Tonight when Empire premieres on Fox, viewers will meet the Lyon family. Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is the CEO of Empire Entertainment, a record label he’s worked hard to create from the ground-up. But Lucious has a disease that is going to leave him unable to keep his position at the top, and now he has to choose one of his three sons to take over. His sons Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), Jamal (Jussie Smollett), and Andre (Trai Byers) all have issues of their own, and things get even more complicated when Lucious’s ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) gets released from prison and demands her piece of the pie.
Created by out Precious filmmaker Lee Daniels and executive produced by The L Word‘s Ilene Chaiken, Empire is a show about hip-hop, the black community and, also, sexual identity. One of the main storylines follows Jamal, Lucious’s gay son who is also a musical prodigy. His homosexuality “infuriates and embarrasses” his father, but things play out over the season’s 12 episodes that might indicate he could be the best man to take over Empire.
“Lee Daniels, I think, both infuses the show with [queerness],” Ilene Chaiken said at the Empire premiere party in Los Angeles. “And he and [writer] Danny [Strong] both said it was a mission of the show. One of the first things they said to me, is that Jamal’s storyline is really central to the show and in their minds one of the most important stories they’re telling. So that’s the overt gay story: The story about homophobia in the black community and it’s particularly a male story. But beyond that story and in addition to that story, it’s a world in which diversity, sexuality is just infused and we won’t tell every story that our lives encounter.”
Out actresses AzMarie Livingston and Raven-Symoné also play roles on the show and Ilene hints at a future female-focused storyline, but won’t give away any spoilers. She does say AzMarie’s character, Chicken, is queer.
“Chicken is the toughest, hardest, most loyal one of their group,” AzMarie says of her role. “She’s Hakeem’s best friend and she’s very loyal to the Lyon family.”
Chicken is a DJ when we meet her in episode 2, but that could change, according to AzMarie.
“I can’t tell you what Chicken’s doing as far as music just yet,” she said. But as a musician in her real life (she released an EP called Hip Pop Melodic Poetry last year), she hopes to perform some if the show is picked up for a second season.
“Everything is all Timbaland’s original music. I haven’t had the pleasure yet to get my hands and voice on his tracks,” AzMarie said.
Chicken is part of eight episodes, so a sizable chunk, but AzMarie says she does not have any interaction with Raven on the show.
What’s most exciting about Empire is their dedication to including out actors on the show, a testament to the out creator, producers and writers, and the network, too. Fox is putting a lot of energy, money and star power into the show, and there being so much focus on homophobia within the black community is something that can change people’s ideas of what it means to be gay. Rarely are topics of homosexuality within hip-hop delved into in this way, and with such heart and depth.
Ilene Chaiken with Raven-Symoné
Ilene says she thinks the story of Jamal is something we’ve never seen on television, and rarely in “popular entertainment.”
“It’s a powerful story. I’m hopeful, I’m excited about that story,” she said. “I really do think that in addition to being great drama and great entertainment, it’s one of those portrayals that’s going to change hearts and minds. I’ve seen it already. I’ve watched audiences watch this show. I’ve watched straight men, who if they heard what the story was about, recoiled from it, watch the show and come away and say, I’m really into that character. I get it. He’s really awesome.'”
Since premiering The L Word more than a decade ago, Ilene says she’s also happy to see how much things have changed for queer women on television, although she also notes she doesn’t have much time to watch TV.
“I see that the culture has moved forward,” she said, “and that’s a great thing.”
Empire premieres tonight on Fox.