Empire only aired for eight weeks, but in those weeks, it earned the highest ratings of a TV show in years and made instant stars out of its previously mostly unknown actors including Jussie Smollett who plays Jamal Lyon and Bryshere “Yazz” Gray who plays Hakeem.
The two actor/musicians are part of the new Empire soundtrack, which has also set records as one of the first TV soundtracks to go to #1 on iTunes. Smollett and Gray may be new to you, but they are not new to entertainment. Smollett is part of the acting family that includes sister Jurnee (Friday Night Lights, The Great Debaters) and Gray was a Philadelphia based rapper before the show.
Though Empire was just introduced to the world over a month ago, it’s been in the works for a while. The two say they started shooting in Chicago over a year ago.
Philadelphia-based Gray says he is from the same West Philadelphia neighborhood that Empire creator Lee Daniels is from.
“I was just trying to build a fan base,” says Gray. “I was performing at school and aggressively building a fan base from the girls and the older cougars.”
On the show, Gray plays a young rapper whose character has a thing for older women, so there’s a case of life imitating art. Or art imitating life.
Gray and Smollett say they’d like to be referred to by their real names, not their character’s names, even though they get approached all the time as Hakeem and Jamal.
“My mother did name me Jussie Smollett. I don’t get upset at all but it’s still the early stages,” says Smollett. “But it could have been like last year, when nobody was calling us a damn thing.”
“But don’t get mad at what Hakeem and Jamal did on Empire and then come up to me…” says Gray.
Smollett and Gray are not currently planning to tour because they are recording and getting back to work on the Empire set, which may mean the show will return before next year, as has been rumored. Reportedly, Fox wants to take advantage of the show’s huge ratings sooner than later instead of waiting almost a year to pick back up.
One of the big songs on the soundtrack is “Conqueror” featuring Estelle and Jussie.