Announced in March, Pepsi joined forces with Fox’s sensation Empire right in the nick of time for its third season return.
But by no means is the collaboration a simple business handshake between two dominating brands, completely void of any interest for the top-rated television show’s fans. On Wednesday (May 10), Pepsi, Fox and Empire proved that with an exclusive watch and listening session for one of the season’s most compelling episodes, an iconic musical tribute performed by Jussie Smollett, a live painting from visual art genius Jon Moody and an evening full of celebrations for the top-rated Fox hit.
"This time, Pepsi is rewarding fans by giving them more of what they crave: addictive Empire stories and stunning music content, all consumable exclusively via Pepsi and Empire platforms," an official statement from the partnership read. "For the first time, Pepsi will introduce three fan-first digital and social extensions which will serve as complementary builds to an on-screen narrative to leave viewers intrigued and excited for future episodes."
Attendees also enjoyed the pleasure of a few surprise appearances from veteran raptress Da Brat, DJ Scream, former 106 & Park host AJ Calloway and even Real Housewives of Atlanta's Cynthia Bailey at the W Hotel Midtown in Atlanta.
So when we say the night was nothing short of a lion’s victory, we mean everyone enjoyed being thrown to the Lyons.
As just one of many guests of honor, gifted singer-songwriter and actor Jussie Smollett graced the screen and the stage to help host the evening’s festivities.
Smollett plays Jamal Lyon, the second oldest son of the Lyons clan, who often finds himself as either the calm or the storm, and sometimes a hybrid of both at the same time. The Pulse Films-associated musical tribute, performed and in part written by the 34-year-old singer, chronicled several scenes boasting piano-laced ballads, inspirational odes and riveting vocals from Smollett. His energy in each scene, even on the most lamentful tracks, is undeniably contagious and gripping.
BET.com sat down with Smollett to discuss where the musical tribute lies in his heart and the heart of Jamal, his signing with Columbia Records and new (but not yet announced) music that we can’t wait to get ahold of.
Any songs from the tribute that you connect to the most?
The song that I really connect to and wrote is “Hemingway” [a song dedicated to Jamal’s mother, Cookie.] I feel like that’s just a song that I wrote that’s about a timeless love. Truly, I have a hard time not performing that song emotionally. I remember I used to watch artists perform and they would cry at like the same time. But, I’m telling you there’s a certain moment on that song every time that I have to hold back. I cry. It doesn’t matter which version, but it’s almost like at the same point. But that song means so much to me because mama means so much to me.
Despite everything that your character Jamal goes through, and the Lyons family as a whole, he seems to always make his way back to love and togetherness.
I think that Jamal is like a Sour Patch Kid, really. Sour then sweet, sour then sweet. But, Jamal is like your best friend that you watch and love so much. And every once in a while, he falls down and you get pissed at him for his mistakes or his stupidity. But you know that he’s going to make it and you’re always rooting for him. Jamal is not perfect — he makes mistakes, he disrespects his mother, he’s going to make mistakes when it comes to his relationships, his family. But the one thing you’ll never find him making a mistake with is his loyalty and his heart. For that, Jamal is alright to me. I judge people on their intentions. Not always necessarily what they do, but what were their intentions when they did what they did? I’m talking about this fool like he’s real. [laughs]
But he is real to so many of us.
He is real! He represents a lot of us. He’s real to me because he’s a piece of who I am. But like you said, he always finds his way back to center and back to love. And that’s the main thing I share with him. Now I don’t make the same dumb-a** mistakes as him — I’m a couple of years older than he is now [laughs]. But, he’ll always find his way back to center: he’s some of the bad of Cookie, some of the bad of Lucious, but all of the good of Cookie and all of the good of Luscious.
Speaking of finding center, tell me about your collaboration with Columbia Records. Has that influenced your songwriting or sound at all, even with musical tributes like the one we’re about to hear?
It hasn’t affected my sound, and I love Columbia. It’s been great, but I’m learning the politics of the music industry. Not of Columbia, but of the music industry. And I’m learning that I was an independent artist before where I could just record a song and put it out. Apparently, I can’t do that anymore [laughs]. I say that with joy in my heart and gratitude in my spirit. Just like y’all didn’t know who I was before Empire — it was the thing that really broke me into the masses — it’s all in due time. Everything happens in due time. If I could release it, I would be releasing my music today. Yesterday. Four years ago. But, I’m also a business man. And a grown business man.
Musically, what can fans expect next from Jussie outside of his Jamal character?
I can’t talk about it too much, and I don’t want my words misconstrued. But what I have, I want to put it out so badly because it will resonate with people. I don't want to say too much else. We’ll leave it at, patience and time will tell. What I’m going to stop doing, though, is talking about when it’s going to be put out. I need to shut the hell up about it. Because I’ll say something, then go online and see the memes like, “He ain’t never releasing that album!”
Of his role in the new sci-fi thriller Alien: Covenant, Smollett added details about his role as Sargent Ricks, one of the youngest members on the Covenant with his wife, who lands on a planet completely unplanned.
“I can’t give too much of the plot away for those who haven’t seen it, but just know this: the brother don’t go first!”
The legendary DJ Scream, best known for his mixtape assists for talents like Outkast, Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane and The Game, spun his mixes for the night’s performances. There’s no question as to how the Hoodrich Entertainment DJ was once dubbed top DJ of the year by MTV as he helped sustain the night’s high-powered energy for fans and artists alike.
In perhaps one of the evening’s most awe-inspiring moments, attendees enjoyed a live painting from visual and conceptual artist Jon Moody. As the colorist behind several impactful pieces such as “Dear America-White House,” Moody brushed up a divinely grand portrait of Smollett right before fans’ eyes. The artist has also been seen gifting Hollywood names like Big Sean, Mila J, Anthony Anderson, Diddy, Trey Songz and Lil Wayne with his paintings. He even lent his talents to a redesigned Pepsi can worthy of keepsake memorabilia and made especially for Pepsi and Empire’s collaborative event.
Original 106 & Park host and television personality A.J. Calloway was sure to stop by for hosting duties with Smollett as well. Introducing the musical tribute and pressing some questions in for Smollett about his role and time on set for Empire, A.J. offered a major hand in sustaining the evening’s vibes.
Rap’s first platinum-status solo femcee and hip-hop veteran Da Brat shocked everyone when she rolled through the W Hotel Midtown complete with her classic pigtails and shades. Brat also kicked up the energy for the evening, flicking it up with Smollett and silently co-signing stage performances from another favorite cast member, BRE-Z.
Of course fans would have flipped for a throwback classic from the Grammy-nominated femcee, but her presence certainly was present enough.
Fresh female rap talent BRE-Z also hit high power on the stage during one of the show’s hit singles, best known as Hakeem’s diss record “Daddy’s Little Girl.” The rapper, who portrays Freda Gatz on Empire, hypnotized the crowd in a unique way that only the Philly-born, Delaware-based actress, proclaimed tomboy and emerging underground talent could.
The Cynthia Bailey beautifully strolled by and tuned into the watch party. Photographed beside the fabulous Miss Lawrence, she was all smiles and support for the Pepsi-hosted Empire event.
(Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Pepsi)