Zahir will take over as Cleveland in Season 19, as the show has just been picked up for two more seasons (its 19th and 20th) and episodes are now going into production. He takes over from Mike Henry, who created the character and voiced it since “Family Guy” premiered in 1999 (and later on the spin-off “The Cleveland Show”).
In June, Henry announced that he would step down from playing Cleveland: “I love this character, but persons of color should play characters of color,” he said at the time.
Henry will continue to be heard as Cleveland in this year’s Season 18 “Family Guy” episodes, which had already been completed and return on Sunday night with the show’s 350th episode. But series creator and executive producer Seth MacFarlane and showrunners Rich Appel and Alec Sulkin announced on Friday that Zahir would take over as Cleveland moving forward.
“Arif’s vocal talent is obvious, but his understanding of Cleveland and his respect for the character give me confidence that he is in the right hands,” Henry said. “I look forward to getting to know Arif and working with him to make sure Cleveland stays every bit as awesome as he has always been.”
Known on YouTube as “Azerrz,” Zahir does video impressions of President Obama, Cleveland Brown, Donald Trump and Kendrick Lamar (among others), and has 6.25 million subscribers. His video “Hit Rap Songs in Voice Impressions,” which features him reimagining “Sicko Mode” as sung by Cleveland, has attracted 14.2 million views; another one from 2017 featuring Cleveland performing hit rap songs garnered 6.5 million views.
In June, after Henry announced he was giving up the role as Cleveland, Zahir made a TikTok video offering up his services (and tagging Henry on Twitter to hopefully see it).
“When I heard that Mike Henry was stepping down from the role of Cleveland Brown — my favorite cartoon character of all time — I was shocked and saddened, assuming we’d never see him again,” Zahir said. “When I learned I would get to take over the role? Overabundant gratitude. To Mike, you created something truly special and I promise I will do my absolute best to honor your legacy. To Rich Appel, Alec Sulkin and Seth MacFarlane, thank you for this incredible gift. And to the millions of fans who love this show, I promise not to let you down.”
The news of Zahir’s hiring comes a day after Variety broke the news that actor Alex Désert had taken over the role of Carl Carlson on “The Simpsons” season opener. Carl, who is Black, had been voiced by Hank Azaria. But earlier this summer, “The Simpsons” announced that BIPOC characters would now be played by performers of color.
In June, as the conversation about representation on TV extended to animation, Henry said he would no longer voice Cleveland, while Kristen Bell also stepped down from plating the biracial character Molly on “Central Park” and Jenny Slate said she wouldn’t continue to play Missy, also a biracial character, on Netflix’s “Big Mouth.” Emily Raver-Lampman will now play Molly in Season 2 of “Central Park,” while Ayo Edebiri has been tapped to voice Missy moving forward on “Big Mouth.”
Zahir is repped by CAA.