By Tav Nyong’o
In Adorno’s notorious critique of jazz, he consigned the efforts of black musicians to a quixotic struggle against racial capitalism. “With jazz,” he wrote in 1936, “a disenfranchised subjectivity plunges from the commodity world into the commodity world; the system does not allow for a way out.” This double-bind of the commercial black artist remained on full display during the pilot episode of Empire, black gay director Lee Daniel’s new foray into episodic network television.
A primetime melodrama about making it in today’s music business, Empire is also a test of the ongoing viability of a mainstream show about black people. As an entertainment about the entertainment business, Empire is more interested in finding a way into the system than imagining a way out. So why was I gripped to my seat for every soapy, cliché-riddled plot twist?
An opening scene from Empire demonstrates that, wrong as Adorno was on the aesthetic merits of black music, he remains disturbingly prescient about the structures of racism and exploitation within which it continues to get made. In the studio, Lucious listens dissatisfied to a singer deliver a ballad. He demands take after take before finally telling her to sing as if she were singing to her brother who has been shot and killed. When that trauma finally triggers the soulful vocal he was listening for, Lucious grins at the sound of a hit. Black suffering and death, yet again, is spun into commercial gold.
The premise of Empire revolves around Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard, in his usual mode of unintentional Brechtian acting), rapper turned music label head, who has just been given a fatal medical diagnosis, and deliberately sets into motion a war of succession among his three sons. His plans are upended by the unexpected release from prison of his ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson in a scenery-chewing, scene-stealing role), who took the fall for the drug deal that gave Lucious his original start-up capital, and has come back for her dues. This is the kind of over-the-top material is catnip for a director like Daniels. If it therefore invites filing under “guilty pleasure” for the rest of us, the inclusion of a gay character among the principle cast remains a novel enough premise to keep queer viewers skeptically engaged.
Lucious’ gay son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is what the mainstream press would like to call “non-stereotypical,” and what a more critical queer studies vocabulary would term “homonormative.” Neither an effeminate nor a homo thug living “on the down low,” Jamal would hardly be out of place among the cast of HBO’s Looking. That he is a talented musician (portrayed by an actual singer Smollett) lends his character a timely pathos. On the one hand, his father’s homophobia keeps him out of the spotlight that would otherwise seem to be his birthright. On the other, being out of spotlight spares him the fate of black masculine hypervisibility that his straight brother Hakeem seems consigned to. Homophobia forces him to the margins, but that is where the music is.
Black suffering is also at the center of a later dramatic scene, this one from Jamal’s childhood when the family still lived in the ghetto. In flashback, we see a thuggish Lucious dump Jamal in a trash can for daring to dress up his mother’s pumps and headscarf. Based on an experience from Daniels’ own childhood, this trauma is replayed over a scene of the now-adult Jamal performing “Good Enough,” a plaintive ballad addressed to his punishing superego, the father figure who will never be proud of him no matter how hard he tries. As his mother Cookie watches in the wings, Jamal stages the drama of “the best little boy in the world,” the angst of the black queer son whose overachievement serves as compensation for the paternal love he will never receive.
Can upwardly-mobile black queer sons and daughters like Jamal escape this “good enough” life? That is the unasked question behind this scene of black homonormative striving. The Lyons are, after all, remarkably functional as a kinship unit, despite all the melodramatic stigma of prison, crime, violence, and addiction that surround them. The incongruity of soapy drama like this lies in the fantasy we cling to as an audience that even people as rich, talented, and attractive as Jamal and his family nevertheless face the same demons as we do. The good life is really just the never good enough life.
Wouldn’t Jamal be happier without his father’s approval, without celebrity, without a corporation to run? What if the one thing he can’t have, full social acceptance, is the last thing he actually needs?
Theodor Adorno, “On Jazz” in Essays on Music Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2002.