One of Empire’s most prominent storylines, and most attesting to its ‘pave the way’ status, revolves around Jamal Lyon — played by openly gay Jussie Smollett. The gifted middle child of the Lyon dynasty, at the show’s outset he lives with his Venezuelan boyfriend in a loft paid for his by father, yet it’s his father’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” prejudice that has shamefully discouraged him from coming out of the closet. Jamal is arguably the most talented of his brothers, and the rightful heir to be entrusted his father’s King Lear-inspired estate, but following the lead of his ruthless mama Cookie he forgoes fraternal wishes to mould his name in the spotlight his own way.
In the show’s pilot, a flashback reveals the crux of Jamal’s upbringing. As a young boy he steps into a room wearing heels and a headscarf to naively show off to his parents; Lucious responds in homophobic slurs and stuffs his son in a trash can while a distressed Cookie tries to intervene. The flashback returns in episode 8, “The Lyon’s Roar”: performing at an industry gathering, Lucious wills Jamal to tell his truth in the music, advice that comes back to bite him when Jamal proceeds to officially come out by altering lyrics of the song. There is a time-out where the boyhood trauma is replayed — the screaming, the trash can’s lid closing to engulf baby Jamal in darkness — but once it’s washed over him he’s freed to soar back through the chorus and the enraptured crowd.
Lee Daniels told Out Magazine earlier this year: “I knew half of my family couldn’t afford HBO. The audience that is important for this show can’t afford HBO. I’m talking about people that are impoverished, or people that haven’t come out of their communities, or haven’t their blocks or cities, and haven’t seen the world. Oftentimes, a lot of these people are homophobic, I feel.”
In the hip hop community especially, save for success stories like Frank Ocean’s, homosexuality isn’t known to sell hip hop records. While hate is gradually letting up, queer identity remains a target in that facet of the music world. Empire’s depiction of Jamal’s struggle for acceptance from those around him is one of the show’s most relevant aspects and the epicentre of much of its emotional breakthrough. Here’s to a black gay man playing a lead on FOX’s most-watched show in years.