The stinging cold and unrelenting wind is going pound-for-pound this early March afternoon outside Steiner Studios in Brooklyn. The sun peeks out from the few clouds in the sky, but instead of providing a warm reprieve from Mother Nature’s unruly child, it causes many to use their gloved hands as visors as they venture to and from the studio lot. Shortly after receiving a guest pass from security, she appeared.
“Hi,” Courtney A. Kemp said extending her arms for a hug. The creator and showrunner for the hit Starz cable drama Power is in the throes of the final day of filming Season Three, yet seems calm and collected under the pressure of it all, bearing an eerie resemblance to the protagonist she created. “I’m just going on set, and I’ll be right back.”
There’s a swift rhythm in the studio’s front office lobby, a dance. It doesn’t get chaotic, but it is choreographed. For the two seasons since its 2014 debut, Power’s cast and crew have enjoyed the hectic euphoria that comes with the final day of filming. Today, the third of its kind, would be no different.
Kemp returns a short while later and takes the elevator to her office. She’s wearing two-inch heels, which brings her 5-foot-9 inch stature to just below six feet tall. Her height, coupled with her red blouse, big smile and insistence on looking everyone in their eyes, makes her hard to miss. She’s warm, direct and deliberate.
“It's very helpful when you work with men to be able to be on eye level,” Kemp says between bites of grilled chicken, sweet potato and greens. Her simple, prayed-over lunch is meant to keep her moving and avoid sluggishness, a lesson learned a few weeks prior when she instead opted for fried chicken. “You have to use and evaluate all of your assets, whatever those might be. You may have a great voice. You might sound good on paper. But when you get to a place where you're managing others, you want to make sure that you know what your assets are--and that you use them.”
Kemp places a few strands of her dark brown shoulder-length hair behind her ear when she says “managing others.” The words fall out of her mouth almost as if she works retail, not at the helm of a premium cable show that doubled its viewership from the initial episode to the finale in Season One, and drew in 6.3 million views among African-Americans at the close of Season Two, solid numbers for a breakout hit.
Kemp picks at her food before taking one last bite, wiping her mouth with a napkin and snapping her lunch container’s lid shut. Likewise, Kemp also keeps the lid on any pivotal details about Season Three and its key players. Instead, she reveals bits of who she is, as explored through the complex characters she created.
“I think I am probably as calculating as Ghost. I'm probably as in some ways emotionally and romantically immature as Angela,” she admits. “I'm as professional and perfectionist as Angela. I am as emotional and as loving as Tommy and I'm protective and fierce as Tasha. I would say all those characters have elements of my personality. Hopefully I'm not as selfish as Ghost, you know what I mean? Hopefully I'm not as brutal as Tommy, and hopefully I'm not as mendacious as Angela, or as shortsighted as Tasha. Hopefully I'm not all those things, but I kind of get those things.”
The relatable, yet deeply flawed personas Kemp constructed in a world based in half truths, advancing one’s own agenda and cold-blooded murder, are a far cry from her own affluent Westport, CT upbringing and Brown University education. Yet, somehow she relates to the characters in their totality. Despite the opportunities provided by her successful advertising executive father, the late Herbert Kemp Jr., young Courtney missed seeing herself reflected in the other children of the neighborhood.
“My dad worked his whole career to get there, to own that house, to drive those cars and to be a part of that area. It never occurred to him, because he had grown up in segregation, how much my older brother and I would miss having other black kids around.”
As one of the only black families in her upper middle-class neighborhood, New York became Kemp’s land of milk and honey, and writing would be her meal ticket. Kemp got her start in magazines working with GQ, VIBE and Marie Claire. After her print days, she became a writer and supervising producer for CBS’ The Good Wife, and also worked for ABC’s Eli Stone and FOX’s Justice and The Bernie Mac Show. She would later strike gold during a casual coffee house meeting in L.A. with TV/ film executive producer Mark Canton (300) and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, which is where Power was birthed.
With no hovering expectations, Kemp and company enjoyed the luxury of creating without having the pressure of anyone watching, and with each episode of Season One, it picked up steam among viewers. According to Nielson, the June 7, 2014 premiere brought in a modest 462,000 viewers with its initial airing, and ended with just below two million views, ushering in a highly-anticipated second season.
When it came time for Power’s sophomore season, many—after falling victim to the “You not up on this ?!” syndrome that runs amok on social media whenever someone’s not in the know went the extra mile to ensure Starz was in their bundle package. Now, as Season Three approaches, and loyal fans are lustful to feel and witness the new dynamic between Tommy and Ghost, Kemp says she’s blocking out all the distracting noise.
I think I am probably as calculating as Ghost. I'm probably as in some ways emotionally and romantically immature as Angela. —Courtney A. Kemp
Courtney Kemp: I enjoy Twitter. I enjoy interacting with my fans. Some days I don't enjoy. There are days when ‘I'm like really? You said that?’ The hardest days for me is when black women say things like ‘You don't understand what it’s like to be a black woman…
VIBE: As if you're not a black woman?
...and what Tasha is going through,’ And it never occurred to that woman that I have been in those shoes. Maybe I'm writing a story that is very similar. Like, it hadn't occurred that maybe part of the story that I'm trying to tell, or represent, as opposed to this is how it should be, this is the story of things that happen to people. People get left.
People get left, and then it happens, and then it changes them. Then they grow up, and they become adults, or they become bitter, whatever it is, but it happens—because not necessarily should it be that you commit multiple murders and get away with it.
Kemp doesn’t let the cryptic statement linger in the air long before quickly getting back on point and speaking of Ghost’s murderous rampage at the end of last season. Her name change—It’s Ms. Kemp, no longer Mrs. Agboh—answers any questions.
We dissect the nuances and tiptoe around the intricacies that await Power’s latest chapter. With Tommy and Ghost at odds, and Kanan proving his undying revenge can save him even from hell fire itself, Kemp plays it close to the chest when asked if Tommy and Kanan will unite to take down their one-time brother-in-arms.
“Umm,” she muses. “I'd rather not answer.”
Omari Hardwick (above): Suit: Hickey Freeman, Dress Shirt: Vince Camuto
“It’s Saturday night, and guess what? It’s not an office party ... Annnnd action!”
Assistant director Vebe Borge instructs the 200 or so extras to do a little more than act like they’re at a club. Men and women dressed to the nines as they two-step holding champagne glasses filled with ginger ale gave the illusion of a sauced-up crowd at Club Truth. A 32-foot-long crane with a 30-pound camera mounted at the top pans across the dimly lit room, just missing one of the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. As the music stops and the extras continue to dance, a stately Omari Hardwick, dressed in a black tuxedo, ascends two flights of stairs. It’s a 30-second, maybe minute-long moment that requires multiple takes and one of many that keeps Hardwick on set until 2 a.m, the morning of the upcoming VIBE cover shoot.
The long workday resulted in the Atlanta native arriving nearly three hours late for his photo shoot call time. Bursting into the YouTube studio in New York’s Chelsea Market, the 42-year-old daps up 50 Cent, Rotimi and Joseph Sikora, who, wearing a cobalt blue Vince Camuto tux—his first look of the day-- embodies less Thomas Patrick Egan and more James Bond.
Like, it hadn't occurred that maybe part of the story that I'm trying to tell, or represent, as opposed to this is how it should be, this is the story of things that happen to people. People get left. —Courtney A. Kemp
After changing clothes and spending a moment with Power’s makeup artist Anita Gibson, Hardwick joins the rest of his cast mates and shows off his lighthearted side. In between takes, he cracks jokes that are actually comical and merit real-life LOLs, not courtesy laughs to appease the ego.
But when it comes time for Ghost to appear, Hardwick closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and then opens them, his transformed visage portraying a fierce, almost chilling intensity. The former BET Being Mary Jane actor mentally ventures somewhere to resurrect coldness. Maybe it’s the same place his character visited when he killed his beloved Rolla, (played by Darrell Britt-Gibson) Either way, Ghost—along with Hardwick—were present. Yet during the interview, Hardwick says coming into Season Three, playing James “Jamie” St. Patrick was difficult after having had a firm grasp on villainous side for so long.
Omari Hardwick (above): Leather Jacket: Brett Johnson Collection, Tee: Raffi, Jeans: Cult of Individuality, Boots: Timberland
Hardwick, who fancies himself a voracious reader, also isn’t an easy interview. A down-to-earth, yet complex intellectual at his core, when cast to play the show’s lead, he re-read Herman Melville’s 1851 literary classic, Moby Dick as preparation. Answers to questions were never straight forward; there was always a philosophical and ethical scenic route he chose to take. Hardwick’s conversation is a cat and mouse game. It requires mental agility, speed, and thinking two steps ahead, which begs the question, was I in talks with the actor or the character he plays?
VIBE: What is Omari Hardwick’s definition of loyalty? And what is Ghost’s definition?
Omari Hardwick: Omari Hardwick’s definition of loyalty would definitely be if you’ve been down for me when it was really rough, if you checked for me when I was trying to figure out the terrain of that heavy-ass mountain and how to get up, if not to the top at least somewhat to a satisfactory place, then I’m rocking with you for life. Once you got me, you got me. Ghost, his definition is a little bit more self-serving.
So at the end of Season Two, Tommy and Ghost “break up,” if you will. Is Ghost/James/Jamie prepared to kill Tommy?
I don’t think he could ever do that. I think that’s what people root for. There’s always a twinkle of, like, ‘He can’t kill Tommy’—as our executive producer walks by right now Curtis [Jackson] is playing a character, in Kanan, that can do that. Kanan is a guy that separates himself from a lot of characters we see on dramas, on thrillers, on crime dramas because he is ruthless and could care less. He shot his son. Ghost could not only not shoot his son; he could not shoot his Caucasian brother Tommy Egan. He cannot. He might act like he can, but I don’t think he could ever come to that place.
"Ghost his definition [of loyalty] is a bit more self-serving."--Omari Hardwick
When Ghost killed Rolla, that was hard for Ghost.
Very hard. That was his little brother. So now you’re asking me to stand in front of Tommy and do that? Come on now. It’s tears times 30.
Joseph Sikora (above): Leather Bomber: Govt. Cheese Leathers, White Henley: Vince Camuto, Jeans: Cult of Individuality Sneakers: Alexander Mcqueen by Puma
Hardwick maybe the face of Power, but it’s Joseph Sikora’s portrayal of Tommy Egan that is it’s throbbing soul. His fierceness, unwavering loyalty and swing (shoot, burn or sometimes stab) first, ask questions-later mentality that has earned him a seat at the proverbial spades-table during Black Twitter’s cookout. When Kemp created Tommy, he was always imagined as a white boy with a ferocious heart who’s also spine-chillingly heartless.
While Hardwick films his club scene just a few feet behind us, Sikora, who was cast in two episodes of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, affably chats on set in the living room of the St. Patrick household. The lights are low, but still bright enough for his green eyes to penetrate. The plush charcoal gray couch and plum throw pillows would lure anyone to sit back, spread and relax, but not Sikora. He leans forward, ready, hands clasped, elbows on knees and present. Even from the comfort of their homes, fans can feel Sikora’s sincerity. He’s far from uptight or uneasy. Simply put, Sikora just isn’t shook, a by-product of his Chicago upbringing.
Tommy is definitively preparing himself to kill Ghost, and then, hopefully, Tommy makes it out of Season Three. That is certainly not a guarantee. —Joseph Sikora
There’s a kindness and gentleness that oozes from him, but at the smack of a director’s clapboard, Tommy’s trademark brutality appears. While Hardwick says Ghost could never put a bullet in his friend’s head, Sikora doesn’t think his character would exercise such restraint. But he also fears Tommy’s days may be numbered.
VIBE: Tommy’s character is reactionary. When Ghost was thinking, he was the one making moves. Now that he has to be number one, will he learn something?
Joseph Sikora: I think one of the interesting aspects about Tommy is that his two biggest influences, in terms of the game, have been Kanan and Ghost. Kanan’s way, which is really more how we have seen Tommy operate in Season One and Season Two is very direct; you have to answer for what you have done. You made your bed, and I’m the one that is going to make you lie in it. And then the finesse of Ghost, thinking two steps ahead, making people believe that you’re going to do one thing, and then doing another. This is going to be the cohesion of those two ideas. This is going to be a season of realizations for Tommy, and a lot of those realizations are going to come from him saying: ‘You know what? How do I do this?’ and then realizing ‘I’ve been doing this. I’ve been operating by myself. I’ve been a boss.’
Joseph Sikora (above): Tuxedo: Vince Camuto, Dress Shirt: Louis Vuitton, Bow Tie: Not Your Average
Are you, Joseph, frustrated with Tommy this season or are you proud of him?
I think he goes through a bit of a catharsis. In fact, I think that is the exact word I would use for his journey in Season Three. I don’t know if I’m necessarily frustrated or proud of him, but what my job is all the seasons is to play him in real time, and play him as honestly and truthfully as I possibly can. Meaning, you have all the good with all the bad and all the medium with all these colors and dynamics of his personality. So it just is—more than like or dislike. I hope the audience is as excited to watch as I was excited to play him.
What is it that you feel you bring to the character that the African-American community feeds off of?
My parents were in civil rights. I can’t say I progressed in the exact same way, but part of it was because of the example of my parents and having African-American people in my life since I was a baby. My heart has never been cold or awkward, or anything. I’ve always had the luxury of knowing that people are people. It’s almost, to me, being anything else would have to be pretend, and people can tell. It just translates. If there was ever any a hint of discomfort with anybody else of a different color skin, I think that would translate on television, especially having a brother that is Omari Hardwick, who is African American. I think that is all it is, and the camera doesn’t lie. People pick up on that stuff.
Ghost sees elements of himself in Dre, and that's why he doesn't trust him. —Rotimi
I know you can’t give it away, but is Tommy really prepared to kill Ghost?
Tommy is definitively preparing himself to kill Ghost, and then, hopefully, Tommy makes it out of Season Three. That is certainly not a guarantee. I’m here today, but I’m not in this scene. I will say that this is a very exciting dynamic season with surprising depths.
Your character is powerful and memorable. Are you nervous people will always look at you as Tommy?
I don’t mind if they do, because I truthfully believe in my talent to transform into a multiplicity of characters, and I think that would be the core audience. When it happens, they’ll say, ‘You know Tommy won that Oscar for playing a doctor. I’m so proud of him.’ I’ll take it. I’m so grateful. I’m blessed.
Rotimi (above): White Tee: Ralph Lauren, Jeans: Timberland, Sneakers: Buscemi
Of all the treachery that’s transpired over the last two seasons, it’s Dre’s loyalty to no one but himself that’s proved to be most dangerous—and the show’s biggest wild card. Played by 27-year-old singer-songwriter and actor Olurotimi Akinosho, Rotimi for short, fans first met Kanan’s young soldier after he gutted hired hitwoman “Pink Sneakers” in a Miami alley, recompense for Kanan saving him from a similar fate while they were both in prison. But as Kanan’s blood thirst for Ghost grew to unimaginable levels—to the point that he killed his own son—Dre switched sides and joined Mr. St. Patrick. Why? Because like The Wire’s murderous, sage stick-man Omar Little once said, “Every man gotta have a code.” And killing your own flesh and blood goes against the unwritten rules of conduct, even among murderers.
Rotimi, on the other hand, is the antithesis of Dre. His smile is infectious, and his aura is equal parts welcoming, comfortable and a little cocky. Unlike his character, who prefers to operate in the shadows, the soft-spoken Northwestern University grad’s presence can be felt the moment he enters the room, star-power honed while working alongside Kelsey Grammer on the criminally slept on Starz drama Boss. When Rotimi isn’t on set, he’s in a studio crafting new music. Rotimi, who through a series of what seems like predestined events, would later sign with G-Unit, which led to the fruitful musical collaboration of his hit “Lotto.”
Last time fans saw Dre, he was holding a gun to Tommy’s head, cementing his allegiance to Ghost. But Dre’s loyalty is temporary. It isn’t as ironclad as Tommy’s. As long as it benefits Dre to remain in Ghost’s pocket, that’s where he’ll stay. Being number two will suffice. For now.
Rotimi (above): Tuxedo: Black Glass, Tie: Hextie Gingham, Pocket Square: State and Liberty
VIBE: Dre speaks a lot about loyalty, but doesn't have much. How comfortable is Dre being number two?
Rotimi: Dre knows his position in the current moment. He still needs to learn a lot about the world he's getting himself into. He's very meticulous. He's very to-the-point. He's so brilliant that he's willing to learn everything before he overtakes what's in front of him. He can't jump in and say, 'I'm the man.' You know, that's a Kanan trait. But what he takes from Ghost is the fact that he knows he has to play certain positions to become king, and his loyalty is to himself and his daughter. Whatever can make his situation better, whatever can get him out of his situation with his child. So if it's better to be with Ghost in this particular moment, then he's going to do that. But we now know that Kanan is crazy! The fact that he could kill his own kid, that throws a red flag for Dre. So, now what's option number two? Which is a better lifestyle? Which is safer for the kid? So his loyalty lies on his daughter, and he also goes to what makes sense for him. But he's gonna play the two until it makes one.
Does Dre immediately earn Ghost's trust, or is Dre going to have to earn some stripes?
In every situation, Ghost is standoffish to Dre because he knows what he's capable of. He also knows he also worked with Kanan, so he can't be fully trusted, but Ghost also knows that he needs him, and he's shown that he can stand up by putting a gun to Tommy’s head in time. Ghost sees elements of himself in Dre, and that's why he doesn't trust him.
Ms. Kemp said she loves writing your character. She said, ‘Dre’s an opportunist and is the ‘drug world male hoe.’’ She said, ‘Dre will say, 'I love you, baby' over here and 'I love you, baby' over there.’ What do you think? Is that accurate?
[Laughs] Oh my god! I mean, she's the writer, and I'll play the heck out of this ‘drug world male hoe!’ I’ve got to keep my job! [Laughs] But, I agree, to a certain extent, because he is an opportunist. So if you balance it out with a male hoe in terms of women, it’s more of ‘What can I do?’ ‘What can I get from you?’ So, I understand the comparison.
But what’s Dre’s end goal?
He has to make sure everything's positive to get what he needs.
Power’s executive producer and vicious villain 50 Cent—who may very well possess the ancient scrolls to social media trolling—didn’t make an appearance for the photoshoot and interview session; however, Curtis James Jackson III was fully present, focused, and ready to go, arriving promptly at noon. He was one of four on set, not the only one, and behaved as such. Accenting the instruction to his co-stars given by photographers Karl Ferguson Jr. and Katie Piper, Hardwick, Sikora and Rotimi unanimously yell “Ayyee!” when “Many Men” from his 2003 debut Get Rich or Die Tryin’ churns through the speakers. Jackson, however, isn’t phased. He stays focused and doesn’t mess up the shot. But when Nas’ “Halftime” comes on, he recites every word, a nod of respect to his formidable forerunner and fellow Queens lyricist.
In one of the shoots later outtakes, Jackson attempts to lead the group in a dab, which results in the rest of the cast laughing at his goofy rendition of the popular dance move. 50 Cent may be the one who takes delight in birthing tension and controversy, Jackson, however, is a bit more human.
Yet, even in the jovial atmosphere he creates at the shoot, controversy is never too far. In the weeks following our interview, 50 Cent pranked the Internet with the introduction of his “third son” Donovan, settled his bankruptcy debt in court, agreeing to pay about $23 million over the next five years—seven million of which will go to Rick Ross’ ex Lastonia Leviston, who sued the Queens emcee for posting a sex tape of her online during the height of his feud with the Maybach rapper—50 Cent also donated $100,000 to Autism Speaks after uploading a video to social media unknowingly mocking autistic 19-year-old Andrew Farrell while at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. And, if we’re being honest, this is just the top layer of his troubles. Still, if any of it’s keeping him up at night, we’ll never know, as Fif can still function, even smile, during the thick of it.
Physically dominating, at 6’1" and about 207 pounds, his soft-spoken voice seems odd coming out of his body unlike the fiery actions he’s known to exhibit. Like Hardwick, Jackson also takes the side streets when answering a direct question, but makes it clear his character Kanan isn’t the show’s only villain. “Ghost probably has 11 bodies, and I’m the bad guy?” he asks with a laugh. “Motherf**ker sent me to jail.”
Jackson spoke honestly about the climate between he and his oldest son Marquise, the difference between his character and 50 Cent, and explained the method behind Kanan’s madness. He did this—and then some—all the while speaking to a writer who has the same first name as the estranged mother of his first born.
VIBE: How is 50 Cent different from Kanan?
Curtis Jackson: It's an extreme difference because Kanan is on one track. It's just the hustler, street mentality. Those laws apply to Kanan, and he's a guy that's been incarcerated and hasn't made any adjustments during that time frame; he just got more advanced at the criminal behavior, slicker energy. It's no difference between the CEO of a corporate company and Kanan. He sees an option of acquiring your business by killing you. That cold-blooded instinct is in that guy who's in the corporate space because he doesn't care if everyone in your organization doesn't have any way to eat. You see what I'm saying? The laws of what you do and don't do in that lifestyle are very basic, and you learn really fast. The requirements aren't very much. You don't need a...
That character is really far—not far from the darkest statements made by 50 Cent—but from who I am, as a person. —Curtis Jackson
A bachelor's degree of some sort.
Right! Or a degree to fit in. Some people say they don't give a f**k, and then you have people who genuinely don't.
Courtney Kemp said the underlining story is parenting.
The broad perception of what she's doing when she says that is like, the parenting between the break in the household even though the circumstances are illegal activity. If it was traditional lifestyle, or, as we say, quote-end quote "the right way to do things," it still affects the kids to a point. When the mother and father are not in the same house, in the same room and the same setup, the [children] can sway between the two. A lot of times when you think about it, you're like 'What the f**k is really driving it?' Because I don't have the energy for any of that or for my ex. [Shaniqua Tompkins] I'm over here doing everything else. She's not a part of my life, and she doesn't know anything new that would irritate her. She's harboring old energy, but it's consistently there. Saying those things consistently around him has jaded my son. So, now, he's swayed towards his mom's perception of things.
In Season Two, when Kanan proved how great of a parent he was by killing his son, were you apprehensive about that scene because of the current temperature publicly with your oldest son? Did you say to Ms. Kemp, ‘You know what, can we re-do this?’
I thought it would be more powerful, and I got a chance to channel into something that was more limited. The Kanan character is a lot more limited. In perception, people will get confused when I utilize the character to promote the series in different ways. I'll promote The Kanan Tape, and they'll see 50 Cent content bleed into the things that are Kanan concepts. They'll look and go, 'Is he acting or is he not acting?' That character is really far—not far from the darkest statements made by 50 Cent—but from who I am, as a person. So if you ask Courtney or anyone else involved in this project if they'd met that person, they'll tell you no.
Where did you get the aggression for that scene?
I used parts of my relationship, and this is why there’s a lot of the improvisation of ‘See, you f**ked up and you done made me f**k up.’ After he shot the boy, because he can’t let the boy live.
Obviously your character isn’t dead. What is Kanan going to look like this season?
When he comes back, he’s going to look like he’s been through a lot.
How much time did you spend with make-up artists?
I was coming in at 4 o’clock [in the morning].
What time did you begin the shoot?
Like 8 o’clock. I felt like I had to come the day before everybody. It even helped the performance that it was done like that.
What’s Curtis Jackson’s definition of power?
Well, power’s influence. If we took everything, it would be influence, and that person that would be able to influence the most people would be the most powerful person at that point.
With Courtney A. Kemp at the helm, and 50 Cent’s real life experiences acting as a guiding force, Power has emerged as one of cable’s most addictive and authentic dramas about pushing powdered substances, and the dangers that come along with it. Roughly a month ahead of its July 17 Season Three premiere, fans are zealous to see how it will all unfold. New enemies wanting to stake their claim make their presence known, while old one’s with familiar faces emerge. It’s anyone’s game in this big rich town, as the powerful are all one bullet away from becoming powerless.
Photographed by Karl Ferguson Jr and Katie Piper
Video Shot & Edited by Azzie Scott for Dream Dept. Media Inc.
Styled by Daniel Williams and Erin McSherry