Crossing over from acting to movies is an exceedingly hard feat for entertainers. With the exception of unicorns like Donald Glover a.k.a. Childish Gambino, Jamie Foxx, and a host of Disney/Nickelodon stars like Selena Gomez who have been trained to do both since childhood, the musical endeavors of people who’ve made careers on screens can be lackluster. However, the rules change a bit when you play a musician on the show you’re famous for. This is the case for Serayah, who plays pop princess Tiana on the hit series Empire.
We’ve seen Serayah in full performance glam, with elaborate costumes and choreography on the Lee Daniels series about a Black, family-owned record label that hasn’t completely left its ties to the streets behind. The original music produced by the show has taken on a life of its own. Empire soundtracks have gone platinum and artists, including Serayah, have been known to perform the hits in front of live audiences.
This good news for Serayah, who is not embarking on a musical career under her own name. With over a million followers and a weekly primetime slot, she is able to let her creativity soar. She recently released the music video for her single “Driving Me,” a fun track about a boy not worth her time. I can’t wait for #WatchOutLilBoy to go viral. The song features Jazzy Pha and you’re likely to be struck with a case of déjà vu watching Serayah put a contemporary spin on some of the most iconic music videos from the ‘90s and ‘00s. Spoiler: my favorite is her take on a classic scene from Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” video.
I spoke with Serayah about her shift to music, the inspiration behind her amazing visuals, and what sets her apart from Tiana. Check out the video and our conversation below.
Refinery29: The video was amazing. Tell me about the inspiration behind it.
Serayah: "So much inspiration. I feel like I was able to do what you just saw because the song was so fun. I went for basically all of my favorite moments that I grew up watching, which was Destiny’s child, Missy Elliott ,and some of that type of vibe. Also, having this Ciara element with the dancing and things like that. Feeling very creative. I know everything is lifestyle now. I like lifestyle, and I plan on having lifestyle. But I kind of wanted to pay homage to what i saw growing up, which was glamour. They had million-dollar budgets for videos. I’m not used to that. That’s what I loved about entertainment. Think "Thriller!" It was all entertainment. It was a movie. It was a movement. People like Puff Daddy and all that kind of stuff gave me that excitement. Just being able to look at all of that stuff got me excited, and everything looked so clean."
Who did you work to bring “Driving Me”?
“I worked with Jazzy Pha on the record. It’s produced by Ballistic and Charles Hilton. They’re amazing too. I work with them a lot. But Jazzy Pha... it was our first time in the studio together, our first time literally meeting. We just vibed. I played him some of the records I already had and I could tell he was scanning me and trying to figure out if he liked it. And he was like, ‘yea let’s do this record!’That was a relief because he’s a legend to me.”
How long have you been wanting to do your own music?
"Since I was 9. I started writing gospel music when I was really young. I grew up in the church. I was recording a demo when I was in high school. Every night I would go to the studio and then go to school early in the morning. The demo never came out, but I’ve been trying to put out projects and music for so long. And then Empire came along, which is an amazing opportunity and platform. And my music has been held up for the show."
I’m honestly surprised Empire didn’t scare you away from the music industry. (Note: I’m only half-joking.)
“Almost. Almost! [laughs] I’m so blessed to be in this position because I can do a lot of things myself that I couldn’t do before and that a lot of artists can’t do. We can make moves and push things ourselves. We don’t have to wait. I can put my creativity out there and just let it be accepted by the people who want to accept it, instead of worrying about if it’s right and micromanaging how to put me out. Why can’t I just be? I’m finally in that space where I can do it.”
You’ve racked up such a fan base from Empire, it’s amazing.
“It’s crazy! I always felt like I still had so much to do. And someone was like, ‘Man you’re in an amazing space. You have this fan base and you’re still on TV every week.’ And it’s true. That’s when I decided to do this, put some PR behind it, and really go for it.”
Do you identify as an entertainer as well as an artist? Empire has given us all a view of what you can do on stage and I’m looking forward to it.
“That’s the first thing I identify with. I’m not just a standalone singer, which is still amazing because there are so many people that I love who only sing. But a big part of me is dance. I was dancing since I was really young, all kinds of dance. That’s just me. Music and dance really go together. If I groove to it, I feel like it’s me. Entertainment is like everything for me. That’s why I love the artists that I love."
Are you nervous about people trying to compare your music to Tiana’s music?
"I don’t know about nervous, but I am aware. I’m aware that it’s going to be a given. ‘Let me see what she’s on versus what I’ve already seen.’ I’m okay if you don’t like it because I can’t force anyone to like me. Those that are going to ride are just going to ride regardless. Because they have seen me perform on Empire where I’m not changing my voice and persona, I feel like there are going to be some blurred lines. Tiana is a lot more feminine, in heels and stuff like that, which is cool because they wanted her to be more like Beyoncé. But I still want to stay true to my age and what I’m going through. That’s the difference. I love to perform and dance. 'Don’t Touch' is still in every show I do. I’m just wearing combat boots instead. It’s fine."