As the saying goes: “You can take a nigga’ out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of the nigga’.”
That’s how I would describe Fox’s new hit prime time soap, Empire, starring Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henderson. Like Miami Vice of the 80’s which according to the grapevine Michael Mann sold on the basis of an idea using the catch phrase “MTV Cops,” I can imagine Lee Daniels and Danny Strong going to Fox execs and pitching a “Hip Hop King Lear.”
Not unlike most Hip Hop and Rap videos that now show up on that same MTV, the genre is nothing but “ghetto fabulous” and America is tuning in. The audience for the show has grown week by week where according to an article titled ‘Empire,’ The Meteor That Never Fell To Earth in yesterday’s New York Times, 14.9 million viewers watch the penultimate show last week.
If past is prologue even more viewers will watch and tweet in front of their TV’s for tonight’s final two-hour season finale.
Fox execs shouldn’t have been surprised by the response the show has gotten in the coveted 18-49 demographic among men. After all more Rap and Hip Hop records are bought by white males than black folks. Hip Hop isn’t and hasn’t just been a “black thang” for a very long time, if ever. Back in the day when MTV first got started the tone deaf execs of the erstwhile “music network” had to be coerced by CBS Records to play Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” the first “black” artist to break through MTV’s color barrier.
So when “white” network TV want’s to make a splash with a “new” show why not a Hip Hop “Dynasty,” or “Dallas.” At some point given Lucious’ gangsta’ background I can see a “Who Shot Lucious?” episode at some point in the series. Think of the ratings!
Of course “white” TV isn’t about image, or uplift, or even imagination particularly when it come to presenting “black” characters. Any shows that do would be the exception. Most go for the stereotype, the trope, the prejudice that the audience has become inured to.
Imagine an alternative universe where Lucious isn’t a ghetto expat, from a single parent home, but a self-conscious “black” man from a working class background who through sheer will and entrepreneurial determination has created a multi-media empire that consists of publishing, broadcasting, digital. He has to deal not only with his terminal illness and his dysfunctional family, but the larger “white” institutional roadblocks that despite his success have to continually be addressed to keep his “Empire” together. Imagine that unlike Daniels’ characters our Lucious understands his history, doesn’t just move in a “black” world, but in the larger society where, being bi-cultural, he must “code-switch.”
Imagine a show that not only “represents” but confronts the fallacies of American exceptionalism, critiques the notion a “post-racial” society, and skewers the growing inequalities among the one percent and the rest of us, that examines the conventional wisdom of what it means to be American.
Now that would be a show worth watching. And it can still have a Hip Hop sound track, if you insist.