Like the Jackson Five They Loved, the Boys Aim to Become the Biggest Brothers in Bubble-Gum Soul
"Who, the boys?" Angela replied.
Moments later, that's how the brothers were introduced—and it's how they've been introduced ever since. Now, with their first LP (Messages from the Boys)in the stores and their first single ("Dial My Heart") on the black charts, the Boys are trying to introduce their accidental stage name to the Top 10. "Once, we wanted to be just like the Jacksons," says Khiry, at 15 the Boys' senior member (Hakeem is 13, Tajh, 11, and Bilal, 9). "But now we know we can be ourselves. We have our own styles and our own personalities."
Not that the Boys don't invite comparison to their Jackson Five forebears. Their music—a bouncy bubble-gum funk—echoes with high-pitched, preadolescent harmonies, and their dance style has more flash than a light-show laser, thanks, in part, to their karate and gymnastics training. They are also polished, and for good reason. Tajh made his TV debut at about 6 weeks as Kunta Kinte, the infant held aloft at the beginning of ABC's widely successful 1977 miniseries Roots. With help from his maternal grandmother, Patricia Satterwhite, who ran a children's acting workshop in Long Beach, he matured into roles on Cagney & Lacey, St. Elsewhere and TV commercials for McDonald's fast food, Mattel toys, Fruity Pebbles cereal and other products. Hakeem has played prime time in Diff'rent Strokes, Facts of Life and Amen, as well as in the movie comedy Ernest Goes to Camp. All the brothers, however, say song and dance is more fun than acting. Admits Hakeem: "When the girls are screaming and stuff, I really like it."
Back in their little-Boys days in Carson, Calif., the young performers used to lip-synch the lyrics to old Jackson Five LPs and copy dance moves off various TV videos. "We'd just watch stuff and then say, 'Hey, let's try to do that step,' " says Bilal. Then on a spring day in 1984, hoping to earn some money to buy a Father's Day dinner for papa Jabari Abdul-Samad, the boys took their living-room act to the boardwalk at nearby Venice Beach. Within a few hours they had collected $69 in change; within a few months they were earning up to $500 a weekend performing at the beach next to chain-saw jugglers and stand-up comics. "It was wild," recalls Hakeem. "Bums would try to steal our money."
Seeing some showbiz potential here, Jabari, 40, and Angela, 38, enrolled in an entertainment management course at the Los Angeles Trade-Technical College. One morning, while driving to a job for his carpet-cleaning company, Jabari noticed a line of kids waiting to audition for a TV show called Junior Star Search at L.A.'s Aquarius Theater. He stopped the car, called Angela and told her to bring the boys. The brothers landed a spot on the show and, within months, their first recording contract.
Though the Boys now travel by limo to their gigs at shopping malls and junior high school assemblies, at their family's modest San Fernando Valley home they still take out the garbage and double up in two bedrooms. "They don't put on airs," says their father, a Vietnam vet who converted to Islam in the early '70s. "I don't have to do anything in the way of discipline, because it's all been done during their formative years, ages 1 to 7."
At the moment, there's hardly time for lessons in discipline anyway. In recent months the Boys have appeared at New York's Apollo Theater, on TV's Soul Train, and now they are taking a tour of Europe to promote the Message LP there. Are they then finally escaping the shadow of their early Jackson Five mentors? "I think since they're five brothers and we're four brothers, people will compare us," says Tajh. "But I think we'll be even bigger."