Justin ‘Jussie’ Smollett aka Jamal Lyon is a busy human being, especially during these past three years — acting, writing songs and singing those songs on Fox’s popular drama, Empire.
After winning an NAACP Image award earlier this year for his role in it, it’s pretty clear that he is having a good year.
Little did we know, that the California-native was to set foot on our shores to shoot a music video for the first single from his upcoming debut album.
He plays a middle gay son of drug-dealer turned hip-hop mogul, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) and ex-wife Cookie Lyon (Taraji Penda Henson.) He is a brother to Andre (Trai Byers) and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray).
Although Jamal excels at both song-writing and singing, his father’s rejection of his sexuality burdens him and severely hinders his chances of inheriting this huge empire that his father built for himself and his family.
Lucious always chastised Jamal for his sexuality from when he was still a child. Remember when he stuffed kid Jamal in the bin after parading in stilettos? Growing up without his mother, the only person who accepts and loves him for exactly who he is, had a significant impact on him. His life isn’t at all peaches and cream but he is strong and stays true to himself through it all.
Justin is just as true to himself, multifaceted and passionate about the work that he does, about matters of national importance and the social issues that literally affect the lives of his people and every other marginalised groups.
He says that people who have millions of people listening to them, should say something worth hearing.
‘You can’t just be happy to fill your pocket. Something has to have substance otherwise we would fail as people.’
Growing up to artists such as Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson and all the other artists that sucker-punch you by putting their message into their music and actually make you notice and think, continue to inspire him.
‘That’s how you get to people. Kendrick Lamar says on ‘Humble’, “show me something natural like afro and stretch marks”, this is the type of stuff that we need to hear more of.’
GQ caught up with Smollett at one of Cape Town’s beautiful hotels. Right from the moment I walked inside the room, he makes a joke and does an introduction accompanied by a hug and a smile.
He is colourful, simple, kind, humble, funny AF and a straight-talker that calls out bullshit for what it really is. The coconut oil advocate, (and before you ask, yes he oils up his afro with it) is an overall tremendous person to have a conversation with.
GQ: Describe Empire and briefly explain, what about the show inspired you to be part of it?
Jussie Smollett: Empire is dramatic, glamorous, over the top but on the surface, it’s just a show about family. A show about a family trying to make things work as best as they can. Circumstances keep screwing things up as we all can identify with in real life, you know, just trying to make things better but just end up screwing it all up in the process. My older sister [Jazz Smollett] told me about it in a family message thread. It was an announcement about the show. It said, ‘Lee Daniels and Danny Strong are going to do a hip-hop musical show.’ I hit up my manager and I asked him why am I not part of this. So, I slid into Lee Daniels DMs on Instagram…
GQ: Wait… you slid right in there? Like, you’re that guy?
JS: I slid right into the DMs and I said ‘Mr Daniels, I know you get this all the time but I am an actor, I am a musician and a dancer — I am Jamal Lyon.’ And he wrote me back saying casting will be in touch. He is too cool to say anything else. What’s funny is, I didn’t even think he would respond, what I was trying to do was to try and get his attention. At that point, I had never ever sent a DM in my life.
GQ: Never, ever?
JS: (Laughs) I swear to you, never. I mean, back then it wasn’t even popularly known as a DM. But yeah so, the night before the audition, I had already got the audition btw, but that is when I received his response. I did the audition, sang Lauren Hill’s ‘X-Factor’ and seven auditions later, I got the role.
GQ: You worked in the industry prior to this show but would you say that being cast in Empire was a defining moment for your acting career?
JS: OMG, of course, absolutely! I mean, I am so grateful for this opportunity. I would not be able to sit across beautiful people like you and beautiful places like South Africa and talk about all this stuff I am talking to you about if it wasn’t for Empire. It’s changed my life in a way that is unexplainable. It’s pretty obvious what it’s done for my career thus far but it really just given me a platform to talk about the real issues that I care about and the social issues that I care about. And for that, I will forever be grateful to Empire no matter what happens to the show.
GQ: Speaking of important and social issues, you held a conference in Johannesburg last week and you said Trump can kiss your black ass. Can you elaborate on that?
JS: Fuck Trump! I respect the office of the Presidency of the United States very much but I don’t respect the man that’s in that office and I don’t think that he deserves respect or love because he spews hate and he operates off of people’s fears and insecurities. I think that, that is the worst type of person to have a role of leadership. I hope he won’t be a president for long but we’ll see.
GQ: Going back to your role on Empire, do you identify with Jamal Lyon at all?
JS: You know what I really identify with, with Jamal, I know that people are going to think I would say something else but it’s really his heart and his sense of loyalty. I think that it’s obvious Jamal is the one person who has never gone against his family, Cookie done gone against her family, Lucious did, Andre damn well did and Hakeem has too but Jamal never did. He is loyal through and through to a fault, I am too. Although, I personally don’t think there’s such a thing as being loyal to a fault because I’m loyal but I’m not stupid and I’m not going to let you take advantage of me. Prince said it best, he said: ‘You play me, you play yourself.’ Everything about me is debatable, my talent, my looks, my style but my heart is pure, it operates from a place of love.
GQ: You won an award for Outstanding Supporting Actor at this year’s Image Awards for your role, what does this mean to you?
JS: It was my first acting award, so it was really special. I won nine Image Awards for music, those were the first music awards that I won. (this is all said through a gleeful smile) You know, it feels really good to be recognised and acknowledged by your peers, but to be acknowledged by NAACP Image awards means a great deal to me because it’s almost like being acknowledged by your elders. This stuff is not easy, it gets really really hard — the scrutiny, the questions about your life, love life and your career, it can get intrusive. But receiving the award felt like a push to keep on doing good, not just because of the award, but the love in the room when receiving the award. I don’t take that lightly and I certainly don’t take NAACP lightly.
GQ: Listen, to be honest with you, the songs from Empire, ‘Conquerer’, ‘Powerful’, ‘You’re So Beautiful’ and ‘Good Enough’ made me cry. Everything that each song stands for, is incredibly powerful and triggering. But which song is your favourite from the show and why?
JS: ‘Need Freedom’. It was written at a point where I just felt like we could not breathe, there was just like one after the other after the other. And I know that it happens all the time but it was like nine days span, first the slaughter at Pulse in Orlando, Alton Sterling, Orlando Castile and we were just like what the fuck is happening? We are being attacked! How many hashtags can we have and how can we make sure that our children, babies and future leaders do not get desensitised because with social media you can also become desensitised. Every single day there’s something new to post about, something else to care about and the last hashtag from the last day is no longer important because there’s a new hashtag. Rodney Jerkins [Darkchild] and his team brought me this song and it was so magical and it felt like a Marvin Gaye song. I pinned the whole part about my heart cries out for Orlando and all the names of Alton and others. It was important to me to just honour them as much as we could.
GQ: You’re currently working on your debut album, what can we expect from it? And you’re actually here to shoot a music video for your first single ‘Hurt People’.
JS: The single is coming out on January 5th. I’m flying back to Johannesburg tomorrow [Wednesday], to shoot the video on Thursday and Friday. I’m so excited and so proud. The album is called The Sum Of My Music. For so long, I’ve been singing songs that I love, so many songs that I’ve written myself and co-written are for Empire but those were very literal to Jamal’s experiences. It’s nice sometimes to hide your insecurities by hiding behind another character but this is like being naked on the stage and me saying ‘this is me, all me and these are my stories.’ It’s a ten track album, it’s simple, to the point and really about love, all different elements of love.
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