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 free love and free condoms and fiery ex-boyfriend drama.
These days, he has shown up (to Long Beach Pride and Milwaukee Pride) as Singer Smollett, with swoon-worthy songs from his recently released debut — a contemporary R&B collection called Sum of My Music that’s as thoughtful as it is hooky — after putting it on the shelf for years because he was too busy diversifying TV.
As out musician Jamal Lyon on the Fox drama Empire, Smollett, who got his start acting with 1992’s The Mighty Ducks, 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. Additionally, the 35-year-old multifaceted talent was featured as a celebrity correspondent during a May episode of the EPIX docu-series America Divided, exploring the horrific history of American racism.
Activist, singer, game-changing actor. A no-fucks businessman. Mariah Carey’s music-publishing student. And… a cookbook scribe? As Smollett’s groundbreakingly boundless career proves, when you’ve faced Pride drama, no one — not ex-boyfriends, not Sony execs — can stand in your way.
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! [Laughs.]
You gotta work it out.
I gotta work it out. I talk about a lot of personal things. I’ve been singing [Empire] soundtracks for a couple of years now, and… 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. What challenges have you faced as a gay black man 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. 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.
Mariah Carey, who you duetted with on Empire and opened for on tour, famously fought for creative control in the ’90s. I know you initially planned on releasing this album on Columbia Records, but it ended up on your own indie label, Music of Sound. What did you learn from Mariah about creative freedom?
I remember being on the phone with her for three hours and [Mariah] just breaking down publishing for me. When I asked to be let out of my contract with Columbia, I was armed with knowledge from people like her and different artists I’ve met, veterans in the business who really held my hand without even knowing it. Like, they thought they were just telling me something smart, but little did they know — or maybe they did know — they were really arming me with what I needed. That’s why you should always be unselfish with your knowledge, ’cause you never know if it’s gonna help somebody in the future.
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! [Laughs.] 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.
To me, freedom is the ability to love — 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. How can love possibly be bad?
You’ve 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 remember that there was nobody on TV who I could identify with. The very first person I ever saw who was gay at all that I could somewhat identify with was Wilson Cruz [as Rickie Vasquez] on [mid ’90s teen drama] My So-Called Life.
He was someone of color, and I grew up loving people like Elton John, but I couldn’t identify with Elton John. I didn’t put two and two together — it wasn’t representation. I loved George Michael growing up. I loved Boy George growing up. But I didn’t connect. And maybe I would’ve been able to connect more had I seen more people at that level who represented me. So, nothing against them. They’re wonderful.
Elton subverted the label. Elton was just Elton.
Exactly. I hope we can all get to that point. But representation is so important and the responsibility…. I don’t know if good people are supposed to say they’re good, but I am saying I’m a good person. I take responsibility for all that I am.
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. There is no debate, I don’t give a fuck. If the people are listening to you, you should say something worth hearing.
Literally regarding anything that is unjust. It is your responsibility to speak up.
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. See, this is the thing: If your shit is strong, Pride can be a real good time. If your shit is weak, Pride will tear a motherfucker apart!
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. [Laughs.]
You have a cookbook coming out, a collaboration with your siblings; that’s how settled down you are.
I have a fucking cookbook with my family — 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.
Long Beach Pride was the first Pride I’ve ever performed at. Ever since Empire started, I always said, “No, I don’t want to do Pride until I do it for my album. I want it to be special.” And that’s what we ended up doing. And it’s been fun.
Because I need a husband: What do you cook for your man and are those recipes in the book?
Listen, everybody needs to know how to cook. You got to get your man right.
What’s the right man dish?
I do a good stir-fry. I can’t give away my secrets of what I throw down, and how I throw down, and what I throw down with, in the kitchen. But it definitely goes down in the kitchen — in more ways than one.
What’s your Pride message for the LGBTQ community?
To love yourself. Love yourself and love each other. We are literally all we got. It’s that simple.
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 raise up and join together, we would be a fierce majority that no motherf*cker could take down.