Is Lee Daniels' Empire a sign that TV is finally taking hip-hop seriously?

Gabourey Sidibe and Terrence Howard will star in the forthcoming Fox drama about a record label – and it’s about time rap stopped being the punchline

The omnipresence of hip-hop in 2014 bears little resemblance to its storied past, especially on television. Throughout hip-hop’s 40-year tenure, it’s been televised in dribs and drabs. Shows like Yo! MTV Raps, MTV Jams, 106 & Park, Rap City and RapFix Live captured the musical spirit of the culture as it went through its growing pains. But on a sitcom/series level, hip-hop has faltered.

Fox’s upcoming drama Empire, led by Precious/The Butler director Lee Daniels, may represent a serious change. The series will focus on a hip-hop record label and has already cast Terrence Howard, Taraji P Henson and Precious alum Gabourey Sidibe, while super-producer Timbaland will provide the soundtrack. It is one of the first times that hip-hop will take center stage on a series that isn’t a comedy and doesn’t star a rapper-turned-actor. Why did it take so long for this to happen?

On a mainstream level, hip-hop was scary. It took decades for the genre to be viewed as a viable art form, so its transition to the small screen took a series of limped baby steps. In 1987, the Cosby Show spinoff A Different World attempted to insert elements of hip-hop into its six-year run. Cameos from Tupac Shakur, Heavy D and Kris Kross were gentle rap cosigns for a series centered on college life at a fictional HBCU called Hillman. In 1990, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air arrived, and while everyone knew that the Fresh Prince was a rapper, the comedic aspect of the show diluted the fact that its star Will Smith was a rapper too, despite the theme song evolving into a rap classic.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Will Smith, James Avery and Joseph Marcell in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Photograph: NBC/ Getty Images Photograph: Nbc/NBC via Getty Images

A rapper making the successful transition to actor was a home run, but the musical aspect was relegated to awkward comedy (cue Will’s exaggerated dance moves when any semblance of hip-hop was played during an episode). Slapstick humor became a vessel for hip-hop, as In Living Color, MTV’s The Lyricist Lounge Show and later Nick Cannon’s Wild N’ Out promoted hip-hop under the guise of comedy, and vice versa.

Police drama New York Undercover offered a rare serious take on hip-hop by way of a lounge called Natalie’s, as each episode ended with a performance on its stage. Chuck D, Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony and the Notorious BIG were just a few of the acts who appeared during the show’s four-year run, and Ice-T and Onyx’s Sticky Fingaz even appeared as actors. However, the connection between crime and hip-hop didn’t support the cause much.

Biggie Smalls on New York Undercover

Even Brandy’s show Moesha had rap elements, in her love interests Ohagi (played by the late Merlin Santana) and Q (played by Onyx’s Fredro Starr), but once again rap was shamed into a corner, as these rap-loving boyfriends were perceived as ‘naughty’. Other defunct shows like South Central, The Wire, Oz and Entourage flirted with hip-hop, but it was only ever a vehicle to tell a bigger story surrounding it.

As hip-hop becomes synonymous with pop and rappers-turned-actors-turned-rappers become the norm, it is inevitable that hip-hop would become the focal point of its own drama. At face value, it might feel like a disservice to credit reality shows like VH1’s Love & Hip Hop as the segue into “serious” hip-hop territory. But perhaps the multi-season success of LAHH unearthed the truth that hip-hop can and does bring a solid viewership beyond its music. It’s a huge step culturally for a show like Empire to even be considered for primetime TV, but that’s a testament to its subject matter. Perhaps it isn’t bigger than hip-hop after all.

Kathy Iandoli

The GuardianTramp

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