Empire star Jussie Smollett talks art and censorship during recent trip to South Africa

Jussie Smollett. (Photo: Getty Images)
Jussie Smollett. (Photo: Getty Images)

Cape Town – The Empire star Jussie Smollett visited South Africa last week to shoot his latest music video here and says art changes lives and should have the freedom to do so.

Jussie Smollett is known for his role of Jamal, a gay musician struggling to gain his father’s approval opposite the actors Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson on Empire on FOX (DStv 125 / StarSat 131 / Cell C black 201). 

While most viewers will recognise him as Jamal from Empire, Jussie (35) is a lot more than just the character he portrays on the FOX drama series. 

The artist is also a photographer and singer and chose South Africa as the place to film his latest music video.

Last week Jussie, who jetted to Johannesburg, took some time out in a brief visit to Cape Town to talk about why he chose to come to South Africa. 

Channel24 sat down with the actor and musician as he spoke out against Africa’s rising TV censorship and didn't just share inspiring and powerful messages for young people who dream of becoming artists, but also emphasised the importance of art in helping to change lives.

Why are you visiting South Africa?

I'm here to promote the wonderful 4th season of Empire but also to spread some love; we saw some babies, we went to the SKY Foundation with Keep A Child Alive at Ikageng Itireleng [in Soweto] and I'm shooting my music video for Hurt People which is on my album The Sum of My Music coming out 2 March.

So, we're using local South Africans, we hired literally 50 amazing South African dancers. The entire crew is in Johannesburg and we're shooting until Friday, and it's really exciting.

Why did you decide to film your music video in South Africa?

The song has purpose and the song is about something that is important to me. Which is just that, you know, the saying "hurt people hurt people".

My idea is "hurt people hurt people and then they say goodbye and then they leave you all empty". Then it becomes a cycle that feeds itself. We've all been hurt in some way but we have the choice to break that cycle and not to continue hurting other people.

And why South Africa specifically?

The video really is inspired by Nelson Mandela. Because I can't think of anybody who has been more persecuted with more hurt, yet still came out with positivity and love for his fellow man and for his people. I'm not playing Nelson Mandela, but however we are utterly and completely inspired by him and all the freedom fighters of that time.

A message for African viewers, maybe specifically for younger people who see you on TV, and have a dream of being an artist or television and think it's impossible because it is a world removed? People who connect to the story of Empire and would like to do that too but think it's an unreachable fantasy?

What I would say is if you really think that it's unattainable, then rethink what you are thinking about.

Are you thinking what is unattainable is the celebrity of it? Is that the fantasy? If that's the fantasy then that's not what you should be chasing.

What you should be chasing is the success of being an artist that makes people feel. So, at the end of the day, how is that possibly unattainable?

I'm doing it right now. There's tons of people in the world doing it right now. I'm not where I want to be but I'm on my way because I'm working hard; I'm honing my craft, I'm making sure that I study.

It's more important to me to have 4 million hours of creativity than 4 million followers on Instagram. Although that's nice, that doesn't put food in your mouth, it doesn't put money in your pocket, it doesn't help to change the world. What really helps change the world is the way you make people feel. Don't chase celebrity; don't chase fame. 

Fame is an illusion, none of that is real. Anything that's real can't be taken away from you. Just do what you need to do. Work your ass off. Never stop.

Keep on learning and working hard and pull from the side of you. Pull from your friends and your sisters and your brothers and the people in your community to create something really special.

We have iPhones now. We have computers. We have so many resources that we can create our own content, our own songs, our own videos, our own television and film. There's no reason to wait and sit around and hope and dream.

What has moved or surprised you about South Africa?

I honestly, when I touched down, I kept having this feeling of déjà vu. Like I've been here before. I know that although physically my body has never been here, my spirit and my soul has.

When I see these babies at the SKY Foundation, just dancing, and just the joy on their faces – it's just the most incredible thing to see.

And yes. You end up hearing some sad stories that are heartbreaking. And then you look at their faces and you see the joy on their faces. And it makes you feel like such a loser for ever complaining.

These kids have been through very real things. This is not some vanity bullshit they've been through like "Oh my gawd, I broke a nail", "Oh my gawd, I lost my diamond necklace". It's not like that. It's very real things. 

And yet all they want to do is smile. All they want is to be loved. 

Why are these children so unselfish? Why is that they are so unselfish and yet adults are walking this Earth and being so extremely selfish? 

We could learn so much from children from all around the world if we just listen and learn from them.  They're the closest to God. 

What would you say about the growing censorship in Africa around TV content? It hasn't yet affected FOX or Empire but more African countries are blocking and banning more TV shows on channels ranging from E! to Disney on MultiChoice’s DStv because it has a gay or transgender character in it. Do you have a message for broadcasters? How do you see freedom of speech? Is it important that artists’ visions be respected?

Are we talking about art or are we talking business? Here's the thing: Art is supposed to reflect the times. Artists and their art are supposed to reflect the world that we live in.

So, at the end of the day you can't have something on TV that is only reflecting one point of view that is not even true but the point of view that someone wants to get out there. That is propaganda.

I don't fully know enough about all that to get deeply into it, but what I do know is that art is here to change lives. Art should have the freedom to do so. That is why you have the freedom to turn off the TV channel. It's as simple as that.

Who is inspires you?

My mother, to this day. When I look at my mother, I see love. When I think of love, I think of my mother. So definitely crazy little Janet Smollett.

It's happening in America but also here. As soon as budgets and funding are cut it is always arts and culture programmes for schools and the youth. We sit with the same thing here. Do you have a message?

If it were not for art I guarantee you I would not be here. I can only speak for myself and I can only speak for what I've seen. 

If not for art, I don't know where I would be. My mother used art to keep us out of trouble. And if it were not for that, in the neighbourhood that we grew up in, in New York, we wouldn't necessarily still be here. We would have gotten into trouble. Art keeps children's minds working. 

That's why it’s important to from an early age try to learn a musical instrument, to try and learn another language. That doesn't take money. There's so many resources today. We're not in the 60s or 70s or 80s or 90s. We are in 2018. There's a lot of resources. We must, must, must keep art in schools. 

And why are the things to always go first the things that help us and help our health? Why is it "Oh healthcare, we don't need that. Just die!", "Oh art? You don't need that. Just fail to exist". 

There's so many other things we could get rid of if we really try to save the world and save money. Art, I know for sure, changes lives. Art saves lives. 

And art opens minds so that we can deal with each other. I truly believe that. Arts and education; art in education is one of the most important things we have. It's not some vanity thing. It's really something that helps and changes lives.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24