Empire is going to be crazier this season.
That’s what one of the Fox show’s stars, Jussie Smollett, promises. That Empire will be much crazier than last season is a feat that sounds impossible, but Smollett swears the writers, actors and producers embraced the craziness challenge and kicked the drama up beyond a few notches, going for several stories high of drama.
Pearls will be clutched.
Gasps will be audible.
Mics will be dropped.
“Let me tell you something, season 2 is gonna make season 1 look like The Brady Bunch,” Smollett says in an interview with The Root. “Season 2 is a lot.”
In a wide-reaching interview, Smollett talks about everything, from Empire to his music career to his work as an activist. (“I believe that we’re all responsible. Jay Z is responsible just as Reese Witherspoon is responsible. Not one over the other.”) But as the new season kicks off Wednesday night, he knows what Empire fans want to hear—that the drama is back and will be wilder than ever.
“It’s just a lot,” he says, and despite the vagueness, it still sounds exciting. Anything could appear in that “a lot,” with Empire patriarch Lucious in prison; its matriarch, Cookie, on the hunt as always; and Smollett’s Jamal starting the season as both the head of Empire Records—and the head everyone is gunning for.
There will also be some tension between the fan-favorite duo—Cookie and Jamal—a pair some have called “America’s favorite couple.” That’s a title whose oedipal overtones mildly disturb Smollett (“I’d like America’s favorite duo instead of America’s favorite couple,” he insists). They start the season apart, but never fret, says Smollett. Those two have a real bond that goes beyond business squabbles.
“They’re kind of at odds in the beginning, but the great thing about Cookie and Jamal is that they will always find their way back to each other,” says Smollett. “You know because that’s a relationship between a mother and a son that is a type of relationship that is unbreakable. Not just because they’re mother and son but because of the type of mother and son that they are.
“People ain’t always going to agree with the decisions that Cookie makes or that Jamal makes,” he continues, “but, you know, I keep saying that they’re kind of like your homie that makes some bad decisions but you love them still and you just wait for them to get it right.”
A singer and songwriter, Smollett promises that he’ll have his own album of “good-ass music” out in 2016, but for now, his main priority is Empire. He admits he has little time for anything else.
“When I tell you that there’s barely time to go and pee, that’s not an overexaggeration,” he says.
But Smollett is fine with letting Jamal’s music take center stage at the moment.
“I still feel like Jamal’s music is my music because I have such a huge input on the music and I’m still writing some on season 2 and I’m the vocalist. So that right there, in many ways, Jamal’s music is my music,” he says. “But my personal album will be coming out definitely in 2016.”
Along with being an actor, singer and songwriter, Smollett is also an activist. This spring he participated in the March2Justice by Justice League NYC in Washington, D.C. The march was meant to bring awareness to the fight against police brutality. Smollett credits his mother with teaching him the importance of giving back.
“My mother gave us many choices growing up, but the two choices that we did not have in life was whether or not we [the siblings] love each other, and whether or not we were socially active or activists,” he says. “My mother grew up a civil rights activist and she marched with the Black Panthers and Angela Davis. And Angela Davis is still one of her really, really close friends.”
As an activist, Smollett has worked in the past with Artists for a New South Africa and has raised funds for children affected by HIV/AIDS in both the United States and South Africa. He’s worked with famed actor and activist Harry Belafonte’s Sankofa, and he’s been working with the Black AIDS Institute since he was 16.
“I'm a firm believer that you don’t need a TV show or a hit song or something like that or followers or something like that to change the world or change the community,” Smollett says.
As an emerging star, Smollett says he’s had people tell him to hold off on being so politically active, but he didn’t listen. He says, “I wouldn’t be the person that I am if I did not [speak up] and I don’t think that everybody’s journey is the same, but this is my journey and I’m meant to say something. I’m meant to speak up, and if I can give a voice to the voiceless, then why wouldn’t I? If millions of people are listening to what you’re saying, shouldn’t you say something worth hearing?”
Smollett believes that artists have a duty not just to the communities that support them but also to society as a whole.
“I don’t expect Jay Z to stand up for police brutality any more than I expect Reese Witherspoon to stand up for police brutality. I expect everybody to stand up. Why? Because it’s wrong,” Smollett says. “We have a responsibility to the communities that we are a part of, but we have a responsibility to the world to speak out when something is bad.
“I am not a woman, but guess what? If I see a female being abused, I’m going to speak up and speak out. Why wouldn’t I?” he continues. “I’m not a child, but if I see a child being abused, I’m going to step up. I’m going to speak out. I’m going to try my best to protect that child. So you tell me why somebody has to be part of a community in order to understand that this is wrong and has to stop, period?
“But as artists, I do believe that we have a responsibility to say something worth something,” he adds. “Like, my God, we are so blessed to be able to work and make a living and make a living doing what we love to do. How dare us not step up? It is our job as tenants of the earth.”