By traditional television standards, Starz’s Power has all the makings of a show written about men, for men. The story revolves around a pair of drug king pins struggling to balance business and bromance against the backdrop of the dark, gray, and gritty corners of New York. The women are bombshells, the sex is intense, and the gruesome violence features a character played by former real-life gangster 50 Cent. Power is also the network's most-watched series of all time, a certifiable hit that draws in over 7 million viewers each week. And yet, the show is not by a man at all. It was created by a woman. And not just a woman, but a Black woman: Courtney Kemp.
“I think people assume the person behind Power is a person of color,” Kemp says as she plucks a brush from her overflowing makeup bag to apply bronzer before a photo shoot; the word “Power” peeks out from the top corner of her jacket. “It’s the woman part that throws them. That’s been the harder part — as a woman, to be listened to, to be taken seriously, to not be mansplained.”
And yet, as far as Starz is concerned, Kemp is a powerhouse showrunner: She’s the one who finally brought the young struggling network the popular series it needed, and she’s the one who’s earned the series a slew of NAACP Image and People’s Choice Award nominations. These are the kind of successes Kemp likes to focus on. The fact that she’s a Black female showrunner, well — Kemp doesn’t like to put too much stock in that.
“I am a Black woman, and I’m proud of that, but as a showrunner, I want to think about what makes me unique beyond my race,” she says. “One of the things that makes me specific as a TV showrunner in Los Angeles is that I’m writing a television show about New York. I think so much of the conversation amongst writers right now is, ‘I need to be a strong Black voice, I need to be a strong Black female voice.’ I want to be a strong voice, period.”
And she isn’t afraid to use that voice to go toe to toe with one of her stars: 50 Cent. Their seemingly contentious relationship is a narrative that’s played out on social media since the show’s debut in 2013; last summer on Instagram, the rapper accused Kemp of showing his, um, private bits on the series without his permission. But Kemp points out that both on TV and behind the scenes, not everything is what it seems.
“It’s all bullshit!” she says says bluntly. Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” pulses from a Mac desktop in her office. “50 and I are extremely close, so all that social media drama? It’s just for the show. People truly believed that he did not know his dick was going to be on camera. I couldn’t believe it! Do you know how long we had to prepare for that shot? Of course he knew. The whole thing just gave us so much more buzz and helped me realize how we can use social media to our advantage. 50 Cent is a brilliant marketer.”
Media is something that Kemp knows about. Born and raised in Westport, CN, Kemp had dreams of becoming a journalist. After graduating from Columbia University with a master's in English, she landed her first job as as an editorial assistant at the now-defunct Mademoiselle magazine.
When that magazine folded, she went on to become a writer for GQ, where she penned a piece about interracial dating that caught the attention of two producers who wanted to turn the article into a TV show. The show never happened, but Kemp walked away with an agent (Nancy Etz) and a new dream.
“I’d been trying so hard to be the first Black editor-in-chief of Vogue, or the editor-in-chief of Entertainment Weekly,” she says. “That’s what I wanted, but that was not what God wanted for me. No matter how much I tried to make the magazine thing happen, it never worked. I was meant to be in TV.”
After submitting a spec episode of The Bernie Mac Show, she soon had her first official TV writing gig. She was 26.
Kemp worked her way up for the next five years; after Bernie, she wrote episodes for shows like Justice before The Good Wife in 2011. That year she gave birth to her daughter, Charlie. And that same year, her father also died. She decided she wanted — “needed” — to write about him, so she dreamt up an idea about a series inspired by her father’s rise from poverty to success as a New York advertising executive. It just so happened that at the same time, 50 and producer Mark Canton were putting together a TV show, and Etz got them all in the same room together. They created Power: a combination of inspirations from Kemp’s father, Herbert, and 50 Cent’s own story as a drug dealer-cum-businessman. The first episode was dedicated to her father’s memory.
Starz greenlit Power in 2013 and since then, Kemp has split her time between New York and L.A. Inevitably, work-life balance issues arise: her 6-year-old daughter, Charlie, stays in L.A. with her father, to whom Kemp is no longer married, when Kemp is out of town.
“What I’m about to say won’t be popular, but it’s true: If being a television showrunner is the job you want, and you are a woman, I would not suggest you have children,” Kemp says. “The reality is that you just can not do both well. There’s this idea that you can have it all, but in my opinion, you can’t — not if you’re a perfectionist. If I weren’t a showrunner, I’d be a much more accomplished mother; if I were not a mother, I would be a much more accomplished showrunner. I have to be okay with getting a B in both.”
There’s this idea that you can have it all, but in my opinion, you can’t — not if you’re a perfectionist.
Opening a watermelon water (her mini-fridge is stocked with at least a dozen), Kemp looks out the window as she reflects on the difficulties of balancing personal life with work when you’re in a position of — well, power.
“A lot of younger girls come up to me and say, ‘I want my own TV show right now!’” she says. “But this is not just a show that you’re running. It’s a staff, people’s lives. You could be focused on your own self, like I was someone who went through a divorce and dealt with some real heavy shit while also trying to run a major cable network’s TV show. But if you forget to say good morning to someone who works for you, they’re like ‘Oh my god! My boss didn’t speak to me, what did I do wrong?’”
Inevitably, despite Kemp’s assertion that she doesn’t want her skin color to define her, the conversation turns to race. After all, she’s one of only a few Black female showrunners, a handful of women that also includes Shonda Rhimes (Grey's Anatomy, Scandal), Mara Brock Akil (formerly Being Mary Jane), Janine Sherman Barrois (currently Being Mary Jane), and Erica Shelton Kodish (TNT's upcoming Claws). But she argues that these women should not be the ones constantly answering questions about race in Hollywood.
“Journalists need to be directing these questions to the people who need to do better at hiring people who are different from them,” she says. “If you are other, you don’t think twice about hiring people who are other. At my rehearsal today, there was a white female writer, a Black male director, a Latina actress, gay people, straight people. That is diversity. And it’s sad that someone will look at that and think it’s revolutionary.”
She’s quick to mention, though, that the media shouldn’t demonize every white person in Hollywood.
“Power would not exist if Greg Berlanti, a white gay guy, didn’t hire me. Why did he hire some random Black girl? Because he thought I was talented. That’s it, plain and simple. We just need more people like him.”
Kemp says her ultimate goal is to be a “Dick Wolf or David Kelly, with a J.J. Abrams kind of feel.” Translation: a badass household name creating some of television’s most imaginative shows.
In the meantime, she’s focused on her two children: Charlie, and Power.
“A lot of people think this is a show about Ghost,” she says of her main character. “But this is a show about power, plain and simple. There are some good characters, and there some nefarious characters. Men and women — all trying to claw their way to the top.”
She takes another swig of watermelon water. “That’s why the show is called Power, not ‘Ghost.’ Because if the show was called Ghost? We could never kill him.”
She smiles. Then she touches up her lipstick.