That was the first thing Jussie Smollett told the sold-out Troubadour in West Hollywood on Saturday night when he walked onstage. The show was the R&B singer and “Empire” actor’s first public appearance since he reported to Chicago police a vicious attack that authorities are investigating as a possible hate crime.
“I’m not fully healed yet, but I’m going to,” Smollett said, fighting back tears as he addressed the crowd. “I’m gonna stand strong with y’all. I had to be here tonight. I couldn’t let those [attackers] win. I will always stand for love.”
With that, the room burst into cheers, and Smollett took his voice back.
Family, friends and fans in the audience were profoundly moved by Smollett’s resilience in performing just days after the incident, in which two people allegedly approached the 36-year-old actor and musician while yelling racist and homophobic slurs.
Before Smollett took the stage, his siblings surrounded the microphone to give a brief statement, where Joel Smollett Jr. said, “As his big brother, I wanted Jussie to sit this one out… but tonight is an important part of Jussie’s healing. He’s been a fighter since he was a baby … But above all else, he is the epitome of love.”
In the audience, many fans said they felt a personal obligation to be there and stand up for Smollett and the communities — black, gay, artistic — that he represents.
The news of the assault “was gut-wrenching to hear, in this day and age. It was a sobering reminder of hate,” said Carrington Bester of Los Angeles. “It was important to be here to support him. This speaks to his integrity and commitment to his art.”
Jametta Bailey-Hailey, who traveled from Springfield, Mass., for the show, said, “I called my mother and literally cried” after hearing news of the attack. For every step forward in the fight against racism and homophobia, Bailey-Hailey said, “it’s like we’re walking five steps back.”
But, Bailey-Hailey added, Smollett’s grit and commitment to music was a glimmer of hope. “We stand with him, nothing’s going to stop him.”
Smollett looked determined not to let the attack define his performance. He did open with a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” as apropos a statement as he could have made. But he danced and sang with genuine joy as he performed songs like “HaHa (I Love You)” and “Heavy,” a centerpiece of his “Empire” performance that, he admitted, “kinda has a new meaning to me.”
On “Need Freedom,” he drew lyrical connections between what happened to him and a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., as well as the racial tensions that led to numerous protests in Ferguson, Mo., and the police-shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
But most of the set turned the ballads and club cuts from his “Empire” and solo work, such as “Insecurities” and “Conqueror,” into implicit assertions of his own resilience.
He even cracked a few wry jokes about the experience. After telling his story about trying to fight off his attackers, he grinned and said, “I’m the gay Tupac.”
More earnestly, he said that he owed his self-confidence to the example set by the pioneering gay television actor Wilson Cruz (who was in the crowd on Saturday), and artistic north stars like Alvin Ailey and James Baldwin.
Just by being onstage at this moment, Smollett was illustrating how he would do more than just survive this incident. He would use this grim reminder of American culture’s violence as a means for his own resistance.
On the Troubadour stage, he told the crowd in sharp language that he “fought the … back” against his assailants. But in the end, he dedicated his set to keeping up optimism and kindness, even when one can face such visceral, physical hate.
“This hateful rhetoric that gets passed around, it has to stop,” he said. “I’ve been guilty of it too. We who celebrate love can get wrapped up in so much hate. It’s not that we become hateful, but it waters down our love. We can’t let that happen.”