by Aitch Cee
Looking at Fox’s Empire, it had everything one could hope for in a hip-hop drama. It’s Fox’s highest rated new show in years even beating out Gotham. Some good music, some recognizable faces in Terence Howard, Taraji Henson, Malik Yoba, Gabourey Sibide, a cameo from Tasha Smith. Also there will be upcoming appearances of Cuba Gooding Jr., Macy Gray and Naomi Campbell. It had the glitz and the glamour but, with the images portrayed by the characters, and the lack of good Black dramas on television, is this show something we need right now?
The plot is very loosely based on King Lear and is closer to the 80’s venerable hit, Dynasty. Lucious Lyon (played by Howard) built a recording label of off drug money he and his wife Cookie got years before. As yet explained how, Cookie goes to jail and while in jail, Lucious raises their 3 sons to be a part of the business. Yet, Lucious needs a successor because he finds out he is dying. He feels that each of his sons are lacking in running the business. Andre business minded, he has no ear for music. Jamal, while talented, is gay and his father really has not accepted it. Hakeem is the youngest and the rising star but is easily malleable and least likely to be picked to be successor. Not to mention, Cookie is out of jail and wants her part of what she thinks she deserves and of course Lucious will not simply comply with her demands.
So all of this makes for good night time network TV but why do we not need this? First off, in my opinion, a lot of the content was stereotypical and negative. Furthermore, I may be one of few who says it, I am not a really big fan of Lee Daniels. Yes, the same guy that gave us a disturbing thriller in Shadowboxer, a throwaway Mariah Carey movie, and two Oscar winning movies in Precious and The Butler. Nothing against Daniels as he has made movies that has shown various sides of African-Americans in a light not often seen, it’s something about Empire that rubs me the wrong way. I think the very idea of Lucious’ business began from drug money is what unsettles me the most. Also the fact that there are some in his family willing to do whatever it takes to take power. Hip-hop and rap music has changed so much over the years. Is it too much to ask to see a Black man on TV making money and taking care of his family without killing someone for it? Why in this day and age are we still subjected to Black characters who are or come from gangsters? Black record artists have finally gained money and fame through very legitimate means by the way of hard work and putting time in to perfect their craft. Look at the successes of LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, Will Smith and a few other artists in Black music that have gone on to have successful careers from humble beginnings. I think with this show, the opportunity was lost to tell of a business being built from doing just that.
One thing that came up on the show is that approximately 75% of those listening to music pioneered by urban blacks are whites. If that number does hold true then the next question, I would ask is how many of them know the history of our music. How did it come about? How did some of these labels get built? Let’s be honest, hardly any of us listen to any music and research the history of what and who we are listening to. If it sounds good, that’s all we need. It’s the image of our music that has been a problem. The average non Black person already sees rap and hip hop music as something that ‘poor people’ listen to, music of drug hustlers, and that every little kid who lives in the ‘hood, is the next Great Rapper. So why bring this to network TV and continue perpetuating the image?
If you look at network TV, as opposed to just 10 years ago, you would be hard pressed to find any shows on with Black positive role models. If you wade through the glut of reality shows, the closest thing right now you have to a positive show is ABC’s Black-ish. Even if you look at Fox’s track record of shows, they had more positive shows in the 90s when they had Martin (your miles may vary with that though) Living Single, New York Undercover, Charles Dutton’s Rock, and In Living Color, one of the last Black variety shows. Since the 90’s and early 2000’s there have were fewer and fewer Black led dramas on and the majority was not on the Big 3 (ABC, CBS, and NBC). Sure we got a bone thrown to us in the form of The Bernie Mack Show, The Steve Harvey Show, and Everybody Hates Chris; all great sitcoms in their own right, but no dramas. Honestly, I probably could have gotten with Empire if this show had come out in the mid- 90s or early 2000s when we were more visible on the networks. But now at a point where we need more shows with strong positive role models, I feel like Empire is taking us further backwards. By the way, did anyone note the fact that Empire aired directly opposite of Black-ish? Thanks for dividing the audience, Fox!
Just to point out some of the stereotypes:
- As already mentioned, a business created from blood money
- Homophobia (which actually depending on how depicted, could be a good plotline)
- A dysfunction Black family with one parent serving time in jail
- The parents are divorced, hence part of the dysfunction
- Lazy friends who always needs money
- Other people looking for handouts
- When nothing else works, murder those people looking for said handouts
Whether people want to hear this or not, there are impressionable non-Black kids and young adults out there watching and think, that this may be the end all, be all to this culture and Black people. We would lie cheat and kill each other for music before we do it legitimately. Worst of all, is most non-Blacks watching would not bother to educate themselves to see how some of the modern millionaires in the music industry really got to where they are and let shows like this be their final answer. After watching, some would try to emulate what they saw and some with bad results. As said before, if reality TV hasn’t already deconstructed the positive image that Blacks were just gaining 20 short years ago, a show like this on network TV would do it. Of course, also what does it say to our young people? It’s ok to do what they see, because…well, “if you see it on TV, it mus be ok.” In today’s world where we constantly hear about young Black men and women being killed by police, an uncaring education system, an unbalanced legal system leading to an overcrowded prison system making money off of us, is it wrong to hope that we can get images of us that aren’t mirroring that portion of reality?
Empire makes me miss when we could see people that looked like me going to college, 2 parents doing well and not living in the ghetto, Black men who were gainfully employed and Black women who were seen as equals and running their own business. Mind you, I don’t have a problem seeing someone that looks like me on television being successful, it’s just when you consider the backstory of Empire, it just brings forth a negative image and leaves a bad after taste. It’s not just Blacks as well, remember the short lived Gang Related (also a Fox Network product) that targeted the Latino population and Tyrant (yet ANOTHER Fox show that aired on FX) that featured Middle Easterners and actually has been renewed. It’s sad to think that the only way a show about minorities can get greenlit is if you are a gangster, a dope dealer or a terrorist. So, sorry Mr. Daniels, you may have a good pedigree of movies but, I can’t sign on for your TV show specially knowing that a line of white producers are making money off of our exploits..