“If you told me last year that I would be performing at the Billboard Music Awards, I would have called you a liar,” says Bryshere Gray, 21, whose turn as Hakeem Lyon on Empire has changed his life. “A year ago, I’m in a studio in a basement with no money trying to figure out how I’m going to make it. And now to be in the studio with Timbaland and performing here? This is amazing!”
It’s Friday afternoon and Gray, his castmember Jussie Smollett (who plays gay singer-songwriter Jamal Lyon on the show) and British singer-songwriter Estelle are rehearsing at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas for the award show, which airs tonight at 5 p.m. Gray and Smollett will perform “You’re So Beautiful,” and Estelle and Smollett will sing “Conqueror.” Smollett, who recently confirmed that he was gay in an interview with Ellen DeGeneres, seems far from rattled; he playfully dances with Estelle, causing her to break into laughter midway through her performance.
The swift success of Empire, which also stars Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson and centers around a family-owned record label, drew an astounding 16.7 million viewers for its finale and had the best first season viewership for any broadcast since Grey’s Anatomy in 2005. Its success spawned a chart-topping soundtrack with the singles “You’re So Beautiful” and breathed new life into Estelle’s “Conqueror,” which was originally featured on her album True Romance.
“Ten years ago, they might have said a black show might not last, but it doesn’t mean that it would not have,” Smollett says. “People of all races, cultures and religions want to see people that look like them and that don’t look like them. We don’t want to see a world that consists of one color because that’s not the world that we live in. It’s a reality of our times and it should have happened a long time ago but I am happy it’s here today.”
After such a successful debut year, there are many questions heading into the next seasion. With Lucious Lyon (Howard) behind bars in the finale, how will the family handle the fallout? The crew remains tight-lipped about Season Two, which begins filming in June and premieres this fall. Smollett has stated in numerous interviews that Season Two’s arc will make Season One “look like The Brady Bunch.”
When asked to elaborate, a sly grin stretches across his face. “I’ve heard some things…end of quote,” the 31-year-old says. When pressed again, he pauses. “I am impressed, intrigued and shocked and extremely turned on by the story. It’s setting my soul on fire.”
Among the names confirmed for Season Two appearances are Alicia Keys, Chris Rock, Lenny Kravitz and Ne-Yo. Supermodel Naomi Campbell will also make a return, to the delight of Gray, who got intimate onscreen with the supermodel more than twice his age (44).
“My mom ain’t that far from her age, so of course she was taken aback a little from it,” Gray, who also raps under the moniker Yazz the Greatest, says with a laugh. Both Estelle and Smollett burst into laughter at the question. “I was blown away by the chance to work with [Campbell] on Empire. She’s a beautiful person and a great spirit.”
As for Estelle, she won’t confirm that she will be back for Season Two. “I think so,” she says. “Remember, I just signed to Empire Records.”
Smollett says the second season will ramp up the focus on serious issues. “It really is just a good time all around,” he says about the run. “But there are some really f—ed up things going on in the world today, and we’re able to tap into those issues.
“I’ve always used my platform to inspire,” he adds. Sollett participated in April’s March 2 Justice in Washington, D.C. and has been a vocal activist against police brutality. “I don’t believe you need a TV show with millions of viewers to make a change.”
Gray also has used his newfound platform for social causes. “My thing was to go to juvenile detention centers and high schools in my offseason to give back and talk to the kids,” he says.
Estelle, 35, mentions her foundation All Of Me, which mentors children and helps them get into college. “My thing isn’t to just sit here and say that I’m famous; I have to give back to my community,” she adds. “It’s so tempting to take your lot and just be happy with it, but it’s about my integrity and what happens when this career is done. I want to sit down and know that I gave back and helped someone while I was in this industry.”
Smollett closes with a thought that all three seem to agree on. “If a million people are listening,” he asks, “shouldn’t you say something that’s worth listening to?”