Every Wednesday evening, fans of the hit television series Empire tune into the messy drama of the Lyon family.
The Fox TV drama, created by Lee Daniels and Daniel Strong, is currently on hiatus with Season Two half-finished and viewers anticipating its return in January.
Since the show’s debut in January of this year, Empire has earned TV’s number one broadcast rating and ended its first season with 17.3 million viewers. A highlight of the drama is its electrifying soundtrack and the show’s young co-stars.
As the first season progressed and the storyline developed, the music became the centerpiece of the show under the supervision of platinum hit maker, Timbaland.
Jussie Smollett is a member of the all-star cast of Hollywood power hitters, which includes Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson, Marisa Tomei, Gabourey Sidibe – along with an impressive list of breakout stars.
Smollett plays Jamal Lyon, son of record company mogul and musician Lucious Lyon (Howard) and mother Cookie Lyon (Henson) on the show. He is a talented singer and songwriter who stands up to his father and publicly comes out to the world as a gay man.
The two worlds between Jussie Smollett and his character Jamal are similar but different. At 32, Smollett’s hectic schedule includes various live appearances, speaking engagements and live performances promoting Empire’s soundtrack on Columbia Records. He will eventually work towards releasing his own solo music project, but not now.
Smollett said, “It’s not so difficult, but it’s not also easy, if that makes any sense? I’m concentrating on the music at hand at my number one job right now, which is Empire.
“I’m writing songs constantly, but it’s a balancing act of having to get in there and do music and put all of yourself into the music of Empire. When I’m writing and recording for Empire, I’m still in the mind-state of myself as Jamal. There are some things that are different and there are so many things that are similar.
“My music is coming, but my music is my private soul. It’s the one thing that is so interesting – it’s so funny how I’m not stressed about it – it’s the one thing that is mine. For my own music, it’s going to take time, and when it’s right, it’s going to be right. But there are so many things to do right now. There’s no time to pee, let alone record a whole album,” he laughs.
No Plan B
Growing up in Southern California, Smollett broke into the business as a child actor making appearances in The Mighty Ducks, North, the miniseries Queen and starring with his brothers and sisters in the sitcom, On Our Own in 1994.
Before Empire, Smollett took on small acting roles while working on his music and he released an EP, Poisoned Hearts Club, in 2012. Creating music has always been the main fixture in his life as a songwriter and musician.
Being from a family of musicians and actors, Smollett constantly reminds young artists about the importance of having a solid work ethic in order to be successful in life.
“Literally, it’s about working your butt off. I didn’t have a Plan B; I only had a Plan A. It’s not always the right plan for everybody, but I always held down a job,” he explains. “I always took care of myself. I always made sure I was responsible and I could look in the mirror and be proud of the man that I am.”
He noted that it’s easy to get caught up in the shining lights of fame, power and fortune, but that he tries to maintain a cool head in the process. Smollett’s secret? “Keeping your spirit and soul as clean as you can; not letting the crap of the world get to you and change who you are,” he says. “Shine from inside your inner-self – it will radiate and you will have a long career because everything will be lined up in the right way.”
Smollett sits on the boards of the Black AIDS Institute and Artists for New South Africa, among other foundations that focus on social justice and civil rights initiatives. Currently, he is working closely with actor, activist and former UNICEF goodwill ambassador Harry Belafonte – along with the Justice League – on bringing awareness to racial profiling and police brutality.
“It gets confusing because you see all of these hashtags and see all of these things out there and sometimes the people don’t know what to do,” Smollett says. “What if I can’t make it to the march? What can I do? So, it’s about making people aware of the different legislation that needs to be passed. All of this comes into play when it’s about getting out to vote. It’s also things that are part of the hashtag of #blacklivesmatter.”
Smollett felt the impact of the Laquan McDonald murder by Chicago police. With the show moving into its second year of filming in Chicago, he feels close to the city and believes the problems affect everyone.
“Empire makes a lot of money off of Chicago,” he says. “We have to help Chicago. Let’s do this. I live here; I’m a resident here. I’m not fully a Chicagoan, but I feel like I’m home when I’m here.”
He elaborated, “I wrote the lyrics in Powerful: ‘Mothers who bury their child, how can you sit there and hide? Change comes when we all take a stand. Stand up!’ We all have to stand up for each other – Blacks, Latinos, gays, Asians, Whites – everybody must stand up.”
Follow Mary L. Datcher: @globalmixx