When Jussie Smollett sings “Mama,” he seems somewhere else entirely. In character as Empire’s gay hero Jamal Lyon, his eyes close and he croons earnestly: "Listen momma, so many words to describe you / strong would be an understatement." It’s the kind of song that feels deeply personal, yet familiar to all.
That same emotional connection — one all artists are looking for — is what Smollett is now trying to make an musical artist himself, not just the one he plays on TV. Since Fox’s record-breaking Empire premiered in 2015, there's been a lot of focus on his acting career, as well as his private life, but it’s now his work as a musician he's trying to pull into focus. While Jamal was singing over sleek productions from Timbaland and Rodney Jenkins, Jussie was writing his own songs and working hard in the studio.
Smollett's debut full-length project Sum of My Music is finally an inside look into his real life, the one before and without Jamal. On the album opening track, “Insecurities,” he details his moments of self-doubt and disbelief over an operatic beat. And on the shimmery “Hurt People,” he reflects on the dangers of the damaged. The project is floats between blues, hip hop, dance, and R&B --reflecting Jussie’s desire to be seen and to create without labels or limits. “It’s the way I feel. My jealousy, my pain, and everything in between.”
The FADER spoke to Smollett about Empire, navigating the industry as an independent artist, and finally releasing his debut album.
How does it feel to have your first body of work out in the world?
I dropped an EP called the Poisoned Heart Club with four-five songs around 2011. I had to take it down when I booked Empire, so this is definitely my first full body of work. I feel very free and grateful. I just finished a docu-series called America Divided on Sunday, I completed my last day of directing Empire yesterday, and my album comes out on Friday. Making this album has been my everything. It’s what I’ve been doing privately and quietly for years, for it to out there...I’m grateful. I’m a little anxious, maybe a bit scared, but it’s very special to me.
When you say anxious and scared, do you mean from critics?
It’s not really critics — I’m old enough now to distinguish my own thoughts from someone else’s eyes. I appreciate anyone’s opinion but I know how to put that to the side. The nerves really stem from this being a true piece of me. Artists don’t create their art and then debate it. When you look at a painting it may make you feel completely different than it makes me feel. This project is like letting your baby go to school and realizing now that this personal thing — your thing — is now apart of the world. It’s scary to think the world can pick you apart. But it’s still satisfying.
When you’re apart of various identity groups sometimes you’re expected to speak for many, do you ever find it difficult to create art specifically for you?
I think you should ask me this in five more years, a little bit down the road. I think I’m doing a pretty good job of navigating this in a healthy way. I do create art specifically for me, the kind of music I want to make and hear, but I also am aware of and will never shy away from being responsible or taking a responsibility for changing the way the world views anyone. All I can do is represent who I am, as best as I can — in a truthful way. I would never don’t shy away from a responsibility to young children — young black children, young children of color, young LGBT children. Sometimes I have songs that are like “yo, this one’s for you,” because it’s a genuine emotion.
“That’s something I’ve always had, this resolve of I know what I want to do and I know how I want to do it.” — Jussie Smollett
This release was completely self-funded and you own your own masters, what informed that decision to do it all independently?
I was in so many meetings with old straight white men listening to my music and telling me what piece of that art that I created should be heard by the people that it was created for. That didn’t feel like freedom and everything I’m apart of — if I can control it — I want to control it! For me, my ego is strong enough — I’m humble and I pray for humility everyday — but my ego is also strong enough that if I have to do it myself, let me just do it myself. It’s the idea that I was creating music, I was recording, and I was doing it before Empire, before anyone knew who I was. I had no budget, no platform. Now I have a budget and I have a platform, the two things I never had access to. So now, it may take me longer but I still want to control what I can control.
I’m sure those kind of meetings were even worse before you were on Empire. Did that ever impact the way you create? Did you ever feel like you had to compromise?
It might affect your thoughts but it never affected my art. I don’t think people realize I’m in my 30s and at this point I know who I am. That’s something I’ve always had, this resolve of I know what I want to do and I know how I want to do it.
How do you measure success? Is it freedom? Is it charting? Is it a number one album?
It’s all of those things, are you joking? I’m not gonna lie and pretend otherwise, I want this shit to do well. If I didn’t, I would just play it for my mother because she fucking loves it or I would just try and pitch the songs for Empire. But no...these songs really mean something to me and I want people to hear me. That’s why the second we wrap Empire in late March, I’m going to start touring. Of course charting is important but you can’t measure your full success based on that. If the album sells two copies or two billion records, that won’t change how you feel about what you created. And that doesn’t mean I don’t want my art to chart, because I do.
As a mainstream artist who isn’t the standard r&b heteronormative singer — are there any specific challenges you face?
I’m sure that is something that might matter to some people. Honest to God, I don’t think about that anymore. Maybe I did at one point, but the only time I think about it is when I’m asked about it.
Not even in terms of constructing lyrics? For instance, artists like Frank Ocean utilize innuendos and conceal pronouns, perhaps for marketability or for better storytelling, do you find yourself thinking through this when you write?
I’m all about the innuendo. No matter who I was writing a song for, I’m all about the innuendo. I sing about love. I sing about sex. I sing about social issues but I sing about them as me. Of course, I want it to connect with everybody, but I don’t sit and honestly — no bull — I don’t sit and think about it. Now I’m really thinking about this and wondering if I do.
As of late, especially with social media we tend to think of success as overnight, as instant, something to be gained fairly young. You didn’t “blow up” overnight, in fact there are are years of your life the public has no record of. Was there ever a time you thought you wouldn’t achieve your dreams?
I always supported myself, I worked every kind of job, so there was never an option not to do it. EVER. I was gonna create regardless whether people saw it or not, my friend would call me and I’d be in the studio and I know they were thinking Nigga why?! Nigga, you’re shit has gone double plastic...why are you still trying? But you do what you love to do and you do it until your life ends. If you’re an artist or any kind of creator, that’s what you do. You have to create. Hopefully, you become the type of artist where you’re releasing albums to the public. Of course you want people to hear it, but regardless how many people see your art, you always have to create. There was never a time I was going to give up. There were so many moments of bullshit. I knew I could do other things but there was nothing else I loved to do. The only compromise for me was being a struggling artist, I was never okay with being a starving artist, so I did work odd jobs. I’ve always had a job since I was four years old. There was no way I would ever stop making music.