Being a performer has never been enough for Gbenga Akinnagbe.
The actor, best known for his role as cold-blooded assassin Chris Partlow on HBO series The Wire, did not grow up with thespian ambitions. Every five years or so, Akinnagbe, now 36, seems to reinvent himself. He has transitioned from troubled high school teen to college wrestler; from government employee to actor to, most recently, head of his own clothing line. But one thing has stayed fixed throughout his protean life: his commitment to social justice — or, as Akinnagbe aptly puts it, his instinct to act when he sees injustice.
Akinnagbe experienced inequity firsthand as the second child of Nigerian-immigrant parents in Maryland. He bounced around from fenced-in shelters to run-down projects, many of them surrounded by suburbs. His impoverished upbringing would later inspire Akinnagbe (whose full name is pronounced BENG-gah Ah-kin-NAH-bay) to become an outspoken activist in different parts of the world. In Israel, he has decried discrimination against Palestinians and urban decay; in Nigeria, he joined demonstrators on the streets (during the Occupy Nigeria movement) to condemn the government’s rescission of fuel subsidies; and here in New York — specifically, in Brownsville — he has protested against the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy.
“I do it because I have to,” he explains. “I don’t really see a choice. This is part of who I am. It’s who I’ll always be. I can’t have gone to the West Bank and Israel and witnessed the apartheid I saw and not come back and say something about it. I couldn’t live with myself. I can’t have lived in the shelters I’ve lived in and seen what my mother went through and not say something about how we deal with our homeless. I couldn’t sleep.”
More recently, Akinnagbe has taken up another cause, lending his voice and fame to raise awareness of the massacres in Nigeria at the hands of the Boko Haram insurgency. This cause is close to Akinnagbe’s heart. In 2011 he visited Nigeria for the first time and almost instantly felt a connection to his parents’ homeland. He has since returned several times. “I knew my history didn’t start with slavery,” Akinnagbe says. But “to go someplace and see a nation of people who are a variation of you is empowering.”
So Akinnagbe did not hesitate when he was approached by New York City Councilman Robert Cornegy to be a part of a campaign to draw attention to the ongoing crisis in northern Nigeria. Cornegy, who represents Brooklyn’s Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant — Akinnagbe has resided in the latter since 2007 — began organizing the campaign after President Obama’s State of the Union address earlier this month. During the speech, Obama mentioned the attack in Paris on the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, but did not address the crisis in Nigeria, which since 2009 has claimed the lives of nearly 5,000 civilians. The deaths have been part of a military operation launched by Boko Haram, a radical Islamic group, in an effort to create an Islamic state in Nigeria.
Specifically, Cornegy was stirred to action by the January 3 raids in Baga in Borno state, which Amnesty International has characterized as possibly the “deadliest massacre” in the terrorist group’s violent history. Cornegy says the “deafening silence” from the media and the U.S government spurred him to act.
“The lives of Nigerian people are just as valuable as French lives and Syrian lives. They are just as deserving of mourning and just as deserving of help,” he said during a January 24 vigil at the Restoration Plaza in Brooklyn. “We demand help for them.”
Akinnagbe hosted the vigil and says he agreed to participate because he felt compelled to speak up. “I wanted to [mark] in history that these lives had been taken, especially when I saw that the mainstream media largely ignored it,” he says.
Even with Akinnagbe lending his celebrity to Cornegy’s campaign, the councilman believes the biggest challenge to raising awareness will be apathy. The only way to get people to care, and to bridge that divide between Africans and African Americans, is to focus on the similarities and not the differences, he says.
“Whether you’re in an underdeveloped nation that doesn’t have a working pipeline for fresh water or whether you’re working in developments here in New York that are crumbling around people,” he tells the Voice.
In addition to last month’s vigil, the group will be holding a press conference on February 12 on the steps of City Hall. There, Cornegy and Akinnagbe will be calling on the U.S. to send humanitarian aid to those displaced by the conflict in northern Nigeria. Following the press conference, which begins at 9 a.m., the duo and their followers will embark on a long march from City Hall to the Nigerian Consulate in Midtown East.
“Everyone feels their struggles are unique to them,” Akinnagbe says. “[But] all these different races of people out in the streets — different colors and different languages — [are all] protesting for the same thing, the same rights. If we recognize our brothers and sisters and their struggles, we are stronger.”