Cowboy Bebop has skyrocketed into the constellations on a futuristic space shuttle, fearlessly commanded by the iconic and heartwarmingly idiosyncratic Jet Black. Jet, portrayed by Mustafa Shakir, is a gravelly-voiced jazz aficionado who is as precious about his intergalactic shuttle as he is protective of his daughter and ex-wife. Whilst his female-dominated family addition is new to the reboot, it adds cushiony layers to the brawny bravado that previously distinguished the character; imagine the ex-cop assassin ruffing up robbers and bulldozing a casino, only to turn on his heels and fret about finding a specific doll that his daughter currently covets.
Not only does Mustafa relate to the many facets of this role — like Jet, he too is a girl-dad and jazz enthusiast — he relishes in timeliness of this retro-futuristic galaxy where personal alignments are based on ideas and end-goals, as opposed to ethnic similarities and planetary prejudices. Schön! caught up with the real-life Bebop-buff to discuss his approach to getting Jet right, memorable responses from fans regarding his portrayal, and the sparkle — and surprise — that serendipity brings to life.
First thing’s first: let’s unpack Cowboy Bebop! I read that you had a preexisting awareness of the series… What role did the fans’ interpretation of the series play in how you portrayed the role?
It’s a really subjective and nuanced process, I think. But you know, because above and beyond all the things with Jet, what I wanted to do is give a certain… give that timbre, because it’s when I listen to that character’s voice, there’s a certain way that it sounds and affects me. And that was what was most important to me to capture. And then to also give him the soft side to play the contrast. So, in terms of as a fan, I just think paying reverence to Billingslea’s work — because I think that’s what he and Steve Blum…what they did is what made it super popular. So, paying reverence to that, even though it was a collaborative effort and it was a collaborative effort with the costuming and all of that.
As a fan, when you were watching the anime, who was your favourite character within the series?
I related to Spike the most. But I think I was most entertained by Radical Ed, to be honest.
Interesting. Having had a familiarity with the show, which do you prefer when portraying a role: to already be familiar with the character you’re portraying, or to just go into it blindly?
I think, you know, with everything in life, there’s always pros and cons to it, you know what I mean? So I think there is an advantage to knowing the material ahead of time, but that can also be a disadvantage, because sometimes you can just try to rely on mimicry, because it’s all stuck in your subconscious in a certain way. So, I feel like it’s both. And because I’m aware of what the pitfalls are, I just try not to fall into it when either one comes up.
I also read that you are a girl dad, right? You have three daughters.
I have three daughters. Yeah.
And in this new reboot, Jet Black is actually a girl-dad with an ex-wife. Did you fuse any of your own girl dad -isms into his character at all?
I mean, yeah. Even if I didn’t try, it was going to make its way in there, you know. I related to that. I related to being the divorcee, I related to his struggle to keep the connection when not being in the house, you know, and other men around. I was like, ‘Man, art is definitely imitating life on some level!’ Maybe this is my catharsis. But yeah, I totally related. But you know, the love of your daughter is just… there’s nothing like it, you know? And so, I think that is universal and totally translated.
Do your daughters watch the show at all?
Yes, the two who can. Yeah. Both of them love it, and that’s cool. [Laughter].
Watching the Netflix reboot, I noticed how important jazz music was to the show. It was like another character, and it’s important with Jet Black’s identity. I’m curious though, what do you listen to like in real life, in your own time?
I’m actually a jazz enthusiast myself. I grew up in a family with jazz. My mom was married to Frankie Dundalk, who was a drummer for Lena Horne and Thelonius Monk. And Nelly Morrow was my godmother. So jazz is there for me. I grew up listening to it a lot. But I listen to everything — from Kendrick Lamar, Nas, to Michael McDonnell and the Bee Gees…It all depends. Music is definitely… I use it to live life because it’s definitely, you know, different vibes for different moments. But yeah, I generally love it all. It’s Jessie Reyez I’m in love with right now… I found [her music] and I was like, why is she not more popular? It’s like, my actual most favourite thing to do is find those artists that are amazing that we don’t know about. But yeah, I listen to everything.
What was the last album or song that you downloaded?
Downloaded? I mean, I’ve been on… To be honest… It was Donda. I think quite honestly, I listened to Donda.
In an interview a few years ago, you mentioned having had a million jobs: barber, hair cutter, server… How have those people from your past — former colleagues, even employers — responded to your success?
Everybody’s been super supportive. And, you know, I’ve gotten a lot of love along the way for things that I’ve done, so I feel like we’ve all been…a lot of people are celebrating the milestones…I mean, obviously, there are people that are probably sour, like ‘I wish I would have treated him better.’ [Laughter]. But it’s all good, we live, we learn.
What would you say is the most memorable response that an old colleague or even a fan has had to meeting you for the first time, or to your success and seeing you on the screen?
There’s just so many… You know what? Quite honestly, it was recently. I was at — I don’t know if it was a premiere or another screening of the first episode of Cowboy Bebop — but after it was over this young lady came up to me and she was, like, crying and shaking. She was just trying to get a word out. So, I’m just comforting her like ‘It’s all right, you know, you’re in good company.’ And she just starts to finally tell me how much the anime meant to her, and how it helped her through some dark times. And that it was just a part of the fabric of her life…and she was so happy to see this new iteration come out so good…It was that impactful on her. And you know, it was just a moment…You don’t realise how some of this shit affects people’s lives. You know what I mean? And I’m no judge of how deep and connected someone is to a piece of art and culture, because I even had my versions of things that really provide a marker for a moment in my life. And so, I don’t know, it gave me a greater appreciation for the fans’ response to things, because it’s not the first time I’ve gotten that kind of response — but in person, feeling her energy, it was clear on what it meant to her. And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s dope!’ You know, and that she could be satisfied, because she could’ve been crying, ‘You bastard! You butchered it!’ You know what I mean? It could’ve totally been that, but it wasn’t. And so that was a moment to be grateful for because it means a lot to a lot of people.
One of the things that I found really interesting with Cowboy Bebop is how racial identity is replaced by planetary identity… in the sense that you’re not from Ghana, you’re from Mars; this one’s not American, she’s from Venus. Really the only understanding that the fans have of Jet Black’s heritage is that he comes from Ganymede… Do you believe that this kind of film noir paradigm is the model for the future: we will self-identify through ideas, as opposed to ethnic categorisation?
I mean, in the way that it’s been handled, I feel like it’s the ideal. It’s never a focus. And, you know, the characters—no matter how different they are— are comfortably living together. And the conflicts are basic, which could happen around the same racial group. So, I like that it’s diverse without trying, you know?…In that way, I feel like it’s totally something we should strive for.
Did you get any coaching from Beau Billingslea at all? I know he was the original voice.
No, I didn’t, actually… I just went into it. I was playing around with it, and then one day something landed in the body and I was like, ‘Wow, that really feels honest to this character.’ And it felt similar, or familiar. And so, I ran with it. And then low and behold, I was doing a semi–Beau Billingslea impersonation. But I didn’t really try it. I was just trying to give that energy.
Any projects on the horizon that you’re excited about right now?
Well, I mean, you know, I’m living in Bebop, and Emancipation [the new film co-starring Will Smith] is super cool. I’ve got some music that I’m going to put out probably next year. That’s fun. There are things in the air.
Can you share any details on Emancipation?
I don’t even know; we haven’t gone to the press…I don’t even know what I’m allowed to talk about. But I mean, I’ll tell you the basics…I play a businessman who was educated in Paris— actually, part Creole— and I become captain of the very first native guards, so the first Black regiment to fight in the Union — basically, I don’t know how much I can say…But that’s my character, essentially.
Film, music, television. You don’t stop—are you a Capricorn?
I’m not, but I got Saturn strong in my chart. I’m a Leo.
What’s your birthday?
So, you’re on the cusp?
Yeah. I mean, I’m an astrology buff, and I study the signs…so I don’t believe in cusps. You’re just like, one sign or the other.
It seems like you’re always working, I was like, okay, that’s a super Capricorn trait.
Yeah, which is ruled by Saturn. And so, it’s a prominent place in my chart. So, I definitely have Capricorn tendencies.
I was going to also ask you about music because I know you come from a musical family. Do you play instruments? You mentioned you have an album coming out.
Yeah, hip-hop…I play a few instruments, poorly.
Your voice counts as an instrument.
Yes. This is true. This is true. And I’m being modest about some of it. But yeah, I’m only putting out the hip-hop right now. I work on the other stuff more. But yeah, music is important to me.
I will close it on this note: I’m a New York native with the memory of an elephant… Maybe it was about 10 years ago, there was a cafe in the West Village that I used to always go to called Cafe Minerva… I remember I was going into the Bank Street [entrance], and you walked with a woman out of the West 12th Street door. And I remember seeing you, and thinking, ‘Wow, what a presence he has!’ You reminded me of what I imagined Mansa Musa, the African king, was like. That was the only time I’ve seen you in person to this day. And after that time, the next time I saw you was in Cowboy Bebop.
Wow. That’s a huge compliment!
Well, it’s the truth.
It was so funny when I was asked to do the interview — when I saw you, I was like ‘Oh my gosh, this is the man that I saw 10 years ago coming out of Cafe Minerva!’ To me, it’s really cool because it’s super serendipitous — to see someone one time and hold a memory based off of presence, and then to be introduced 10 years later…
Wow. That is super cool for me, too. Thanks for sharing. I mean, I live for that serendipity…That’s the sparkle of life…It lets you know that it’s not arbitrary.
Nothing is arbitrary.
Exactly. But it’s fun to notice.
Cowboy Bebop is currently streaming on Netflix.