Prizm News / July 1, 2018 / By Chris Azzopardi
The actor-activist talks about defying Hollywood’s limits, using his voice for good, and Pride past and present.
By Chris Azzopardi
Really, aside from a fame-catapulting role on “Empire” and a dreamy croon so velvety you could rest your head on it at night, Jussie Smollett is just like you.
Or was. He remembers going to Pride. All the rainbows and fiery ex-boyfriend drama.
These days, the 35-year-old actor and singer has shown up (to Long Beach Pride in May
and Milwaukee Pride in June) as singer Smollett, with swoon-worthy songs from his recently released debut, a contemporary R&B collection called “Sum of My Music.”
It’s as thoughtful as it is overdue, put on the shelf for years because he was too busy diversifying TV. As out musician Jamal Lyon on the Fox drama, “Empire,” Smollett has crashed TV’s straight cis white party by bringing a positive depiction of a gay black man to your living room since the series premiered in 2015.
How have your life experiences shaped this album?
“Sum of My Music” is the totality, pretty much, of what I’ve been dealing with over the last couple of years. The things with love, the things with my own personal insecurities, and the insecurities others put on you. And I write about my jealousy!
You gotta work it out.
I gotta work it out. I talk about a lot of personal things, and I’ve been singing (“Empire”) soundtracks for a couple of years now, and I’m so connected to the songs that I sing. I’ve written, like, half of the songs that I sing on the show, but it’s nice to be able to hide behind my own stories and my own lyrics that are just for me.
You’ve been in showbiz since you were a kid. As a gay black man, what challenges have you faced in Hollywood?
Umm (long pause). You know, I’d like to… let me think about it. I’ve been so focused on creating my own projects, honest to God. That’s really the message that I’m trying to get out there as much as possible: to create your own pieces, your own projects. Granted, I’m a businessman, but I kind of don’t pay attention to anything except trying to create with my people for my people. … I’m not interested anymore in convincing anybody that I’m valid enough or my stories are valid enough to tell.
But, of course there are challenges to being openly black (laughs) and openly gay. At
the same time, what else am I supposed to do? This is who I am. Am I supposed to, in 2018, not live my life now for a role? I have to just keep it moving, and I have to create with people. This is why I’m an executive producer on “Giants,” which is on (“Insecure” producer and actress) Issa Rae’s YouTube channel. It deals with everything from mental illness to homosexuality and everything in between.
From what I’ve heard, you cry when you perform “Freedom,” off the new album.
I can’t help it.
What is it about that song that gets you emotional?
There’s one particular part where I’m like, (sings) “and I don’t care what they say, ’cause I know who we are to each other.” I cry every single time. And maybe it’s because I have to push really hard for that note! Or maybe it’s just that it reminds me of how precious love is. And it reminds me of that idea of, I just, I want to love.
And I think to me that’s why I put Tika (Sumpter) and Cynthia (Erivo) in the video
I directed for (the song) and they played lovers, they played partners. And it was just a thing of, I just wanted to show a same-sex couple doing the things everybody does.
To me, freedom is just the ability to love and the ability to not just accept. I hate that word, accept. It’s not even about that. It’s about changing our molecular structure so we recognize love…and love. If it’s two consenting adults, if it’s two consenting teenagers, if it’s two consenting children, let these people love. Let these people love each other. How can love possibly be bad?
As someone who’s been representing a sorely underrepresented group of people on “Empire”—the gay black male community—what has that meant to you?
It really humbles me. And it makes me grateful. I just remember that there was nobody I could see on TV who I could identify with. The very first person that I ever saw who was gay at all, like any member of the LGBTQ community that I could somewhat identify with, was Wilson Cruz (as Rickie Vasquez) on “My So-Called Life.”
I’ve been given a platform, and I’ve worked for that platform. I’ve been doing this since I was 4. Got my SAG card in 1987. … You have people looking up to you, you have people who somehow feel affected by what you do. There is a certain level of responsibility that you must take. … If the people are listening to you, you should say something worth hearing.
Can you tell me about your first Pride event?
Oh god. I had the best time and then got in a major fight with my boyfriend at the time.
Oh yeah, it can be drama depending on who you see.
It can be major drama, especially if it’s the city in which you live.
Because you’re gonna run into ex- boyfriends.
You gonna run into exes, you gonna run into their exes. I was dating someone and every single Pride we had an issue. Nowadays, I’m very calm.
You have a cookbook coming out, a collaboration with your siblings; that’s how settled down you are.
I’m very settled down. I’m in a calm, wonderful relationship. My life is just calmer, it’s more secure. So now, when I go to Pride, it’s all love, it’s fun.
What is your message for the LGBTQ community?
To love yourself. Love yourself and love each other. We are literally all we got, and I say this in every single show. I turn the lights up on the audience and I just say, “Society wants us to believe that the world doesn’t really look like this, but it does.” …
Listen, I know it’s deeper than just that. We have to deal with policy changes, we gotta deal with law changes. We gotta deal with all of that. It’s economic. It’s all of these things. But everything starts with love. And I hate the term minority, but if every single so-called minority group were to rise up and join together, we would be a fierce majority that (no one) could take down.
Chris Azzopardi is editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service. Follow him on his website, chris-azzopardi.com, or on Twitter @chrisazzopardi.