith, Snoop Dogg, and Beyoncé Knowles Carter. Smith is a recent Academy Award winner (and four-time nominee, overall, dating back 20 years). And Queen Latifah, Blige, and Knowles Carter all have Oscar nominations to their credit with Blige securing two separate nominations in the same year for the same film (2017's "Mudbound"), making her the first artist to achieve that distinction. These are my top five hip-hop performers turned actors and when I first noticed their undeniable charisma:
The late John Singleton made history in 1992 when he became the first Black filmmaker and the youngest filmmaker ever nominated for Best Director for his debut feature "Boyz 'N The Hood." Ice Cube made his memorable big screen acting debut as 'Doughboy' in the film, opposite the likes of future Oscar nominees Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett ("What's Love Got to do With It") and future Oscar winners Regina King ("If Beale Street Could Talk") and Cuba Gooding Jr. ("Jerry Maguire"). With all that talent on screen, he still managed to make a lasting impression—no easy feat.
His emotionally charged scenes opposite Tyra Ferrell (as his fed-up, put-upon mother) were pitch perfect. Ice Cube always had great screen presence, but his raw, grounded performance gave notice that he was a budding actor to watch. He won the Chicago Film Critics Association's prize for Most Promising Actor and has gone onto a very successful acting and producing career in the 31 years since "Boyz" was released. Additional credits include "Three Kings," the "Friday" trilogy, and the "Barbershop" films, among others.
In writer/director Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever" (1991), there's a scene where Wesley Snipes takes Annabella Sciorra to a Black-owned and operated restaurant; their characters are in the midst of an extramarital and interracial affair that turns both of their relatively normal lives upside down and sideways. In her promising big screen acting debut, Queen Latifah plays their would-be waitress. I say would-be because Queen Latifah's character sees this successful Black man with this white woman in a predominantly Black space and proceeds to thoroughly dress them both down in a racially-charged exchange in a film that's unafraid to highlight such difficult, complicated, potentially heated conversations.
Queen Latifah recently revealed that her casting in that film only happened as a result of another female MC having to drop out of the role due to pregnancy. She made the most of her limited screen time in the film, and more than held her own opposite Snipes and Sciorra, both theatre-trained professionals. And like Ice Cube, Queen Latifah long had great screen presence and was well-versed in how to utilize it to optimum effect. Spike Lee gave her the opportunity to do just that in one of his very best films.
She's gone on to a wildly successful career acting and producing film and television, landing an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for "Chicago" (2002) and winning a Primetime Emmy for producing the HBO telefilm "Bessie" (2015), which she also starred in as legendary blues singer Bessie Smith.
However, her breakout big screen performance can be found in director F. Gary Gray's "Set It Off" (1996), a groundbreaking drama that cast her as one of four working class black women from inner-city Los Angeles who decide to start robbing banks in an ill-advised attempt to better their lot in life. She walks off with the film, delivering a performance that has achieved iconic status in the years since. She was, quite simply, the soul of that movie.
Currently, she's starring in and executive producing the hit CBS action series "The Equalizer," and has several films due for release.
In "Juicy," the 1994 rap anthem coined by some hip-hop fans as the greatest rap song of all-time, the Notorious B.I.G. aka Biggie Smalls famously rapped, "You never thought that hip-hop would take it this far/Now I'm in the limelight 'cause I rhyme tight."
Naturi Naughton first broke onto the scene as part of the all-girl group 3LW. Once she and the group broke ties, she eventually pursued an acting career that led her to playing real-life female MC Lil' Kim in "Notorious" (2009), a big screen biopic about the short life of rap sensation Christopher Wallace, the aforementioned Notorious B.I.G. Her evocative performance received solid notices despite Lil' Kim's objections to how she was portrayed in the film. But from a performance standpoint, it's hard to picture anyone else playing Lil' Kim as convincingly. That was her part, and she made the most of it.
To date, Naughton has garnered her best notices for her television work, especially as mob wife Tasha St. Patrick on the Starz drama series "Power" and its spinoff "Power Book II: Ghost." Tasha's evolution over the six seasons of the flagship show's run were a big part of the reason it became appointment television. Tasha was a lot of things, but a shrinking violet was not one of them. And Naughton's work was revelatory and nuanced.
It's sad to think of all the potential greatness we'll never get to see (or hear, for that matter) from the late Tupac Shakur. He was really just getting started when he was shot multiple times in September 1996, and later died of his injuries. He was 25. But what a promising acting career he managed to carve out before his untimely death having just made a total of six films as an actor, starting with celebrated cinematographer Ernest Dickerson's writing and directorial debut, "Juice" (1992), about a quartet of young Black teenage males in Harlem trying to come of age under increasingly difficult and potentially dangerous circumstances. Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers rightly described Shakur as "the film's most magnetic figure."
He'd go onto to do even better work in "Poetic Justice," writer/director John Singleton's sophomore filmmaking effort, a somewhat muddled film that doesn't quite hit its mark yet features fine ensemble work from Shakur, Regina King, Joe Torry, Tyra Ferrell, and Janet Jackson as the title character, a young hairdresser from South Central Los Angeles who writes poetry in the wake of personal tragedy.
Tupac was a poetic storyteller. Acting had become another form of expression for him. He had one of those great, animated faces that could speak volumes without uttering a word. John Singleton used that to great effect in "Poetic Justice."
And lastly, I'd be remiss not to mention Oscar-winner Will Smith. Despite his recent self-imposed troubles, he has more than proven his mettle as a talented, charismatic actor over his 30+ year career.
He first garnered attention as an actor for his winning turn as the title character on the hit NBC sitcom "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" (1990-1996) which ran for six seasons before he decided to end the show (which was tailor-made for him) on his own terms. Smith knew movie stardom was on the horizon with the release of "Independence Day" (1996). As universally expected, the film was a monster hit, and a new action star was born in Smith, who had also co-starred in the 1995 action film "Bad Boys."
However, Smith had already proven his bonafides as an actor of note with an assured, against-type performance as a young, gay conman on the take in cosmopolitan New York in director Fred Schepisi's "Six Degrees of Separation" (1993) opposite Stockard Channing (in an Oscar-nominated performance) and Donald Sutherland. Smith has spoken about how invested he was while prepping for the film, having gone to great lengths to do the character justice, knowing it had the potential to be a game-changer for him professionally. From all accounts, that level of dedication to his improving his craft has continued in the years since.
His career, and the others on this list, are proof that charisma can garner one's attention, but it's the combination of charisma and talent that sustains.