Robert Riley: Soca in his blood
ROBERT CHRISTOPHER RILEY got emotional last week Sunday. He was sitting in Krave the Band bandhouse when a gentleman walked up to him, took out his identification card and called him by his full name and said, “I am your cousin Livingston St Christopher Riley. My dad and your dad were brothers.”
The VH1 Hit the Floor actor, who plays Devils basketballer player Terrance Wall, was in Barbados last year as part of Krave The Band and made a plea for his unknown relatives to get in contact with him.
All he knew at the time was the name of his dad and a vague address.
“When Livingston came up to me we spoke for about 45 minutes and I have to admit we got a bit emotional at times.
“I found out things I didn’t know. He found out things he didn’t know. This time I am keeping the link. This won’t be broken. We traded stories,” he said, adding that his dad has passed away.
He found out he was a police constable by the name of Grantley Lewellyn Christopher Riley and he was into cricket, and loved to sing, which Robert can as well.
Riley said he was also amazed at the similarities he and his cousin had, even though they grew up in two different places and ways.
For many who haven’t gotten the full story, Riley was born in Flatbush Brooklyn to a Trinidadian mum and Barbadian dad.
“My dad and mum broke up when I was two. I was raised solely by her and didn’t know my father at all. I was raised Trini in my household.
“If anyone knows about that area knows it is a little Caribbean. Labour Day on the Parkway even as a child . . . my food was Trini – bakes and plantains. My grandma always made sure I had something warm in my stomach in the mornings so I had my tea with milk and sugar,” he said laughing.
The menu also consisted of rotis, curry chicken and rice, his two favourite dishes. Even now he is living on his own in Los Angeles, California, his mum would send him roti skins and packages of curry.
He was raised Catholic, being an altar boy and singing soprano back then in the choir.
He grew up listening to the Mighty Sparrow, and he always visited Trinidad, last time being in 2000 for his grandma’s funeral.
Riley’s trip to Barbados came last year by coincidence.
“I used to play mas with Sesame Flyers in Brooklyn. Tracy from Krave asked if I wanted to come play mas for Crop Over. I have never been to Barbados nor flown a Bajan flag. Didn’t know very much about Barbados.”
Riley said when he came last year ago he was warmly accepted when people found out he had Bajan roots. It pushed him to find out more about his family, even finding a Bajan flag to wave alongside the Trini flag he always has.
“What was warming was that people didn’t care what my father did or that he had left us. They were genuinely interested in who I am and what I have become, in my success as an actor.”
He said he feels like he is getting more and more Bajan everyday.
Riley contacted EASY magazine last year to tell of his search for his Bajan family. This year, when he found them, he again contacted EASY.
“I am so happy that I have found my cousin. I was already contacted by my half-brother’s mum years ago and given some information and numbers. We don’t have a close connection, me and my half-brother, but he has contacted me already.”
Riley said when he finally came to Barbados everything just fell into place. “I grew up Caribbean so it was like so natural to fit in here. I went to school with a bunch of people who weren’t Caribbean. Here I didn’t stand out, I was amongst my people. I didn’t feel weird.
“I feel at home here as I do in Trinidad. I feel like I am getting more and more Bajan everyday.”
He is looking to create opportunities here.
“I realised that there are 250 000 people here who are proud and ambitious, hardworking people. I was moved.”
He has a secret dream to start an acting school here. He can teach as he has a Master’s degree in acting, classically trained at Ohio University, and a Bachelor’s degree from Lehigh University.
He has created a company called Hollywood Massive, to bring more awareness of the Caribbean to the unaware.
“I want to spread our cultures and cultures like it. I don’t want anything fake. I don’t want to westernise it.”
He has produced carnival in Hollywood this year for the first time.
“The people love the costumes, the concept, the breakfast and lunch. I had my friends come and enjoy it. On that day everyone put aside their differences and come together as one.
“All Ah We in the carnival, All Ah We in the festival, so I want to show that to as many people as possible.”
He has also produced a video to showcase it.
This year, the 32- year-old is loving Crop Over, the music and the food.
“The costumes are wonderful. I did Foreday Morning last year, so wanted something different this year so we went to Caesars Army (left). It was a great time. The camaraderie was so fun that by time you finish the jump, it was like we all are family.
“And the food? Oh gosh, fishcakes (he ate 17 on Grand Kadooment Day), fish of any kind. Rum punch, Banks Beer, Chefette needs to open a franchise in the United States and Pine Hill Dairy, this is a call for you to do distribution in the US,” he said, laughing.
He says he has on heavy rotation King Bubba FM, Leadpipe and Saddis, Stiffy, Peter Ram and Hypasounds.
Riley said he never wanted to be an actor, it found him, but he is happy with the route he has taken, even landing parts in different movies so far.
While attending Lehigh, Riley was cast in the role of Walter Lee in the play, A Raisin in the Sun and later went on to co-write along with Kashi Johnson (his professor and mentor), Untold Truths: Why We Always Sit Together.
The play, which was about the minority experience at predominately white institutions of education, received rave reviews and was performed nightly before sold-out audiences at the Touchstone Theatre. After graduation, in the fall of 2003, Riley accepted a full-scholarship to Ohio University’s MFA-acting programme. While completing his degree (2006), he was cast in several independent films as well as numerous commercials and print ads.
In winter 2006, all of Riley’s hard work began to pay off. He landed a role in August Wilson’s Fences. After appearing in this production, in 2007, he was later cast as Jeremy in a second August Wilson production, Joe Turner’s Come And Gone at Baltimore Centre Stage.
As luck would have it, Riley was returning from a modelling job on an off day from Joe Turner, and received a call to audition for the 2008 Broadway production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. He was cast to play the role of Brick as an understudy for Terrance Howard, which he performed for three weeks in addition to his nightly role as Brightie. He starred opposite, James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Giancarlo Esposito and Anika Noni Rose.
He says Hit The Floor will be back next year and has already completed filming.
While he loves his job he can’t complain that there is hard work in learning lines and standing in a spot.
“Not after I passed young men in Barbados cutting coconuts with a machete or one breaking cinder blocks, or a fisherman going out to pull traps.”
He said when he is in Barbados he is just a regular guy, even though a bit more recognisable.
“I am thankful and appreciative. When I leave here I am so sad. I have so many memories, but I will be back.”