When you've been hugged by actor/musician Gary Dourdan, you've been truly hugged. And not because he is a Sagittarian sensualist. It's genetic. A hug from any member of his large, loving and demonstrative clan reveals just that. No tepid, non-committal, A-line niceties here, but rather full-on, soul-felt
He launches into a rendition of a Denise Nicholas-penned song from Bill Withers: “Can we pretend baby?" he sings. "Can we pretend? Can we pretend that from now on there is no yesterday? Paint a portrait of tomorrow with no colors from today.” It seems an appeal from a man reclaiming his life, moving beyond past troubles played out in the public arena and heightened by the schadenfreude of an unrelenting press. In 2007, at the height of his popularity on television’s top-rated show, the celeb gossip site, TMZ, in typical muckraking shenanigans, posted a mugshot of a disheveled, light-eyed, sandy-haired Louisiana man alongside a photo of Gary with a snide plea to the CSI star, “to help a brother out” by posting the bail for the man identified as Demitris Hirsch. The Hirsch image, forwarded ad infinitum, still makes the social media rounds nearly a decade later, mistaken now as a photo of Gary himself with such commentary as “Damn shame, he used to be so fine.” So let’s just clear this up. Not true, folks. Not him. And he’s still fine, in rugged, fit glory as he inches toward a milestone birthday.
With the offer of tea, we head inside. He lights up, drags on a cigarette and says, “my last vice, smoking." He quickly adds “and cookies, they are my weakness. Oh, it’s bad,” he laughs. We settle in to talk about everything from family to philanthropy; “Hollyweird” swinging to Mali grooving; recognition to redemption.
Born in Philadelphia, Gary Robert Durdin is the middle child (between Kimberly and Joel) of Robert “Bob” and Selma “Sandy” Durdin. Along with Bob’s children from his first marriage, Darryl, and Bobbie Ann, the Durdin family was and remains close through the triumphs and challenges of life and loss. Barely out of his teens, Darryl, on a mission to research family history, traveled to Haiti in 1972, never to return. He was killed, pushed from a hotel balcony by an unknown assailant. Sadly, his murder remains unsolved. Gary was six-years-old when he lost his idol. He distinctly remembers Darryl's mellow voice and listening to his show on Temple University's radio station. Garth Trinidad, deejay of Los Angeles' KCRW, "reminds me of my brother's voice," he says.
Music has been a part of Gary’s life from the very beginning. Darryl taught him to play the flute and their entrepreneurial Dad was an agent for jazz musicians. His thirteenth year was an important one in his musical development: his uncle, Robin Corley, a saxophonist for the band Platinum Hook and Sister Sledge, gave him a sax, and his father introduced him to the music of master drummer, Tony Allen, Fela Kuti's musical director for Africa 70. Today Gary is a singing, songwriting, multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar, bass, drums and keyboards. And he can still find his way on the flute.
Like many other families from “Trenton, Camden and Philly,” the Durdins migrated to Willingboro, NJ. “Your parents are only trying to give you the best when they move you out to the suburbs, but man, when you’re a teenager, it sucks!” Bored with life in the ‘burbs, he busied himself with reckless feats of derring-do. He was "super accident prone back-in-the-day,” says his sister, Kimberly. “He is daring, always has been." Founded in the year of his birth in a 19th century Philadelphia brownstone, Freedom Theatre is the oldest African-American theater in Pennsylvania. Weekend classes in the Performing Arts Training Program there quelled his suburban ennui and set his course for a life of performance.
Late 1980’s New York City was the incubator for what’s become a lasting career. If you look quickly and closely you might spy him as the camera pans the crowd in Eric B & Rakim's 1987 "Move the Crowd" video. He gigged around with various bands, worked the requisite restaurant jobs and at 6’2” worked the door at city nightclubs as a bouncer while taking classes at Lee Strasberg, and performing in off and off-off Broadway musical theater. He leveraged his good looks and buff body for a spot on the roster of talent at Boss Models, though he says he was a "hard sell" because of his thick
Gary met the beautiful model, Roshumba Williams, through Kimberly, then a model booker for Bethann Management, industry legend Bethann Hardison's model agency. After a whirlwind courtship, the twenty-
It was an exciting, moving night in Fort Greene, Brooklyn when a coterie of friends and family huddled around the television in February 1991 to watch “Ms. Understanding,” the episode of A Different World that introduced Gary in the role of “Shazza Zulu.” Bearing a strong resemblance to his beloved late brother, his appearance prompted a tearful phone call from Darryl's former girlfriend.
Gary remained on the show for one season, as the love interest of character “Freddie Brooks.” The rest of the nineties were a flurry of activity: a sexy, buzz-worthy music video appearance with Janet Jackson in “Again,” and a recurring role as “Anthony” in the HBO miniseries Laurel Avenue in 1993. By 1994, he portrayed “Trey King” in the popular series New York Undercover and he and Roshumba divorced. In 1995 he began performing regular Sunday night gigs at Bell Café on Spring Street in Soho. Collaborating on percussion and vocals with Gbatokai Dakinah on bass, Lasse Illinton on keys and
The roles kept coming: as “Randall Patterson” in the short-lived series Swift Justice, and” Ziggy” in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, both, in 1996; “Christie” in Alien: Resurrection, the fourth installment in the popular Alien big-screen franchise in 1997; and as "Thierry" (alongside Brooke Shields) in The Weekend, in 1999. He capped off the end of the 20th century as a new dad following the birth of his lovely, raven-haired daughter, Nyla that July. “She’s a beautiful birdie,” he says of the recent high school graduate. “I’m really proud.” Fruit
In addition to the sweet gig, the
Gary built and operated a fully-equipped recording studio, Temple of Thoughts, in his Venice Beach home, fostering his love of music and opening the space
Gary delivered a solid performance as Soledad Brother George Jackson in 2007's Black August. He voiced the character of Detective Crispus Allen in the animated Batman: Gotham Knight, released in 2008, the year his CSI contract ended. Though many believed otherwise, the scenes of the shooting and ultimate demise of the character Warrick Brown were already in the can before Gary's April 28 arrest for possession of drugs. The character was not killed off in response to the charges against Gary. The network had not renewed his contract and he was free to pursue other opportunities, particularly his music, an endeavor he took very seriously.
It's a story he's understandably tired of rehashing but he shares a bit of the climate for his spiral. "We didn’t have social media then. Back then I was getting snail mail, handwritten by fans--
When asked what he thinks is the greatest misconception about him, he says a 2011 charge of violence against a former lover. He explains that they'd been estranged. "I was trying to put my son to bed when she broke into my house through the garage and starting throwing things. I tried my best to diffuse it and she started punching me. So I pushed her out of my house," he recalls. "She ran down the street screaming bloody murder." Hearing the ruckus, a neighbor phoned the police. "The cops came and arrested me, carted me off to jail (in the presence of his eight-year-old son). It was a really unfortunate debacle." He adds, "I don't hit women. I was raised to respect women." The litany of troubles did not endear him to the media, but he is grateful to those who've championed him and the fans who've supported him and prayed for his healing. Prayers that have been answered in his sobriety and in his meditation practice which he now shares with his children. His sister Kim remarks, "I am grateful for all of the blessed and divine
Of his children, avid readers Nyla and Lyric he says, "They’re really good kids. We never had to discipline them the way my mother definitely had to discipline me. I was a bit of a wayward child--a middle child and I was really reckless. My kids aren’t. Their mothers have done an excellent job of raising them. I’m very proud and feel very blessed. There were some uneasy years there; child rearing and relationships are difficult, but for some reason, those kids, those souls chose to be born through us. I have to thank them for that." His peripatetic lifestyle in entertainment has limited his time with them, so he cherishes every moment spent together. And he fills the interstices between their live interactions with updates of his goings-on. Whether it's
The step away from La-La land has, in many ways, been
The India experience left an indelible imprint. "I was there, right there as David opened up chests and stitched up hearts. Emotionally, it didn’t hit me until after," he remembers. "Until I saw the looks on the parents faces when they realized their child is post-danger zone and their chances are good. The look in their eyes and the gratitude toward Dr.
Along with actors Juliette Binoche, Catherine Deneuve and Djimon Hounsou, Gary raised funds and awareness for Ivorian First Lady Dominique Ouattara’s mission to build the Mother-Child Hospital of Bingerville. Back in February, he flew to Côte d’Ivoire to witness the culmination of the initiative.
He's also been spending time in the West African Republic of Mali. Back in its heyday, the Bell Café Band was managed by Malian expat, Fatou Sow. Following the region's stabilization after years of Sharia law and bans on music, Ms. Sow decided to mount a music festival there. One of the first groups she invited to perform was Bell Café. "We had been back together periodically over the years to do little gigs here and there, one in Dubai and a recording in Ibiza," he says. The band reunited and honored the commitment to perform even with the threat of resurgent unrest. Gary believes in using his visibility as an artist to spread awareness of the causes he supports.
On arrival in the capital city of Bamako, he
"It’s definitely a progression in my musicality; a step up, playing with the people I’m playing with. It’s been a blessing." He likens it to going to school as he records. "Mali has some of the finest guitarists in the world. And our blues come from Mali. It’s hard to understand at first, it seems a culture away, but when you hear their desert blues, when you hear their music, it’s very apparent that it's African music that we’re playing; that our blues derive from there." As he learns about the instruments of antiquity, he traces the musical lineage from Africa to the Americas. "I’m watching a video of Ali Farka Touré play this little thing that looks like a violin. He’s from a place in Africa that takes you days to get to. So how could it have been possible that they derived blues from the U.S.?"
He adds, "Let’s take an instrument like the banjo, it was brought from Africa." Recently given Its ancient predecessor, the Ngoni, he describes the instrument. "It’s made from goatskin stretched over carved wood and the strings are made from the ligaments of an animal." He marvels over its simplicity "it's like a small guitar--a stick with strings on it, and the sound they get out of it is completely transcendent. You can’t imagine the sound coming out of it," he says enthusiastically. The instrument predates the harp; it predates classical music. "Americans are not known for our language studies," he says. "Now that I’m traveling a lot, I find that I find that I’m picking up a lot more Spanish and French. Even when I was in Mali, Bambara started coming easier for me. It’s a more ercussive language, staccato. In trying to pick up some of the expressions, it felt really natural."
He's one hard-working brother, frequently on a plane these days. In addition to the international travel for philanthropic efforts and to perform and record music, Gary finds himself stateside quite a bit to commune of course, with his family and continue his steady work as an actor. The day after our New York meeting, he flew to Atlanta to shoot the forthcoming (in 2017) Media, for TV One, (having shot two other films for them) returned to France to perform and record for a Bob Marley tribute; then touched down in Morocco to film among the Berbers. He has gone back to Mali, "worked with a guy from Akon's Lighting Africa project, and was able to help get the village, the music school and maternity school lit and powered! A very good day indeed," he recalls.
He is grateful for all the good coming his way, yet heart-weary from the violence around the world, particularly the pandemic gun violence and “the killing of unarmed black and brown people by the police in America.” As one who has been “held at gunpoint by LAPD officers several times,” he doesn’t “feel safe in L.A.”
Organizing is key to effecting change in this country, he says, admiring the activism of elders Harry Belafonte (Sankofa) and Jim Brown (Amer-I-Can) and emerging activists like Jesse Williams. We must also organize around the financial health of the black community, he says, and get on board with the current grassroots efforts encouraging investment in black-owned banks to build economic parity for blacks in America.
He speaks of a theory meaningful to him: that of the fighting stance and the learning stance. “You can’t have both at the same time." People kept in a combative state assume the fighting stance. "If we are kept in the fighting stance then we will never be able to organize, learn and grow." Having ventured abroad, he believes that “we must travel wide and get in touch with each other in the farthest corners of the world and help each other evolve.”
He returns to New York this month to start shooting the rom-com All She Wrote. "He has come a very long way and accomplished so much," his eldest sister Bobbie says, proud of the strides he's made. "He looks fresh and at peace with himself," she notes. I'd have to agree. Far from his past tribulations in Venice, California, the new video for his song "The End," shot in Venice, Italy at the Berengo Murano glass studio, offers an apt metaphor as Gary endures the heat to create something beautiful from the fire.
1. My Guild Guitar. His eye was drawn to the jewel-toned, late sixties model from the Guild Starfire series, "I’ve always liked emerald green, but it was the tone that got me. I’m not a jazz musician, but I like jazz chordings, the colors they create and that guitar really brings it out. It has a very sensual vibe to it. I’m not a great lead player like Prince or Jimi Hendrix, but when I hit a chord, it rings true and sounds beautiful and warm. And it lets me express myself when I have to sing or do some poetry. It's semi hollow so it almost feels like an acoustic, which is great, but acoustic guitars can sound a bit thin from the stage and this guitar always sounds full bodied. I love how a guitar is shaped like a beautiful woman; really strong hips, small waist, she’s beautiful, that’s my girl, the Guild.”
2. Musk Oil. The earthy, classic fragrance from Kiehl's is a staple, though he's partial to musk oil obtained in Morocco as well.
3. Protective jewelry. He'd always looked askance when folks in California started talking crystals, but he's come to understand that as the elements of the periodic table have certain properties, so do gemstones. "I don’t feel like I’m being overly esoteric or crunchy hippie about it, now I see it's science." He says that his open energy leaves him vulnerable to the ill intentions of others, "unseen forces. Know they do exist. You don't see
4. Paris. He sleeps well in the City of Lights. "I feel really protected there, held as an artist. I travel all around, but as soon as I get to Paris, I relax. I start feeling like I can write again and it opens me up." He enjoys the simple pleasure of walking the streets there, unencumbered. "My two favorite places in Paris are the Olympia (concert hall) and the Sacré-Cœur. The Sacred Heart Church accepts everyone and they also have places where people can stay, which is what a church should be like. If you’re going to build a monument to God, there should probably be someplace where people can come
6. Listening to his favorite music. With his extensive travel, he always keeps his iPod
7. Ayo’s songwriting. "Ayo is amazing, she’s a great songwriter. I love her voice. I love her spirit--she smiles when she sings. She’s really very present. All of her words are gut-wrenchingly true and from the heart and she’s inspired me as an artist." And she's performed at the Olympia. (view here)
8. Vintage muscle cars. "I'm from Philly and New Jersey, of course I love muscle cars." Like a tricked-out, 1968 Dodge Charger he once owned, but it's now more in theory than in practice. "Until I can figure out how to make them electric, then it's a waste of the earth's resources," he says. Perhaps one day.
9. Tate’s Cookies. He loves the crispy, buttery treats from the Southampton bake shop. Which flavor? “Chocolate chip. Actually anything Tate’s, ginger, butterscotch...Cookies are a vice for me. I’ll go workout in the gym, have a healthy lifestyle, eat salad greens. I don’t really eat meat, I don’t really eat chicken that much anymore; just fish and veggies. But I will smash a bag of Tate's on my own. I’ll eat the last cookie unapologetically."
10. Malian honors. January 2016, after performing at the Festival Acoustik Bamako, Gary traveled 25 miles south of the capital city to the Griot village of Kirina, and visited the music school, Ecole de Musique