After it debuted last January on Fox, Empire quickly became one of the most talked-about shows on television. Its Shakespearean portrayal of family life, its stylized window onto the hip-hop industry, and its Timbaland-produced soundtrack helped it earn millions of passionate fans (and more than a few critics).
To celebrate the premiere of season 2—which airs tonight on Fox at 9 p.m. ET (8 p.m. CT)—we asked four scholars of race, new media, and pop culture to weigh in on the phenomenon that is Empire.
Once more unto the breach!
—Gayle Wald: Empire and Entrepreneurship
—Stephen Best: Black Camp
—Erica R. Edwards: Boy Meets Cookie
—Eric Darnell Pritchard: Fashioning Empire
“EMPIRE” AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP
While watching the first season of Empire, I thought a lot about Madam C. J. Walker. Sarah Breedlove was toiling for $1.50 a day as a widowed washerwoman and laundress in 1905 when she jumped at the chance to become a sales agent for a successful manufacturer of scalp and hair treatments for African Americans. Within a decade, the enterprising daughter of Louisiana slaves had reinvented herself as Madam C. J. Walker (a name suggested by her second husband, Charles Joseph Walker) and was at the helm of a multinational hair-care business that spanned manufacturing, sales, and training schools for budding “hair culturists.” By the time of her death in 1919, Walker was thought to be the wealthiest black woman in America. She had also established herself as a political activist, philanthropist, and mentor to budding black female entrepreneurs. Lacking the advantages of whiteness and maleness, let alone access to formal education or inherited wealth, Walker saw self-improvement and self-promotion as keys to black women’s advancement. As she was fond of saying, “I got my start by giving myself a start.”
If Walker is still celebrated in black popular memory, it is not merely because she was an exemplary capitalist (which she undoubtedly was), but also because her life embodies ideals of black self-determination and self-sufficiency. Those ideals have shaped, and continue to shape, what historian Robin Kelley has called black “freedom dreams” across a variety of political orientations, from the politically conservative brand of black self-reliance promoted by Booker T. Washington at the turn of the century to the progressive vision of contemporary #SayHerName activists. Walker’s is an exemplary narrative of making it despite: despite the legacy of slavery and despite the many and varied mechanisms that sought to perpetuate black people’s impoverishment and dependency in the Jim Crow era. Early post-slavery black entrepreneurs thrived despite the economic barriers and economic terrorism perpetuated by the white majority and documented by the pioneering journalist and newspaper publisher Ida B. Wells, Walker’s contemporary, who wrote of how the mere specter of black economic success often led to violent white reprisals against entire black communities, not just prosperous black individuals. Far from merely expressing a fear of black sexuality, lynching, Wells showed, was a means by which white mobs intimidated black communities into economic submission.
Although Walker gained social prominence and wealth by hawking beauty products to black women, her story speaks to a deep-seated desire of black people, in Walker’s era and our own, to be free of systems and institutions that have been hostile to their success and even survival. It conjures pleasures born of the satisfaction of overcoming social and political obstacles, which—like poverty or a lack of education—are often experienced as individual problems or personal failures. It celebrates resilience in the face of barriers and flaunts the power of sisterhood, since Walker, who established institutions to train black businesswomen, was herself the protégé of a black female entrepreneur, Annie Turnbo Malone.
In trying to account for Empire’s tremendous popular success, especially among black women aged 35 to 49, media observers have latched on to its updating of 1970s and ’80s serials such as Dallas and Dynasty, which focused on the juicy spectacle of rich families acting out. In the case of Dallas, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet provided a narrative template; in Empire, the prototype is King Lear. But to me, neither Empire nor its appeal is fully legible outside the context of the black entrepreneurial counter-narrative exemplified by Madam C. J. Walker. Themes of black self-determination and self-sufficiency despite inflect everything from Empire’s dialogue to its set design, reminding audience members that success for this black family is not to be taken for granted. When Lucious Lyon, Empire’s Lear, offers a toast to his company’s success in his suburban manse, the scene is set in a room decorated with black artist Kehinde Wiley’s 2013 painting Prince Albert, Prince Consort of Queen Victoria, a stunning portrait of a young, tattooed black man in present-day dress assuming a regal pose associated with 17th- and 18th-century British portraiture. Wiley’s Prince Albert gazes over the proceedings, bringing with him the picture’s incisive commentary on social status, visibility, and the “trespassing” of black subjects in “white” spaces or social roles.
Among Empire’s characters, Cookie, Lucious’s ex-wife and the mother of his three sons, is the primary vehicle of the black entrepreneurial counter-narrative. Her backstory is one of sacrifice for the greater good. When a drug deal organized by Cookie and Lucious suddenly goes south, back in the day when they were just another young couple looking to make it, Cookie takes the fall, allowing Lucious to become a rap superstar and music mogul. Her release from prison nearly two decades later, after Lucious has divorced and abandoned her, unleashes the Cookie audiences have come to love: uncompromising, unafraid, and unrelenting. Her character’s pursuit of what is rightfully hers—a 50 percent share in the company—although focused on Lucious, voices a collective claim of black women to wealth they have historically generated or facilitated for others.
Moreover, Cookie is the one who most often counters the official Lyon family mythology of transcending modest origins through talent, hard work, and determination—in other words, the familiar American narrative—with unfiltered critiques of American meritocracy. When Andre, her eldest son, praises Rhonda, his Wharton-educated white wife, as a “brilliant woman,” she doesn’t miss a beat: “Pretty white girls always are, even when they ain’t.” Cookie’s subversive aside about feminine beauty standards and racial privilege is cushioned somewhat by the show’s characterization of her as raw and “real,” a woman who doesn’t mince words and doesn’t care what you think. Yet it is a resonant moment, especially in relation to an earlier scene that renders Rhonda more likeable by revealing that she worked her way through college on scholarships. Whereas Lucious fretfully polices the boundaries of the black family, variously exiling Rhonda (for being white), Jamal (for being gay), and Andre (for being mentally ill), Cookie is the more incisive social critic and protector of the collective. Indeed, for all of the chatter in Empire about the “genius” of Jamal and Hakeem, brothers who follow in their famous father’s footsteps, audiences know that Cookie is the true genius of the family, a black woman who “makes a way” for herself and invites others to follow.
While Lucious pays lip service to a notion of group self-advancement that animates the black entrepreneurial counter-narrative, Cookie holds high the banner of fealty to kinfolk and friends. Her re-entry into everyday family life, together with Lucious’s discovery of his terminal illness, are the events that set the Empire narrative in motion, but the “problem” that the first season must resolve (since there’s no way Terrence Howard’s character is going to die) is Lucious’s murder of Cookie’s cousin Bunkie. When he unceremoniously guns down the loyal family foot soldier who has fallen on hard times, Lucious violates his own first principles. It’s the one “sin” Cookie cannot forgive—as shown by her clumsy attempt to suffocate Lucious in his sickbed—and the sin for which, at the end of season 1, he is ultimately punished.
Empire’s narrative of a record label helmed by an enterprising man but fueled and operated, in large part, by a brilliant and enterprising woman, calls to mind the history of Motown, the legendary record label founded by Berry Gordy Jr. Whereas Madam C. J. Walker built her empire by seeing black women as both an underserved population and untapped market, Gordy built Motown by recognizing that black pop acts could appeal to white record buyers. Gordy’s vision of black teenagers producing the Sound of Young America was realized through the labors of women, both behind the scenes and behind the microphone. During its 1960s apotheosis, Motown benefited from the work of Gordy’s sisters Loucye, Esther, Anna, and Gwen, as well as women like Maxine Powell, who helped young musicians negotiate the demands of their newly public lives; Valerie Simpson, who wrote songs for Marvin Gaye and others; and Diana Ross, the performer who most effectively embodied Berry Gordy’s own ambition of cracking the glass ceiling that prevented black entertainers from fully claiming the commercial and cultural mainstream. On Empire, Lucious’s self-sufficiency is from the first episode a fragile-bordering-on-delusional myth, ready to fly apart at any moment. Bunkie, murdered when he is no longer useful, is one sign of a previous dependency that must be quashed. So, obviously, is Cookie, whose claim to half the company is based in a notion of “time served” that is at least as symbolic as it is material. This is perhaps one reason why the writers of the first season chose not to show us anything of Cookie’s experience behind bars. The dues she pays are her unrecognized labor in crafting Lucious’s narrative as the self-sufficient (male) mastermind behind Empire Entertainment.
Seen from this viewpoint, Cookie’s fierce and sometimes flawed love for her sons is not simply maternal or, more stereotypically, a romanticized sign of black women’s “instinct” to protect their children. Cookie’s motherlove is also one of the forms of labor that keeps Empire afloat. Whenever family rivalries, personal insecurities, or individual cruelties threaten to sink the whole ship and everyone on it, Cookie is there to offer her protection, affection, or an honest opinion, as the situation demands. Unlike Lucious, who tries to reign by authority, Cookie uses her authority but is also a tireless lobbyist, diplomat, and political operator. Likewise, if Cookie is the only member of the Lyon household to realize that Lucious is seriously ill, it is not because she is emotionally attuned in a supposedly feminine way; it’s just that she’s the only one who makes a point of noticing.
Cookie’s character gives the entrepreneurial counter-narrative a feminist inflection by showing how women’s labor often underwrites black male narratives of self-determination. Unlike Carmela Soprano or Skyler White, heroines of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, who must shed their initial innocence of their husbands’ hustles (of being a mob boss and a big-time meth manufacturer, respectively), Cookie is at the helm of the Lyons’ music business from the get-go. In one of the many flashback scenes set in Lucious and Cookie’s modest Philadelphia row house, before there was a Fortune 500 company to lose or defend, a younger Cookie (sporting an ’80s hairdo) holds a baby and hangs laundry to dry from rope strung across the living room, as she and Lucious discuss business strategies for their fledgling enterprise. Seventeen or so years later, Cookie is still busier than anyone else on Empire, whether applying her finely honed musical instincts to a song that is “missing something,” pinch-hitting for a suddenly ill Lucious by delivering a crucial sales pitch at a showcase for potential Empire investors, or paying a visit to a mosque to win the sympathy of a Muslim rapper’s mother.
Cookie’s pursuit of what is rightfully hers voices a collective claim of black women to wealth they have historically generated for others.
Her work to sustain Empire is all the more noticeable in light of the show’s almost total erasure of its ostensible subject: the creative labor of music-making. There are some notable exceptions: the wonderful subplot in which Cookie helps to coax the drug-addicted singer Elle, played by Courtney Love, back to health before Lucious’s fiancée, Anika, ruins everything; the very early scene when Lucious shows he will stop at nothing to get a singer to a certain emotional “place.” But mostly, making a hit record on Empire looks pretty effortless. Jamal and Hakeem barely break a sweat when they’re composing, and for professional musicians they spend a lot more time hanging out than they do working on rhymes, crafting songs with producers, training with choreographers, or toiling away in the studio. Of course, the show’s erasure of the labor of music-making and the running of a major corporation is part of its fantasy, one reason it’s fun for viewers with a 9-to-5 to watch. It’s also a familiar trope of TV shows like Glee, in which complex choral routines come into being without lengthy rehearsals, and of reality programs like American Idol, now embarking on a 15th season, which purports to display the work of contestants but also carefully omits anything that might derail the fairytale narrative. But these are “pop” shows, and pop music is about the display of artifice. The spectacular ease with which Hakeem and Jamal make hip-hop (or hip-hop-flavored R & B) on Empire breaks with the tenets of hip-hop authenticity—in which the experience of hard-knock lives is the raw material for lyrical storytelling.
The unearned ease of the lives of Cookie’s handsome sons only throws into relief the scale of her labors—which are themselves performed with a fresh manicure and nary a hair out of place. We don’t exactly expect Empire to show us the hours of grooming essential to Cookie’s inimitable style, which favors animal prints, furs, and an array of hairstyles to complement her ensembles. But whereas the erasure of her sons’ labors as performers is a convention of the TV musical—indeed, a convention of all entertainment—the erasure of what Sherrie Tucker calls female performers’ “requirement of glamour” is on a continuum with the erasures of women’s work more generally, and with the particular histories of black women’s unwaged and “invisible” work.
When well-positioned observers publicly call out Empire and its creators as being insufficiently “political,” they miss the point—and reveal themselves to be particularly inept readers of the “minor-key sensibilities” the late scholar Richard Iton dubbed the “black fantastic.” Empire is political: as political as Cookie’s sharp surfacing of the black entrepreneurial counter-narrative. When Chuck D scolds Empire for its misleading portrayal of the hip-hop music industry; when Tavis Smiley laments the show’s lack of “positive” characters in an interview on Larry King Live; or when scholar and commentator Boyce Watkins accuses Empire of perpetuating “stereotypical coonery,” they fall back upon inherently limiting notions of authenticity as a means of thinking about representation on television. They also tellingly overlook Cookie’s significance as a character who invites viewer identification and ignites our desires by embodying ideals of black female self-love, self-determination, and self-sufficiency. Madam Walker would surely approve.
Jump to remarks:
In “Notes on
‘Camp’” (1964), Susan Sontag famously elaborated the camp “sensibility” by way
of a somewhat porous but precise set of criteria. Her list included (but was not
limited to) the following:
• camp perceives the world through style: “the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not”
• camp places everything in quotation marks: “It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’ To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role”
• camp embraces an ebullient self-parody that “reeks of self-love”
• camp involves an element of seriousness, “a seriousness that fails”
• camp involves a “spirit of extravagance,” it “proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is ‘too much’”
• camp involves the attempt at something outlandish: “‘It’s too much,’ ‘It’s too fantastic,’ ‘It’s not to be believed,’ are standard phrases of Camp enthusiasm”
• camp entails a “quality of excruciation”
• camp stands against respectability and self-seriousness: “it’s good because it’s awful”
Sontag classifies camp among those elements of human experience that “have been named, [but] never … described,” possibly on account of its having operated as “a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.”
I can think of no other Sontag essay that has received as much criticism, correction, and amplification over the years. The historian David Halperin, for one, criticizes the purely aesthetic declension in “Notes on ‘Camp’” and Sontag’s judgment that camp is “disengaged, depoliticized … apolitical,” which in his view misses and perhaps intentionally dismisses the political potential of queer camp. Camp, in his view, is how men who are already gay learn how to be gay. Through camp, gay men learn, among other things, how to embrace their marginalization (the discounting of gay life and emotions as superfluous and unserious) “through a parodic, exaggerated, melodramatic, self-mocking, grotesque, explicitly role-playing, stylized performance.” Camp sensibility sharpens one’s “alienated, ironic perspective on socially authorized (or ‘serious’) values.” Let in on “the secret of camp,” one becomes “initiated into … circuits of shared perception and appreciation.” Through camp—this inner-directed, tautological, and syllogistic pedagogy—gay men learn how to practice a “dissident way of feeling and relating to the world.”
Empire presents a style of black camp that both affirms Sontag’s aesthetic criteria and satisfies Halperin’s sense of camp’s political dissidence.
What is “black camp”? The archive of black camp is rather miniscule. Some essential points of reference include the following:
• the character of Dominique Deveraux (Diahann Carroll) in Dynasty
• the character of Sandra Clark (Jackée Harry) in 227
• learning to look like Thelma (BernNadette Stanis) or act like Willona (Ja’net DuBois) on Good Times
• The Wiz
• Grace Jones
• the catwalk
• Eartha Kitt (principally Catwoman in the Batman television series, but, really, any appearance after that)
• Paris Is Burning (the competition to flawlessly execute such categories as “Executive Realness” and “Town & Country,” but most poignantly in the autobiographical musings of Venus Xtravaganza and Octavia Saint Laurent)
• The Real Housewives of Atlanta (most jarringly at moments of Phaedra’s staged bougieness)
A quick glance at this list and one can’t help but note black camp’s comparative narrowness of theme (compared, that is, to the riches of queer camp). Black camp is essentially aspirational. It often sounds the note of pathos in black aspiration, and can be heard in Octavia Saint Laurent’s conviction that it will only take surgery to make her “a full-fledged woman of the United States”—it’s a serious aspiration, but you can’t take it seriously (Lauren Berlant might call this “cruel optimism”). One can hear that pathos, too, in the healthy doses of shade and doubt exchanged about this or that business venture on The Real Housewives of Atlanta, which clues you in to the fact that the black women on that show have to work and hustle in ways that the white women in the rest of the franchise (most of whom married into their wealth) do not. Often focused on the performative dimension of any “position” a black person might achieve, black camp accentuates the fragility of black achievement, the precarity of black wealth.
Sontag distinguished between deliberate camp (“wholly conscious,” “when one plays at being campy”) and “naive” or pure camp (“unintentional” and “dead serious”). There is a good deal of the former in Empire, as when Cookie (Taraji Henson), recently released from prison, shows up at her son Jamal (Jessie Smollett)’s lower-Manhattan loft, smells chicken, and, embracing the epithet, asks, “Who cookin’ chicken? Did ya fry it?” One could include here, too, those cringe-worthy flashbacks when Lucious (Terrence Howard), who as head of Empire browbeats his singers from the sound booth to get in touch with “that monster in you,” sits before his own keyboard composing lines that (to these ears at least) sound like the worst saccharine schlock; or when Cookie’s cousin Bunkie (Antoine McKay) shows up onscreen sporting a gold chain too thick even for a gangsta.
Empire also offers moments that feel like pure camp. Consider the similarities between Bunkie’s move to “fake the floss” by wearing shine-producing but fake jewelry and Lucious’s attempt to show up for his capitalization, concealing from his investors the fact of his illness and imminent mortality on the eve of his company’s “going public” (Cookie: “What’s that?”). The aspiration is serious, whether it is to be a real gangsta or to secure real capital. But in the real world, some of those aspirations can’t be taken seriously. Entertain for just a moment a common analogy in the matrix of black aspirations: becoming a mogul and becoming an athlete. Recently, NPR aired a piece on the odds that a high school athlete will go on to become a professional one. Among parents with children in high school athletics, as household incomes go down the percentage who dream that their children will become professional athletes goes up (despite the impossible odds); and the spread grows even wider when the pool is restricted to African Americans, who are both over-represented in professional sports and find the aspiration to become a professional athlete a common one. It’s a serious aspiration, but you can’t take the aspiration seriously.
Animating nearly every exchange in Empire is a kind of black “open secret” that black wealth, when acquired, is precarious and its camp displays many of the same “privacy effects” that Eve Sedgwick attributed to the closet. Here are some axioms of black camp, as illustrated in Empire:
Axiom I: Hearing what you’re not supposed to hear
News of Empire’s unprecedented week-over-week rating’s growth left me feeling thrilled and mortified—a classically camp feeling of “excruciation” that sprang from fears that the show would expose what black people know not to know about their wealth to white people. Such feelings only intensified upon learning that an entity called “FOX Continuing Education” (yes, that’s what it’s called) had produced a series of videos offering definitions and proper pronunciations for words that were likely to trip up the Empire viewer. These are they:
1. BAE (\’B\ae’)—“Before Anyone Else”
2. Dope (\’dohp)—adj., cool, phat, hot
3. Ish (\’I’sh)—noun, slang term used to replace an expletive [Cookie: “Lucious is on some Darth Vader ISH.”]
4. Turn up (\Turn\^p)—verb, the act of getting hyped, excited, and wild
5. Wack (\’w\ack)—adj., lame, stupid, ain’t even legit
6. Bye Felicia (\`bī Felicia)—noun, a phrase to show someone you don’t care about them or what they have to say
7. THOT (\`thot): noun, That Ho Over There
This doesn’t read like the jargon of a professional class, the dialect of a regional community, or the slang of a generation. It feels more like a cant, the secret language of a criminal underclass meant to deceive and conceal. Its secret or private character is reinforced by the tautological structure of the lexicon (“dope” is defined as “phat”) and the phonic substance of the words (upon hearing “BAE” or “THOT” it isn’t clear that one is hearing an acronym, unless you already speak the language, in which case you wouldn’t need the lexicon). That the characters speak a cant shouldn’t surprise us given Cookie and Lucious’s backstory, but that some listeners might need a lexicon in order to understand it suggests that they either hadn’t or weren’t supposed to.
Axiom II: Seeing what you’re not supposed to see
Empire’s costume designer, Rita McGhee, describes Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday), the wife of Lyon son Andre, as inclined to wear something “a little inappropriate—she really doesn’t care,” but, in all frankness, despite the fact that Rhonda is the sole white character among the principals, one doesn’t really notice. That sense of devil-may-care inappropriateness seems almost always to belong to the black female characters of the show.
Take this scene from episode 11 (“Die But Once”). Lucious, in a moment of panic, scours the Empire offices for Cookie, the only one who can inspire him to recreate “the Lucious Lyon sound.” Barging into Cookie’s office, he encounters her assistant, Porsha (Ta’Rhonda Jones), who, caught unawares, lets slip, “Cookie on her way back from the Berk-shEYE-ers.” There is something about Cookie in the Berkshires that mirrors this mispronunciation. In a gray sable wrap with baby-blue trim (and other luxury accessories), she seems dressed for the occasion, but possibly another location. Her outfit, like Porsha’s extra syllabic emphasis, is, to echo Sontag, “too much,” “off.” Instead of registering as kitsch, however, triggering our disidentification with Cookie for loving such unworthy stuff, or for being so out of place, it feels ironic and solicitous of our dissent from WASP standards of class understatement. Cookie reminds us that there exists “a good taste of bad taste.”
But, again, the outlandishness isn’t simply the camp that triggers our enthusiasm; there are also frequent notes of sadness or embarrassment when black women show up in clothes that fit neither the occasion …
… nor the actor.
So, hold Cookie and Porsha against Anika and Rhonda and the weight of the open secret reasserts itself. Black women don’t have a legitimate claim to femininity, which depends on proximity to whiteness. Black femininity is only able to register as such in the arch form of sexual excess; it always has to be “too much” in order simply to be.
Axiom III: Being where you’re not supposed to be
Sontag designated art nouveau the “best example” of camp style, with its light fixtures evolving into flowering plants, hand railings into orchid stalks (in the Paris Metro), accentuating the camp love of “things-being-what-they-are-not.” This rigorous focus on the ornate and the ornamental can be hard to avoid in the world of Empire, where every room of every Lyon residence appears to have been decorated with a painting by Kehinde Wiley. In Wiley’s reworking of the art nouveau flourish, the emphasis has shifted subtly but unmistakably toward things-being-where-they-are-not-supposed-to-be.
Wiley’s canvases portray young black men dressed in the sartorial accoutrements of hip-hop—bubble jackets, trainers, baggy jeans—assuming poses derived from the traditions of European oil painting. On the basis of this formula, Wiley has pursued a career-long interest in painting as a technology for the visual propagation of power. As he views it, “the history of painting has been the history of those [powerful] men trying to position themselves in fields of power that are very defined and codified as a type of vocabulary that’s evolved over time.” Striking the pose allows us to understand the gangsta as well as the aristocrat as engaged in a similar performance of power, appropriate given Empire’s mutual commitment to negro elitism and ghetto extravagance.
But the art nouveau ornament in the Wiley paintings tells perhaps another story. The surface ornamentation gives the appearance that the subjects have been literally constrained—in the words of the art historian Krista Thompson, “‘caught’ in the lineup light as well as the limelight.” Art nouveau flourish “forms a barricade” around them. Wiley strives to generate a disturbance in European painting’s codified visual field, taking care “to represent his black male subjects in such a way that they appear both within yet outside these defined vocabularies.” Elsewhere, Wiley has described the placement of brown bodies within the vocabulary of this tradition as “bittersweet,” “uncanny,” “an uncomfortable fit”—and the art nouveau flourish thus provides an allegory for the entire project, forming a barricade around the sitting subject. Out of a camp sense of failed seriousness, we might feel pity for Lucious, then, who has surrounded himself, perhaps unconsciously, with these daily reminders that, however much he may feel he has made it inside the field of power, it will always remain an uncomfortable fit.
Jump to remarks:
BOY MEETS COOKIE
That people love Fox’s Empire is an understatement: the series was last season’s top-rated network series among adults between 18 and 49. And Empire loves to love. The show is itself driven by two love stories—one about a scrappy ex-wife returning from prison to get what’s hers, including her former husband, and another about a gay son who’s yearned for his father’s acceptance ever since his father assaulted him for wearing women’s clothing as a child.
The season finale provided some measure of closure for both romance plots. Lucious Lyon, the CEO of the entertainment megacomplex Empire Records, is dragged to jail by FBI agents. Being pulled out of the arena where his artists are performing the “Lucious Lyon Sound” in the season finale, Lucious, played by Terrence Howard, excoriates his ex-wife, Cookie, played by Taraji P. Henson, for informing on him to the FBI (“You’ll always be a ghetto rat!”). Immediately after that he turns to Jamal, played by Jussie Smollett, and instructs him to sing a duet they co-wrote, “Nothing to Lose,” to the awaiting crowd of Lyon fans.
And sing Jamal does: joined on stage by Patti LaBelle, he belts out a beat-driven pop song about Lucious’s rise from street hustler to media mogul. The episode ends with Jamal’s transformation from disinherited son to favored heir to “the empire.” Meanwhile Cookie has taken over Lucious’s 18,000-square-foot home while he languishes behind bars. Her compensation is complete: she carefully places a framed family portrait on the grand piano and smiles. She’s gotten what’s hers. Cookie has also gotten what’s ours: our respect, our memes and gifs, our devoted attention on Wednesday nights, and our appreciation for animal prints and faux furs in every color of the rainbow.
We can’t take our eyes, or our ears, off of what the empire is doing.
What made Empire the breakout success that it was last spring? And how can we explain the show’s capacity to inspire such affection for its highly aestheticized caricatures of both “low” culture, the culture of the streets, and “high” culture, the culture of Wall Street? Depicting the Lyon clan’s dangerous courtship with the streets and its ascent into the elite realm of corporate capital, Empire compels us to love blackness styled as both pathological urban threat and luxurious urbane “first worldism.”
With the black CEO being pictured as the hip-hop version of Shakespeare’s tragic monarch, Lear, the show draws viewers into a titillating romance with black “power” through beautiful set design, flawless lighting, the catchiest of tunes, and high-action plotlines. As Lucious sits in his high-backed, gold-studded black leather office chair, surrounded by Kehinde Wiley oil paintings and pieces by Basquiat, Klimt, Seurat, Van Gogh, and others, one is reminded of Watch the Throne (Jay-Z raps on “Illest Motherfucker Alive,” “When I say it then you see, it ain’t only in the music / Basquiats, Warhols serving as my muses / My house like a museum so I see ’em when I’m peeing”). Mark Anthony Neal calls this “hip-hop cosmopolitanism”: a focus on self-cultivation, global travel, and consumption that challenges “parochial notions of masculine identity (and gender) in hip-hop, particularly those solely rooted in the local.”
If Empire is driven by its hunger for wealth based in the globalization and financialization of hip-hop culture, its most beloved character, Cookie Lyon, is motivated by other hungers—for soul food, for example: one of the first things she asks for upon release from prison in episode 1 is chicken. Cookie’s appetites stubbornly return us to the local. If Lucious’s route to immortality is to make Empire a publicly traded company based on an ethic of acquisition, Cookie bursts into Empire as disruptive expenditure: “Take these Cookies!” The series aestheticizes narratives of security and progress that demand black women’s labor to maintain the flows of corporate wealth and military dominance that are antithetical to black life. It casts empire in beautiful brown skin. It clothes empire in both tailored designer suits and skintight zebra-print dresses. We can’t take our eyes, or our ears, off of what the empire is doing.
Henson’s masterful performance, as the Lyon
empire’s most valuable player and Lucious’s irresistible paramour, is one
example of how Empire cashes in on
the courtship between the globally marketed US mainstream and the black
subcultures that power it. But the series has a second love story. Over the
second half of the season, Empire’s top security officer, Malcolm Deveaux
(played by Derek Luke), and Cookie engage in a slow-to-ignite love affair: they
meet in episode 6, but it’s not until episode 9, when Malcolm saves her from a
pocketbook thief, that a drunken Cookie begs him to “Take these Cookies!” And
while he demurs at the time, Malcolm does eventually succumb to Cookie’s
advances, and the two consummate the relationship on the floor of a cabin in a
subdued scene of lovemaking in the Berkshires that offers a stark alternative
to Cookie’s loud prints and to her explosive love affair with her ex-husband. Afterward,
Lucious fires Cookie from Empire in revenge for her betrayal, and Malcolm takes
a high-level government job.
The romance between Cookie and Malcolm is a minor subplot in season 1, but it highlights the contradictions that arise when blackness surfaces in prime time in the 21st century. Blackness in prime time mythologizes the American myth of meritocracy in spectacular shows of success, security, and possession. At the same time, it provides corporate entertainment media with the ever-lucrative visual language of black misery, black pathology, and black dispossession. In this way Empire is an allegory for empire: it’s a morality tale that instructs us in power’s capacity to reinvent itself through the manipulation of the meanings of racial and gender difference.
At the center of this morality tale is the love quadrangle between Lucious; his fiancée, Anika; Cookie; and her lover, Malcolm—the Iraq War vet whom Lucious hires to secure Empire. Cookie meets Malcolm when she enters the Empire building and is stopped at the metal security kiosk. When Malcolm lets her in, sporting the fresh face that once belonged to Luke’s Antwone Fisher (the title character of a 2002 Denzel Washington film), she coos, “I feel safer already, Mr. Deveaux,” as she turns back to face him. Malcolm takes on the role that black military operatives and government officials took on in US visual culture during the war against terrorism that was announced after the September 11 attacks. He stands for the righteousness of US military action in the Middle East and throughout the global south. He brings empire home to the hood.
For a moment, Cookie Lyon plays the bad girl
gone good. Cookie is unlike Olivia Pope or any of her other sisters in
Shondaland: she eats heartily, she fights, she rocks animal prints and furs in
almost every episode. She is exotic, other, outside, the show’s excess and the
threat to the patrilineal promise around which the show revolves. Her affair
with Empire’s security adviser (“Soldier Boy,” as Cookie’s sister refers to
him) is a symbolic union between her family’s lowly origins and the high
culture of government and corporation. It stages the movement from the
parochial corners of black urban life—as Empire
imagines it, a pathological underground rife with homophobia and senseless
violence—into a more enlightened corporate realm.
This other love story makes clear how Empire’s magic partly consists in its bridging two important developments of the 1990s and 2000s: the consolidation of black success in the military, political, and corporate arenas of the post–Cold War US, and hip-hop’s journey from the streets to Wall Street. There are at least two grand myths at work: that black people have come a long way, “up from the hood”—Lucious has Obama on speed-dial—and that they’ve done so beautifully. At the center of Empire’s seductive narrative of progress is this magical union between the highly marketable, exoticized underworld culture of the black urban enclave—the same culture that Howard’s and Henson’s performances aestheticized in an earlier and unforgettable ode to pimp culture, Hustle & Flow (2005, dir. Craig Brewer)—and the super-elite realms of corporate media and governmental-military power. That over 20 million viewers tuned in to follow the breakups and make-ups of the members of the Lyon clan and the melodious hip-pop produced by its up-from-the-streets journey speaks to just how seductive this union is.
If season 1 was any indication, season 2’s return to Fox tonight should test not only our propensity for Timbaland’s catchy hooks (try getting “Drip Drop” out of your head after watching episode 5) but also corporate media’s capacity to cash in on the love affair between the streets and Wall Street.
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Eric Darnell Pritchard
There is no doubt that Empire won television last season. It also won fashion. Its costume designers were nominated for an Emmy Award. The cast, along with show co-creator Lee Daniels, was featured in a fashion editorial shot by legendary photographer Mario Testino for Vogue magazine’s famous September Issue. The show’s star Taraji P. Henson appeared on the cover of W magazine’s “Pop Issue” with a fashion editorial styled by W’s fashion director, Edward Enninful. And this fall the luxury department store Saks Fifth Avenue will feature Empire-inspired window displays, made-to-measure suiting events, and items for sale.
The first season of any series is designed to introduce all the main characters and their modus operandi: who they are, how they see themselves in relationship to others, what they want, and why we should care. This is certainly true of Fox’s primetime “hip-hopera” Empire, which uses dialogue as a primary mechanism for informing audiences about characters. But beyond the script, what many found equally if not more intriguing about Empire was the role of the sartorial—fashion and style. Style occupies such a prominent place on Empire that, as Pulitzer Prize–winning fashion critic Robin Givhan attests, “One could almost watch ‘Empire’ on mute and just by looking at the characters’ attire understand where they fit on the continuum and the demons with which they are struggling.” On Empire, fashion and style exist in a call-and-response relationship with a broader narrative of adornment in African American life. The show uses adornment to represent each character’s sense of self and to elicit desire and pleasure. Maxine Leeds Craig argues that style has always occupied a prominent place in collective and individual black expression, through its association with representational autonomy and the pure pleasure of adornment.
Empire lavishes attention on the decor of characters’ homes and offices, especially on visual art. But I want to focus on what the characters wear by day and by night, and how clothes on this show become an archive of black urban life. The series is set in New York City (though filmed in Chicago), and it highlights the roots of lead characters Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) in Philadelphia, a city that Empire associates with hip-hop and the inner-city hustling of Cookie and Lucious’s youth. Geographically, temporally, and culturally, Empire is a black urban tale.
Through its use of costumes, Empire presents what I will call “critical black sartoriality”: a constellation of sartorial performances that draw from the archives of real-life black fashion and style, and that disrupt rigid representations of race, gender, and class. Take Cookie Lyon, who has received the lion’s share (pun intended) of the attention paid to Empire’s fabulous fashion. Cookie’s style signatures include fur coats and animal prints by designers such as Balmain, Valentino, and Philip Treacy. They also include mini- and sequined dresses, which, along with animal print, were staples of the “power-dressing” trend popular in women’s wear of the 1980s (the decade when hip-hop first captured public and popular attention).
One of Empire’s two masterful costume designers, Rita McGhee, says Cookie’s fashion shows how, upon release following 17 years in prison, she “is ready to claim what she feels is rightfully hers. Now that she is a boss woman, she has to look like one.” McGhee names Tracy Chambers, as played by Diana Ross in the film Mahogany (1975), as a primary influence on Cookie’s look. Set in Chicago, Mahogany tells the story of Tracy Chambers, a struggling assistant to a buyer at a department store who aspires to become a fashion designer. Fortuitously, Tracy is discovered by a fashion photographer for whom she becomes a muse, and after moving to Rome on his invitation, she becomes an international modeling superstar called “Mahogany.” McGhee’s reference is apt, and helps us see Mahogany’s makeshift fierceness and aspirational glamour in Cookie’s look before and after her release from prison.
Through her fashion, writes journalist Tashara Jones, Cookie “makes the dreary cement her catwalk,” a description that weds fashion and style with black urban life. Unlike Mahogany, however, Empire focuses on a family and on a class. There are no black elites like the Lyon family in Mahogany, which depends on a narrative of black exceptionalism and exoticism. Tracy’s attempts to build a fashion empire map onto Cookie’s in some respects, but where Tracy’s fashion telegraphs that she aspires to be a boss, Cookie’s fashion says: I am the boss.
From the beginning of the series, when Cookie returns from prison to get her family back, she aims to retake her place as co-founder of Empire Entertainment, and she demands the respect (“street cred”) due her for the sacrifices that made Empire Entertainment possible. In every scene, she dresses the part of CEO. McGhee notes that she borrowed many of Cookie’s garments from Monique Mosley, married to hip-hop legend and Empire music consultant Timbaland, and that she borrowed Cookie’s signature furs from Janet Bailey, formerly married to Philip Bailey of 1970s soul / R & B band Earth, Wind and Fire. Cookie’s clothes literally draw on an archive of black fashion and style. With McGhee’s expertise, and actress Henson providing notes on the selection of Cookie’s attire, Empire flaunts its borrowings from reality.
Through its frequent use of flashbacks, Empire invites viewers to consider how the characters’ past aesthetics do and don’t map onto the present. Cookie’s style back in the day is continuous with her look once she exits prison, suggesting that she has held on to who she is and what she is about. As Givhan notes, reviewing the first few episodes of the season, Cookie’s style “never gives up her allegiance to a look that firmly connects her to her past and to herself.” Her aesthetic signatures remain and mark her as a self-defined authentic woman, one who stays vigorously committed to her principles and integrity, hoping to inspire her family to do the same.
Cookie’s fashion details also depart from rigid notions of femininity. Though she often wears clothing with archetypically feminine prints and patterns—animal, floral, and plant prints, and one memorable butterfly print dress—those motifs are often obscured, deconstructed, or otherwise altered in appearance. But these misaligned patterns line up perfectly with who Cookie is: a woman who sees herself as not merely ornamental, but also as a boss. By contrast, Lucious’s style operates to mask who he is. His story line presents him as a consistent character: ambitious, ruthless, savvy, capable only of conditional love, and racially conscious. But his impeccably tailored bright-colored suits, ascots, floral print jackets, extra-long paisley and embroidered silk scarves, multicolored and floral ties, and colorful pocket squares never congeal into a telling style.
At first glance, Lucious’s style makes reference to the black dandy who, according to Monica Miller, “embodies the construction and deconstruction” of racialized masculine identity and “can, at once, subvert and fulfill normative categories of identity … as a gesture of self-articulation.” But Lucious ultimately fails as a black dandy, both because his style lacks consistency with the black dandy aesthetic, and because rather than trying to subvert normative categories of identity, he is trying to acquire power. Lucious merely flirts with the black dandy look in order to siphon specific elements from it—of which the sartorial is only one—and to present himself in a style that is legible as a hip-hop superstar and entertainment mogul (e.g., Sean “Diddy” Combs). In episode 1, Lucious murders Bunkie, his friend and Cookie’s cousin. When he shoots Bunkie, his attire plays with the black dandy aesthetic in the silk paisley scarf on his neck, but his dark-colored coat and pageboy cap prevent the full achievement of this aesthetic, even as it conceals him and his crime from recognition. Lucious’s attire at his annual white party, in episode 8 (“The Lyon’s Roar”), illustrates his use of dandyism for power. Lucious wears a long embroidered white jacket with a jewel-encrusted neckline, which plays with the dandy aesthetic. However, the ornateness and uniqueness of his garment does more to make him stand out from the hundreds of other attendees also dressed in all white, thus establishing his dominance over the affair.
To be sure, his style is related to his vulnerability, but that vulnerability is part of his investment in rigid masculinities associated with his occupation as a drug dealer turned “legit” businessman. In fact, we might say that his current style is an updated version of his past style; in both cases, he aims to play the alpha male. At the end of episode 3, Jamal, the gay middle son of Cookie and Lucious, confronts his father about his homophobia. Lucious responds, “I tried to tell you since you were a baby that it is not about black eyes or bloody noses. In this world it’s life or death, and if you don’t toughen up these streets will eat your ass alive.” Jamal responds by detailing the physical and emotional abuse he experienced in his childhood and adolescence at his father’s hands. Lucious’s fashion flirts with black dandyism, which bolsters his identity as businessman and furthers his economic success, and he marshals that success in support of rigid notions of black masculinity. For example, the wealth Lucious attains buys him additional coercive means that he uses to keep his three sons in line, especially Jamal, whom he threatens to stop supporting financially if he comes out as gay. Lucious believes he has to be legible as a man to make it in life, and he uses fashion to establish the dominant masculinity that awards him the economic resources and social power he desires. He does not see fashion as a way to reflect an authentic self.
Recently it was announced that Paolo Nieddu, who was the costume designer on Empire’s pilot, would return to the role for season 2. Anticipation is high to see if and how fashion and style will continue as a primary storyteller in the coming season, as it was in the first. Given my arguments here, it will be interesting to see whether the coming season will continue to grow as a text of critical black sartoriality, letting us discern traits about the Lyon family and their associates by way of adornment. In terms of ratings, it remains to be seen whether the show can accomplish the difficult feat of reproducing the first season’s record-breaking success. On the subject of fashion, however, season 1 has left Empire well on its way to legendary status.
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