John Kani’s presence is magnetic. As I sit across from him in a suite at the Montage Hotel, we’re talking for fifteen minutes, maybe less. I could listen to him for hours. I could learn from his wisdom.
Kani is the voice of Rafiki in Jon Favreau’s The Lion King. The wise character who welcomes young Simba and presents him to the Pride land during Circle of Life. He watches over Young Simba for Simba will one day be king and take over from Mufasa.
Kani talks about sitting down with his grandmother as a young child, hearing her stories and wisdom. He talks about playing T’Chaka in Black Panther and introducing African Indigenous language dialect to both films bringing that authenticity, that 100% John Kani to his roles.
This version holds something special for Kani, “It was Africa, and that was beautiful.” He explains as he talks about seeing the film for the first time at the World premiere.
Read our chat below:
How incredible was that premiere for the film?
The wonderful thing about the movies is getting to be in the audience. In theater, you can perform a play for ten years, but you never get to see it. [laughs]
I’ve seen little snippets prior to that and the CGI wasn’t complete. It was only when they released the trailers and all I saw was Rafiki rising and says, “It is time.”
Last night, I sat there and I thought, “Alright, tell me a story.” I took my 75 years down to 12, and I remember that little kid who used to look at his grandmother and his grandfather, and they’d say, “Come, I’m going to tell you a story.”
This story has a meaning, and it washed over me. Slowly the names of the characters, the beautiful actors all dissolved into thin air. I believed that Nala was Nala; Pumbaa was Pumbaa, Timon was Timon, and Mufasa was Mufasa, and they were engaging me in their story. I felt so at peace.
In the end, I was so proud, and I was among the first to give it a standing ovation. As a performer, it had nothing to do with me, but it was a story that was well told. We used technology and merged it with reality and traditional storytelling, and it worked.
What did the Lion King mean to you, that “come, we’re going to tell you a story?”, Africa and your personal journey with it?
When you watch a movie, it’s on-screen, or you watch it on TV and there’s nothing beyond that. The manner in which the largescale that Jon Favreau brought in, you could see even deeper behind the character as they walk past the lens. I could identify. I had been there. I knew it was my home. It was Africa, and that was beautiful.
For me to agree to be part of this project in my over fifty years as an actor, growing up in South Africa where I’m very much known as a militant black actor and not in the context of color, but in politics, I’ve always engaged myself in things that enhance the dignity of human beings. I engage myself in things that celebrate humanity and things that are a lesson to my children and the next generation. That was the only reason I said I’d play Rafiki. I knew there was an old man who’s been given an opportunity to communicate with young Simba and make sure that what his father says to him lands in his ears and he digests and believes. That was one beautiful thing I believed last night.
Rafiki is a wise one. You got to bring in a language, as you did in Black Panther. What did that mean to you to be able to do that and bring that here?
The director looks at the characters and thinks, “I’m going to ask John Kani to take this role.” You’re taking me 100% as I am. There is no compromise. I will have a say because I’m putting myself at stake in telling your story, and I’m not going to look like a fool. The point that is — and I’m over 75-years-old — the younger generation is seeing me in movies and stories; they have to believe that he means what comes out of his mouth. Now when John Kani is in a play or in a movie or on TV, they live for it because he’s going to tell us something we need to hear and remember, and never forget. That’s my criteria in any sort of thing that I get involved in.
I liked the original version. He was funny. He was a fool. He was jumping over trees, but I said to myself, there’s much more to this character than that. He’s still wise. He’s still making jokes. The use of the African Indigenous language, I was working with Jon and explaining that when Scar declares himself, after a coup, “I am now the new president.” I look at Simba’s image on the rock and what I say means “God help us all.”
Haven’t we gone through that?
Yes. Many times?
I sat there and thought, “Could Mufasa be Nelson Mandela?” Are we stuck with Scar? Is there any hope to get us out of this situation? The lack of good leaders. Leaders that care. Leaders that are human. Leaders that know they serve. That was the role of Rafiki for me, making sure that Simba must come. The nation needs him. The world needs him. He needed to get back and get them back on track.
We celebrated 25 years of our democracy. On July the third, I went to the Independence celebrations at the American Embassy in South Africa, and they were celebrating 243 years of their democracy. I thought they didn’t have it right yet. [laughs]. That was Rafiki talking.
There are those parallels. I’m looking forward on July 19 when this movie opens in Johannesburg where the audience is going to be 99.999999 African. They will take the story as an African story. That was unbelievably mindblowing when we showed Black Panther. They identified with Wakanda. They said, this is what would have happened to us if we were not colonized. They even saw Western colonization as something that delayed African development, and that this little country somewhere in Africa avoided all that to become the most powerful technologically advanced nation in the continent and in the world.
So, when they see The Lion King, they’ll see the parallels. For us, there isn’t a story because it’s fun. Every story has a lesson and we sit in that theater for two hours waiting for that one line, that one lesson that we take home.
When you say to someone, “What is this Lion King about?” It’s about humanity. It’s about us. It’s about things we’ve forgotten and things we must always take with us. The nation can only survive if we all hold our hands together and more importantly, it’s about respect for the role of our matriarchs. The mothers are still the most powerful members of any family structure. When Alfre is so fantastic as Scarabi, I could hear my grandmother telling my grandfather, “You shouldn’t have said that.” This man who I’ve feared the most, my grandfather will answer, “I’m sorry, dear.” This man who has always terrorized me with his authority, says sorry. I found myself in my age, nodding at my wife. Not necessarily agreeing, but nodding. That’s the role of the lioness. It’s almost like Helen of Troy. We have to stop it now, it all depends on us. Isn’t it time we have a woman for a president?
You would think America would catch on to that?
[laughs] Let them watch The Lion King. They’ll wake up. They’ll see that’s where the power lies.
It’s like you said, 250 years of democracy and they’re still scared of women.
We’ve always known our job is to pick up and go hunting, protect the family, but never run the family. That was not our role because we can make mistakes in raising a family. Men make mistakes all the time. In raising a family, women can’t make those mistakes.
You are part of the legacy that is The Lion King.
It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity where you are part of a great event. I see The Lion King as a mark in the progress that we’ve made as humans, in the technological advances that were used, but also we’re telling a small story. That’s where I believe that technology can compliment storytelling and just human development.
And, you completed Murder Mystery.
And that was fun.
What else have you been working on?
I’ve written a play called Kunene. It examines 25 years of democracy in South Africa and what white people think has been the change, but also what black people see. Has there been a change or no change? Have we come closer together? Or, are we carrying the vocabulary that separates us? We need to create a new language that is not pregnant with the prejudices of the past. Words like “You people” immediately separates us. “Black people” and “women” immediately separates us. Those things are all within the story that I tell.
We opened in Stratford, the home of Shakespeare. I weave King Lear into the story, the white character is about to perform as King Lear. He teaches the caregiver who is a senior nurse who looks after him – about Shakespeare. In turn, he teaches the white actor about humanity. We are looking to open in the West End and hopefully, we’ll go to Broadway.