Empire’s Cookie Lyon, and the Strange Career of Black Music Films

(Note: This article was originally intended for publication in 2015; since then things have changed.)

By Norman Kelley

In the sixth episode of Fox’s Empire (“Out, Damned Spot”), Cookie Lyon tries on several outfits in preparation for what was anticipated to be a hot date with her ex-husband, Lucious Lyon. The two, years ago in Philadelphia, were a hardscrabble thug couple who sold drugs during the day and cranked out beats and spat lyrics at night while looking over their three sons, Andre, Jamal, and Hakeem.

Now, the two are divorced with Cookie recently emerging from prison after a 17-year bid in which she took the fall for the family’s drug business. Lucious, ever the loyal husband, junked her and moved on with establishing hip-hop label Empire Entertainment, which is the couple’s “other child” based on their drug profits. Cookie has shown up at the moment when Empire has gone from its criminal accumulation phase to becoming squeaky clean to in order to make a public offering under SEC regulations, which will land Empire on the New York Stock Exchange.

The core of Empire is a familial conflict that centers on CEO and founder Lucious setting up his sons competing against each other to see who’ll take over the reins of Empire when Lucious leaves the scene. Lucious, unknown to his three sons and Cookie, has been diagnosed with fatal ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; also known as Lou Gehrig disease).

But let’s return to Cookie’s wardrobe decision. Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) returns back and forth in front of a mirror, trying to figure out what to wear until she gets a gleam in her eyes. Wearing a sable coat, she expresses some trepidation about their forthcoming dinner when meeting Lucious (Terrence Howard) at a suave restaurant. After all, he had left her a rose in remembrance of the anniversary of “yesterday,” their former marriage at her apartment.

Taraji P. Henson: America’s foremost “hot mama.”

When Cookie enters the private dining room she is surprised to see her three sons and daughter-in-law, and that “bitch,” Anika, who is Lucious’ executive in charge of A&R at Empire, and his soon-to-be wife.

Sullenly, Cookie listens to Lucious announcing his plans to marry Anika. Cookie, however, wants to know how he could leave her a rose at her apartment while at the same time he’s proposing marriage to Anika (Grace Gealey). The rose was left in honor of their former time together, Lucious tells her, which doesn’t make Cookie happy.

She throws another rose at the newly engaged that was decorating the table and rises from the table. She wasn’t expecting some “friendly” get together. Opening her sable, showing a black bustier corset with garters attached to her stocking, she was expecting a hot night in New York.

Leaving in a huff, with her back turned to all, she exposes and slaps her pulchritudinous asscheek, telling Anika, “This is what an ass look like.”

Boom. Gone.

Ladies and gentlemen welcome to the real star of Empire: Cookie Lyon. Mother. Drug dealer. Ex-wife. Ex-con. Manager. Abandoned woman, and the last red hot mama.

While Annalise Keating and Olivia Pope are professional and upper-middle class black women (troubled but proper Negroes)in Shondaland, Cookie Lyon is an unabashedly, ghetto fabulous queen who isn’t afraid to be politically incorrect.

She refers to Jamal’s Mexican gay lover as “she” and mutters about her son being a “sissy” when he initially refuses to become more competitive in the quest for the Lyon throne. While Cookie is more accepting of Jamal (Jussie Smollett) being gay, Lucious’ antigay sentiments represents some of black America’s “traditional family values.” Jamal takes Cookie on as his manager, and soon Cookie adds Tiana, an up-and-coming Empire artist as a client. Meanwhile, Tianna is treating Hakeem as “side piece” while dating a woman. Cookie drops the word “bitch” in a hot second, and wouldn’t be afraid to spit “nigga” in half of a hot second if it behooves her. She’s that kind of gal.

Cookie is beyond the current overused term “bad ass.” She’s the last of the red hot, smokin’ hot mamas on TV, and in American culture.

Father Lyon (Terrence Howard) and Lioness Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and their three Cubs: Hakim (Bryshere Gray), Andre (Trai Byers) and Jamal Jussie Smollett).

Of their three sons, Jamal is the more talented singer and tunemaker. Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), however, is the epitome of nigga-cool braggadocio, and is a first-class knucklehead with mother issues. Not only does he has the most volatile relationship with Cookie, who he barely remembers due to her long prison stint, his “side piece” is Camilla, an older women (Naomi Campbell), who he defers to as a mother figure. Conspiring from the side is older brother Andre (Trai Byers), Empire’s bean counter, who along with his white wife Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday), schemes against his two younger brothers. He’s a manic depressive who goes up and down, and down and up.

Empire is a hit TV show on Fox because, as Henson said in The Hollywood Reporter, “People are seeing that shows with people of color can make money.” And “When things make money, people are interested.”

And Empire is about money. Dirty money. Drug money. Hip-hop money. Empire Enterprises, the parent company, according to its own mythology in the Lucious Lyon story: From Dope to Hope, has its “tentacles in fashion, sports management, high-end liquor, publishing, and electronic gaming…” That Empire has an array of ghetto goods from sneakers to alcoholic beverages mirrors the merchandizing of hip-hop culture that mogul like Dr. Dre, Russell Simmons and Sean Combs have engaged in. After all, given the short shelf life of hip-hop artists, it is actually better to depend on aspirational commodities than on the average career span of five years or less after a hit. These products represent clean, shiny money.

Lucious is trying to get the company into the stratosphere of legitimacy with a seat on the NYSE. In the first episode, Lucious has dispatched Bunkie, an old associate, who tried to extort money from him by threatening to reveal the roots Empire’s wealth. Based on the code of the street, Lucious has no more compunction in ridding himself of an old friend than Nino Brown did killing Gee Money in New Jack City.

Cookie, however, is another threat. However, she actually cares about the company since she has paid for it with the loss of seventeen years of her life in prison. But Cookie remains a thuggette, an uncouth, bodacious ‘hood mama who doesn’t have the class and pedigree of Anika Calhoun, Lucious’ light, bright, damn near-white fiancee, the daughter of a mixed marriage. Cookie is the walking embodiment of Lil Kim’s “Queen Bitch”:

Bitch with that platinum grammar
I am a diamond cluster hustler
Queen bitch, supreme bitch
Kill a nigga for my nigga by any means bitch
Murder scene bitch
Clean bitch, disease free bitch, check it
I write a rhyme, melt in your mouth like M&M’s
Roll with the M.A.F.I.A. remember them
Tell em when I used to mess with gentlemen
Straight up apostles, now strictly niggas that jostle
Kill a nigga for the figure, how you figure
Your cheddar would be better
Beretta inside of Beretta
Nobody do it better

Cookie represents the embarrassing threat of Lucious’ thuggish past. Unlike the traditional crazy wife locked up in the attic of Jane Eyre, Cookie, as played by a fulsome Henson, is hot, buttered soul; alive and on the streets of New York. She’s a full-bodied bitch you don’t mess with. As a matter of act, Cookie is merely a regurgitation of the original sexy mamas of the blaxplitation period: Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), Sheba Baby (1975), Cleopatra Jones (1973), which mostly featured the hot mama of that era, Pam Grier.

As someone with acute ears, she tells Jamal that his forthcoming hit (“Keep Your Money”) is wrongly mixed when his vocals are buried too deep within the beats and should riding above it. Empire shows the gritty, low-level sound shops in graffiti-scarred buildings cranking out beats while mega labels like Empire employ beats, videos, and glamour to move its products.

Jamal, pushed by Lucious’ homophobic contempt, has decided to reach for the crown. He makes a Faustian deal to take over his father’s company by denying having anyone “special” in his life. A dagger in the heart of his boy friend Michael (Rafael de la Fuente), Jamal downplays his gay identity.

While Empire may not be the most sophisticatedly written TV show (compared to The Good Wife), it perhaps one of the very few TV shows (or films for that matter) that actually deals with the genius of African American culture; that is, black music making within the context of the music recording industry.

Given that African Americans have been at the forefront of creating several critical genres that have defined American music and have undergird the recording industry, blacks have been, in the words of Russell Simmons, “glorified employees” in American culture. Meaning they are often celebrated as artists, but duly reduced to heralded janitors who neither own nor control their own creations. Given that blacks have been creative dynamos,it is curious that the subject of blacks in the music industry has not been a vital source of material for black filmmakers. Spike Lee himself has only made one black music film in his entire career, Mo’ Better Blues (1990).

Motown collage.

Motown records could have been the Empire of the 1970s had African American filmmakers taken the time to look at the viable source material that blacks have produced, namely music. And what a story that could have been with characters based on Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, and the jockeying for position during the 1960s with the civil rights movement and black power agenda in the background. But black music as source material has pretty much been absent in Hollywood and independent film production.

For example, from 1961 to 1966 there were only two black music films made, black music films are films or TV movies or TV shows that dealt with lives of black music artists, the genres of black music, or black interaction within the music industry: Paris Blues (Sidney Poitier, 1961) and A Man Called Adam (Sammy Davis, Jr., 1966). And this paucity was in “America during the King years,” as Taylor Branch titled his three books about the civil right era.

However, the next decade, the 1970s, saw an explosion of black-oriented films, the so-called blaxploitation period in which a steady stream of mostly low-budget, quasi-professional productions were released; titles such as Sweet Sweetback Baadasssss Song (1971); Shaft (1971); Superfly (1972); Trouble Man (1972; Coffy (1973); Cleopatra Jones (1973); Black Caesar (1973); The Mack (1973); Foxy Brown (1974), etc.

According to a Wikipedia list on Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, there were approximately 65 such films from 1970 to 1979. These films were mostly either revenge fantasies in which a black individual or a team of blacks challenged a white power source (usually the mob, but not the government or business). Or such films showcased blacks in the crime world(e.g., Black Caesar, The Mack).

That’s blaxploitation: Shaft, gangsters, and sexy mamas.

Not too surprisingly, very few of these film were overtly political given what had transpired during the 1960s (civil rights, black power, riots, and the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King) and the brutal suppression of the Black Panther Party. The exceptions were Sweet Sweetback Baadasssss Song in which the protagonist killed two police officers and eluded capture, and The Spook That Sat Next By the Door (1973). It has been alleged that Spook was pulled from distribution due to its overt political message of a race war. Uptight (1968) was another political film directed by Jules Dassin, based on The Informer (1935). (It has been alleged that the film’s wider distribution was discouraged by authorities who saw it as inflammatory in the aftermath of King’s assassination.)

However, given the lack of political oriented films, this period of fertile black film productions only produced, at this counting, eight black music films, TV movies or documentaries: Lady Sings the Blues (1972); The Harder They Come (1972); Wattstax (1973); That’s the Way of the World (1975); Sparkle(1976); Louis Armstrong (1976); Minstrel Man (1977); Scott Joplin (1977).

Once again, out of a ten year period, 1970 to 1979, approximately 65 blaxploitation films were produced while only eight black music films, TV movies and documentaries were made. Most of these blaxploitation films were forgettable while, ironically, some soundtracks — Shaft (Isaac Hayes), Superfly (Curtis Mayfield)and Trouble Man (Marvin Gaye) — stand alone as self contained works. [Note: Since 2014, the film industry has turned out such films Get On Up (2014); Straight Outta Compton (2015), Miles Ahead (2016) Nina (2016), films about James Brown, N.W.A, Miles Davis and Nina Simone, respectively.]

From 1961 to 2015, including forthcoming films, only 43 black music films had been produced in a fifty-four year period while 65 blaxploitation films were produced in a ten-year period.

From the 1980s, the number of black music film production has increased, but given that African American, blacks in the Caribbeans and Africans have created a wealth of music, the strange career of black music oriented films may well explain the fascination that the public has with Empire.

Empire shows the good, the bad, and the ugly said of the music business, but also the missing element of the post-civil rights agenda: black economic development. However, until the arrival of hip hop, black music has never been seen as a crucial launching pad for black economic development.

Or consider this: when today’s outrage brigade attack people, mostly whites, for “cultural appropriation,” the mere idea of economic appropriation via cultural forms isn’t even consider. Meaning it’s bad if whites rap, dressed or speak like like “niggas” in the hood, but no consider is truly given to the massive amounts of money the American recording industry has made off black music in the last one hundred years.

Lucious Lyon is essentially following the playbook of Berry Gordy and James Brown, both independent entrepreneurs who sought to use music as a booster into the larger economic realm. The missed opportunity is that by the time African Americans — artists, entrepreneurs, and intellectuals — have realized that black music and African American cultural forms could make money and be a booster to power accumulation, the structure of the business model changed. Black music had been the missing component of the unrealized post-civil rights agenda.

Years ago, W. E. B. DuBois speculated about a black economy in Dusk of Dawn:

It is quite possible that it could never cover more than the smaller part of the economic activities of Negro. Nevertheless, it is also possible that this smaller part could be so important and wield so much power that its influence upon the total economy of Negroes and the total industrial organization of the United States would be decisive for the great ends toward which the Negro moves.

The hip-hop generation always understood, more so than the civil rights generation, the political economy of black music. Lucious and Cookie represent blacks who take control of the musical means of production and will themselves to the top of the heap, climbing over friends, neighbors and even some family members (don’t be surprised if a Lyon kills another down the road).

Empire — its melodramatics notwithstanding — may well make up for fifty-four year of neglecting black music by examining the good, the bad, and the funky in black music film and TV culture.