Why Jamal’s Coming Out On Empire Will Affect The Entire Music Industry

Photo: Matt Dinnerstein/FOX.
On last night's episode of Empire, aspiring musician Jamal Lyon (played by Jussie Smollett) publicly came out during a performance at a massive industry party. It was a major moment for the character and the show, but it's also important on a much larger scale. Jamal's coming out will hopefully foster a more open dialogue about the latent homophobia that has persisted for years in the hip-hop community. Jamal's star had been ascending for weeks on Empire. As his career flourished, however, he became more and more uncomfortable with having to hide the fact that he's gay. At the beginning of last night's episode, it seemed like Jamal had decided to remain closeted, at least as long as his father, music mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), is alive. "I was thinking about not coming out 'til he's gone," Jamal told his brother Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) when they met to discuss their dad's ALS diagnosis at a church. They agreed to participate in the recording of a legacy album, including a cover of one of Lucious' songs, "You're So Beautiful," as a tribute to him — and it seemed like the matter was settled. As the episode progressed, however, various characters encouraged Jamal to live his truth. He felt a spark with Ryan, the videographer his dad hired to document the family recording their legacy album, and the two went on a date. Jamal confessed to Ryan that he even got married for the sake of his career and his father — and he'd warned Ryan not to reveal his sexuality to Lucious. "I don't think I should be ashamed or embarrassed about who I am," Ryan responded. "This is the way God made me." "I've been trying to come out for months and I don't," Jamal replied. "This is just who you are. Do it for yourself. Do it for your daughter," Ryan urged. Later, we saw Jamal singing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" to his daughter, promising to protect her from monsters. It's clear from his expression that what Ryan said affected him deeply. "Lions are never afraid to let the world hear them roar," he told his daughter. Deciding to heed his own words, this Lyon finally roared during his performance of "You're So Beautiful" at Empire's all-white party. "The most brilliant man that I know taught me that music is the truth. I'm honored tonight to be able to use his music to explain to you all some of my truths," Jamal said before his performance in a nod to his father. He then altered the song's original lyrics, "This is the type of song that makes a woman love a man," to "This is the type of song that makes a man love a man."
The reaction, for the most part, was positive. "I love you," his mother, Cookie, shouted. Hakeem saluted. The crowd went wild. Lucious, on the other hand, had a flashback to catching his son wearing heels as a child. His response at the time was to physically carry Jamal outside and dump him in a garbage can. The next day, Lucious arrives at work wearing all black, hiding behind sunglasses as if it were a somber occasion. We see news reports: "Lucious Lyon's son came out last night during an audacious performance;" "The Lyon Roars" reads a news headline visible on Cookie's iPad, which she proudly showed to Lucious. "He came out to the world, and nothing changed, Lucious. You're still you. He's still Jamal. The whole world knows. No one cares. The world is still spinning, Lucious. No one cares that he's gay," Cookie proclaimed. "But I do. I care so much. The legacy album is dead," Lucious said. "This is not a family; this is a disgrace."
Photo: Chuck Hodes/FOX.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Smollett about whether or not Lucious and Jamal's relationship can be repaired, and how Jamal will move forward in the industry as an out gay artist. "Jamal's life is shining brighter, so with that comes more scrutiny, with that comes more attention, and there's definitely more talk because Jamal is becoming more successful [and] more famous," Smollett told THR in an interview posted after last night's episode aired. "There definitely is a door that's opening. The thing is, too, that for Lucious, he's all about image, and what the public thinks of you, and there's very much that business savvy, mogul, yet old-school mentality of what the public wants to see. That's the magic of Jamal: Jamal is able to see past what Lucious is able to see as a mogul and as a suit. As an artist, Jamal is able to look at it as an individual. Because he's always been an outsider looking in, and because he's an underdog, he's able to see it more in a balanced way." The Lucious/Jamal dynamic is a microcosm for the larger conversation that's been happening for years in the hip-hop industry. "From what I've seen in the past weeks of this show being on the air is that society maybe 15 years ago would never ever, ever support someone like Jamal, but these people are coming up, and they're telling me — from all walks of life — how much they're connected to Jamal," Smollett continued to THR. In 2009, Terrance Dean published a memoir called Hiding in Hip Hop: On the Down Low in the Entertainment Industry — From Music to Hollywood, that caused a frenzy about the author outing closeted artists. The book didn't name names, but it did depict the dark underbelly of an industry fraught with homophobia. It also opened up a dialogue on the subject. Still, progress was slow. In 2013, Snoop Lion/Dogg told The Guardian: "Rap is so masculine...You can't be in a locker room full of motherfucking tough-ass dudes, then all of a sudden say, 'Hey, man, I like you.'" In the same article, however, various artists came forward to speak out against Snoop's proclamation, and say that things had changed — albeit slowly. It was also clear that there were miles to go in the journey to accepting openly gay artists. "Creating their own space and identity is the next challenge for the generation of performers ready to admit to their sexuality in a notoriously resistant culture. Indeed, one artist declined to take part in this feature for that very reason, preferring to be known first as a rapper rather than a 'gay rapper,'" The Guardian noted. Artists like Frank Ocean and Angel Haze, who are open about their sexuality, have advanced the conversation in the past few years. The CW show, The L.A. Complex, also featured a storyline about a closeted rapper trying to come to terms with his sexuality and how to incorporate it into his public persona. Even though Jamal Lyon is a fictional character, Empire has quickly become a cultural and ratings phenomenon in the few weeks it's been on the air. Hopefully, we'll be able to watch Lucious Lyon come around to the same place of acceptance at which many characters on the show have already arrived. As Jamal said, "music is truth," and everyone who makes it should be able to tell his or her own truth.

More from Movies

R29 Original Series