What happens when you combine a Shakespearean play with a soap opera, and sprinkle in a few musical numbers that would even put the cast of “Glee” to shame?: “Empire.” While the Fox drama is only on its second season, the show has become an instant hit in the past couple of years, with viewers setting record numbers and social media blazing every Wednesday night. With its outlandish plot twists, surprisingly catchy music, and a cast led by Hollywood notables – Taraji P. Henson and Terrance Howard – the show has not only become part of a larger, ongoing conversation about diversity on TV, but provides significant meaning in the realm of popular culture.
Considering producer, Lee Daniels, and his former works such as “The Butler” and “Precious,” there is no surprise that the statements and messages surrounding the TV series would strike a chord with the Black community – whether it is positive or negative. For many, “Empire” presents an accurate representation of reality, replicating the Black experience in a mediated fashion. But others would say that the show causes more damage to the Black community, in that it simply exploits Black stereotypes for the sake of entertainment. While there is no denying that “Empire” does indeed load its episodes with stereotypes, making its characters represent cultural archetypes that can stretch back to the era of Minstrelsies – “Empire” is much more than its collection of conventions and “coonery.” Since its airing, “Empire” has continuously broken down Black stereotypes, and in doing so, presents itself as a cultural statement for the Black community. And well, this is why every I can proudly say that “Empire” is one of the best shows of this decade!
For those who don’t tune in, the show follows Lucious Lyon, who went from hustling as a gangster rapper, to becoming CEO of a successful music empire, Lyon Dynasty. After being diagnosed terminally with ALS, Lucious realizes that one of his three sons must take over the company when he pasts. Among his options are his business-savvy oldest, his talented singer-songwriter in the middle, and the young promising rap star. As expected, drama and complications arise as Lucious must decide who is best to take the reins and continue his legacy.
From this basis, audiences are given a particular image of Lucious. Embodying a common idea that circulates in the Black community, this character emphasis that music – more specifically hip-hop – can be some sort of a savior. If you are down on your luck or struggling with life, a great way out of this struggle is to simply make it big in the music industry. As time has proven, whether it is for personal or even political reasons, hip-hop holds great meaning to the Black community. As seen as early in the ’70s and ’80s, hip-hop was used as a tool to communicate the woes and sufferings of individuals, and at times even capitalized on injustices persisting in communities. For instance, the rap group NWA and their classic “F*** Tha Police” was not only poignant for its entertaining beats and flow, but the song carried a message and meaning that represented the tumultuous relationship between Blacks and authority figures during the 90s. Hip-hop told the narratives and stories of the Black experience. Hip-hop served as a voice for Blacks when words and protest weren’t enough. We often see this significant power that hip-hop holds working in the lives of rappers today. Take for instace Jay Z. Said to be the inspiration behind the character of Lucious, Jay Z’s life has taken him from being a drug dealer in the ghettos of New York, to being CEO of Roc-A-Fella Records. Plus, he made a family with Beyonce – proving even more that dedicating your life to the hip-hop game can be substantially lucrative.
But contrastingly, while Empire does present Lucious as someone who has been at the bottom, finding a way to the top – the view at the top of Lucious’ world is not that pretty. Coming up the ladder in the hip-hop industry and the effort it takes to remain there has cost Lucious a lot. Money has been lost, friends have been shady, and even family has had to be “dealt with” in order to keep the empire afloat. Making a life in the music industry is no easy task, and at times, you must make tough, dire and unethical decisions. Rather than being the all-around good guy audiences root for, as a protagonist, Lucious radiates complete ruthlessness, and at times – pure evil. But it is essentially through this character that the show has taken the common stereotype and idea that hip-hop is the only ideal way for Blacks to be successful or become something in life, and has given audiences a darker reality to this fairy tale. The average glorified and thrilling story of pimps, whores, drug dealers and gangsters is not as easy and casual as it may seem. And while the fame and glory may seem beneficial and worth the risk, Lucious shows audiences, even for a Black man, the music industry is no straight-forward, glamorous walk in the park.
Next, much backlash has centered on the lead female character of the show, Cookie Lyon. Portrayed as an in-your-face matriarch, Cookie has spent 17 years in prison – taking the blame for a drug deal gone bad so that her then husband, Luscious, could build his career and provide for their struggling family. When audiences meet Cookie for the first time, she is just released from prison and goes to Lucious, aggressively pleading for her shared of the company that she essentially helped to establish.
While an undeniable favorite among fans, for some, Cookie is the embodiment of all Black stereotypes women face on TV today. Dressed flamboyantly in skin-tight clothing, floor-length furs, and rainbow colored nails, Cookie is quick tempered, loud, and prepared to get physical at a moment’s notice. She beats her youngest son with a broom when he disrespects her and unapologetically uses the derogatory three-letter F-word when referring to her homosexual son.
But even with her antics, this twisted motherly love is what helps keep Cookie from simply being a stereotypical angry Black woman. Cookie may make rash decisions or say seemingly inappropriate things, but her heart is always in the right place. Family means to a lot to her and she will do just about anything to ensure their well-being. Subsequently, Cookie’s character presents an ethical dilemma on the show. While she may do unlawful things and come across as rude, ethically, her actions are justified because she does these things to benefit of her family.
Fleshing out another character that was destined to be merely a stereotype, after some episodes, Empire has proved that Cookie and Lucious’ oldest son, is not quite what he may seem. Ivy league-educated Andre Lyon, is the picture of a clean-cut businessman, with a White wife and very few connections to Black culture. In terms of archetypes, he would be considered the Uncle Tom-type character, seeking approval and showing more dedication to Whites than Blacks. But as the show progresses, episodes display Andre struggling with bipolar disorder, moving him from being the out of touch, villain-esque character, to something more complex. Viewers see that his wife has stuck by him through past mental issues, deflating misconceptions about the emptiness of interracial marriage. Andre promotes the discussion of mental health within the Black community. Often considered an issue only familiar to White individuals, Andre’s character dives into the taboo of mental health pertaining to Blacks. Audiences see how the issue not only effects Andre personally, but his family, and eventually their company as a whole. Essentially, Andre is not your typical flat character – easy to discern and predict. But he is an ever-developing, multi-dimensional character that provokes new and insightful though – especially for the Black community.
One more character worth mentioning would have to be Jamal Lyon. While LGBT story lines and characters may be nothing new to television, on a show like Empire – where a majority of the cast is Black and so is the audience – this is almost groundbreaking. Ask anyone who watches the show, and they will forever remember the moving scene where Jamal is place in garbage can by his father Lucious. This twisted act was meant to be a punishment for a young Jamal after he was caught prancing in his mother’s accessories. And as painful or harsh as the scene may seem, it is completely necessary.
In the Black community, while there has been a slow progressive acceptance for LGBT rights and issues, homosexuality is still unwelcome in that there is a great fear it diminishes masculinity. But the way in which this fear is presented not only in a Black television series, but a series centered around the hip-hop industry is a complete game changer. Homophobia runs rampant in the hip-hop industry. Hip-hop is an alpha-male world and for an openly gay man to strive for success in this field – there are consequences and backlash sure to follow. Remember the Frank Ocean hoopla?! But rather than your typical comedic relief or cheeky sidekick, “Empire” gives us a homosexual character who can quite hold his own. From rap battles to nearly throwing mobsters off the top of buildings – Jamal has proven that while he may be unapologetically gay, he is quite the masculine manly-man, prepared to lay down the law at moment’s notice. And to have this all happen on series targeted towards a Black audience is without a doubt, revolutionary.
Despite the fact that “Empire” does depends on stereotypes and recognizable archetypes to get viewers’ attention, it simultaneously tears them down – proving that in the world of “Empire,” music, family, and power and much more than they may seem. “Empire” uses old narratives to introduce to audiences to something new. And that essentially is