Fox’s dark new television series “Empire” has what’s expected of a soap opera set in the world of hip-hop. Power, sex, drugs and violence are among the key plot points, and there’s even original music (supervised by platinum hit maker Timbaland) for extra credibility.
Part Shakespearean drama, part musical — think “King Lear” meets “Dynasty” meets “Glee” — the show is sexy enough to draw viewers who aren’t necessarily fans of the music. But the series, which premieres Wednesday, makes its boldest statement with a single character — a gay one.
FOR THE RECORD
Jan 7, 2:30 a.m.: An earlier version of this article contained a photo caption that misidentified actor Bryshere Gray as Danny Strong.
LGBT story lines and characters on network prime time aren’t new, but for a show steeped in a genre that has a history of homophobia, “Empire” feels groundbreaking.
Created by Lee Daniels (“Precious”) and his writing partner, Danny Strong (“The Butler”), the show follows Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), who went from gangster to rapper to CEO of a successful music empire. After being diagnosed with a terminal illness, Lucious realizes one of his three sons must take over the company. Among his options are his business-savvy oldest, his budding rap star youngest and his middle child, Jamal, a talented singer-songwriter who has long been pushed aside in the family because of his sexuality.
Within the show’s first hour, hateful slurs are directed toward him, and in one flashback to Jamal’s childhood Lucious stuffs him into in a garbage can for prancing around in heels and a scarf. Those scenes are jarring and painful to watch — but also necessary.
In black culture, masculinity often begins and ends with heterosexuality, and homosexuality is often seen as a sinful aberration. For a show like “Empire” — whose cast is black and will likely attract a predominantly black audience — to feature a gay man who isn’t a stereotype or comic relief is bold enough in its own right. But seeing it on a hip-hop show makes the show feel like a game changer.
It’s unlikely that there’s a single black gay man who won’t be able to identify with Jamal, who’s portrayed by Jussie Smollett. He’s ignored by his father, haunted by his father’s abuse and is closest to his mother. Lucious refuses to acknowledge his son’s sexuality, telling him that “people may not appreciate” it, and dismisses his son’s boyfriend as his roommate.
Lucious may be an extreme caricature, but his views are still troublingly common in hip-hop. Although LGBT artists such as Sam Smith, Brandi Carlile and Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! are some of those making inroads in pop and rock music, hip-hop in particular lags behind in acts breaking into the mainstream.
Around this time last year I wrote about FX’s “Chozen,” an animated comedy about a gay white rapper that could have been a provocative skewering of the genre’s misogynist and homophobic ways. Instead, it offered a lazy array of tired and sophomoric gay jokes and lasted one season.
Not that there hasn’t been progress elsewhere. I can still remember getting emotional with Frank Ocean’s pointed letter on his sexuality, celebrating any time a gay rapper made an impact on pop culture (Big Freedia’s hit Fuse show and Le1f’s fiery debut on “Late Show With David Letterman” to name a few) and cheering when big names like Jay Z, Kanye West or ASAP Rocky spoke in support of equality.
But it’s hard not to wonder if hip-hop will ever change. It’s a genre powered by alpha-male mentality, where female emcees often need a male co-sign, and women are objectified or painted as gold-diggers and whores. Yes, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ hit “Same Love” was a landmark moment, but that’s just one song in a sea of foul missives directed at gays.
Imagine if a male pop star on the level of John Legend or Adam Levine used the word “faggot” as often as Eminem. It’s doubtful that he’d be revered. The fact rappers were asked whether they’d still work with Ocean after he revealed the Grammy-winning “Channel Orange” was inspired by unrequited feelings for a man shows the divide between pop and hip-hop.
The long-term impact of “Empire” has yet to be decided, but I’ve waited a lifetime to see a character like Jamal in prime time. A young black man powered by R&B and hip-hop who is unashamed of who he is and in a loving, same-sex relationship isn’t a revolutionary idea in the real world. But in the realm of television and radio, it could be.