Bryshere Gray, born and raised in West Philadelphia, is Empire's fresh prince.
The 21-year-old rapper/actor plays Hakeem, the youngest son of Empire Entertainment CEO Lucious Lyon on Fox's new hit series. But, as Gray is quick to assert, he is not the privileged Hakeem.
At 16, Gray began rapping after being injured playing for the Overbrook High School football team. He spent his recoup months "studying music." And after being fired from Pizza Hut for writing raps while on the job, he used his last check to pay for his first music video, "Ransom," in 2011. He became one of Philly's young rappers to watch. And with Empire enjoying a growing following, Gray says Philly has geared him up for launch.
You just had the last day of shooting on the show. What was that like?
It's kind of sad on set right now because everybody's leaving, and we've been together for about five, six months. It's a good situation: We have a hit series, and we get some rest time.
Everyone has Hakeem's song, "Drip Drop," stuck in their heads now. It was trending on Twitter.
[Laughs.] Yeah. Shout out to Timbaland and [Jim] Beanz, who wrote "Drip Drop." It's a fun song, and the video was great. It was directed by John Singleton.
How has your life changed?
Well, I'm getting noticed a lot more. A lot of people are telling me they're inspired. They love the character Hakeem, and I'm getting a lot of female fans. Thousands of female fans. My fan base is growing each day - and I'm still humble and appreciative.
Everyone wants to know if you're single.
Yeah, I'm a 21-year-old single man. I'm just living life.
How often do you get to come back home now?
Not very often, because of interviews, flights, and filming Empire. But I'm coming back, and when I do, a lot of people won't really know. I'm going to be spending time with my family. I have nieces now. I'm an Uncle Yazz. So I got to do the uncle thing.
Uncle Yazz, where did the name Yazz the Greatest come from?
Well, it's just a name I created once I started figuring out my rapping flow, my cadence, and everything. . . . I wanted something that was brand-new and risky. I'm a risky person.
When you do come back to Philly, what do you do?
I go to my studio and record. I just vibe out, visit family, eat some good cheesesteaks. And enjoy my city because I don't have too much time off.
What's your favorite cheesesteak place?
I'm so in love with Ishkabibble's. So in love. Number two would be Reef, the Caribbean restaurant. And then, of course, Ms. Tootsie's.
How has Philadelphia shaped you as an artist?
I was in the worst-of-the-worst hoods. I moved around and tried to do the best that I could with the connects that I had. I made the best out of it, and it just grew me up. It made me so much stronger, so when I got this position, I was so ready. I can read people. I can know what's fake and what's real. Definitely made it much easier coming from Philly.
So you're the opposite of Hakeem? He's had everything handed to him.
Let me just say this: Hakeem is the total opposite of me. He's the antithesis. He's so spoiled, he's so rich, he didn't have to work for anything in his life. He wants to be Lucious, but doesn't want to work as hard to be Lucious. I don't get that. But Yazz, on the other hand, works for everything. I had to provide for my sister, I had to provide for my mom, and I got to the top hustling.
Do you ever think you would be friends with Hakeem?
Hakeem is an idiot. Yazz is a sweetheart.
How did you approach the role? Was it challenging?
Building up to getting this role, I had the chance to talk to Will Smith and Jamie Foxx. The one thing that really stuck with me, from every single actor I talked to, was that if you feel like you're embarrassed when you're acting, you're doing something perfect. You're creating real life, and that's what they need on camera. That's how I approached Hakeem. I made sure I was honest and no limits. Cookie [Taraji P. Henson] made it so comfortable for me to get in character.
Hakeem is having an affair with Camilla, played by Naomi Campbell. She's a lot older than you. When you found out she was going to play that role, what was your reaction?
. . . I didn't know it was going to be Naomi Campbell, because at first it was supposed to be somebody else. So during rehearsal, this beautiful, young-looking lady walks in, and it's Naomi Campbell. I was speechless. I bottled it in and was so respectful. So charming. And everything flowed right.
How does your mom feel seeing you here, now?
She's so proud of me. I call my mom about four, five times a week. It's good to talk to her, she gives me great advice. She keeps my humility and keeps me down on my feet. She always has great prayers for me. . . . I got her a new kitchen. I'm just trying to do the right thing.
You said that if you were to choose another guest for "Empire," it would be Taylor Swift. Why?
I just think that would be great. It's something unexpected. A country singer on Empire. I'd also like Queen Latifah to come. Or Ryan Seacrest, it doesn't matter.
Your debut album is coming out soon. Tell me about it.
The sound is very new, so many genres of music on there, you're going to be inspired. You're going to make some babies off of it. Might go to the club with your friends off of it. And it's going to be produced by Mr. Timbaland, who has worked with Aaliyah and Michael Jackson. . . . He's doing my album.
Why do you think Hakeem should inherit the Empire?
Me, personally, I don't think Hakeem is mature enough to have the company, and he needs to get his ass whooped a couple more times before he can really learn how to really run this company.
But as Hakeem: What? I need the company. I'm way more talented than Jamal. I don't need Jamal. I want the company; it's for me. I'm the youngest, I should have it.