Originally, Courtney A. Kemp wanted to call her Starz scripted drama The Price. She pulled the name from a teaching associated with Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program that proclaims pain is the price of admission to a new life.
“We were going to show coke on a scale and then the dollar amount,” she said. “So, the price would’ve been the price of the drugs, but also the price you have to pay to get a new life.”
It was about a drug dealer in recovery who had a sponsor, but the execs instructed Kemp to take out the recovery aspect. After doing some thinking, she realized her project was less about how much one has to pay and more about how much control one doesn’t actually have.
“At its core, it’s about powerlessness,” she said. “So, I called the show Power.”
Sitting at a cherry wood table inside a plush private dining space at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel, Kemp reveals her attraction to the pursuit of power stems from her childhood. Growing up in the affluent, white burg of Westport, Connecticut, her ultimate wish was to have complete, ever-elusive dominion.
“I grew up in an abusive household, and all I wanted was to be able to control my parents. All I wanted was to be able to control my [older] brother. I didn’t want him to leave and go to college. I was a black kid in a white town.”
Kemp lets the words “abusive household” roll off her tongue with a sense of normality that denotes she’s accepted the home she was raised in.
There were a few other kids of color in the area, but eventually, they moved, leaving little Courtney by her lonesome, prompting her to escape into a world where she would have the final say, seeking -- and finding -- her power peak in writing and storytelling.
“That’s always the writer’s question: What if? What if? But it also goes to a sense of powerlessness. I can’t make it like I want it to be, and one of my biggest character defects is that I like to control people,” Kemp said. “So, what does that turn into? That turns into writing people because I can actually make them go places. ‘Interior. Ghost’s apartment. Day. Tasha enters.’ I can make them say things. It’s control. Power comes to the essence of control. Controlling your universe, controlling your environment.”
Kemp may have realized early on she likes to control people, but it was before recovery in 2007, when a “shift,” as she calls it, occurred, and she learned she isn’t a puppet master.
“There have been times in my life, not now, when I was much more likely to use deception to get my way. After a certain point in my life, I accepted the fact that I cannot get my way. There’s really no way to control the universe. We’re powerless over what happens next. You can be sitting in your kitchen, and a stray bullet could whiz through the window, and you’re dead, and that’s nothing you did wrong.”
VIBE: What specifically happened in 2007 that made you realize you can’t control anything?
Courtney A. Kemp: I’m probably not going to answer that question.
I don’t push for an explanation or re-work the question in hopes to dupe her into answering. Her no was a full sentence, said with intention and boundary. All she reveals is things changed for her spiritually placing her on the path to where she is now.
And today, Courtney Kemp sits at the top of her Power empire. With the help of executive producer Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Kemp birthed a crime drama about James St. Patrick, also known as Ghost, a man living a dual life as a drug dealer-turned-nightclub owner trying to leave the streets he’s littered with dope for the legitimate world of New York City nightlife. Kemp and the rest of the Power writers boldly explore the ramifications of manipulation, duplicity, and lies.
Kemp is deliberate with her words. She’s survived whatever recovery she’s hush about and, in turn, has become a forthright woman with steadfast conviction. She ferociously defends characters who’ve merited ire from fans, (“I will go toe-to-toe with you about Holly”) and doesn’t show a bit of remorse when discussing beloved characters killed off the show (“If you ask me if I regret killing Raina, no. Period.”)
So, it’s interesting that with all her truth, Kemp finds liars to be “fascinating.”
“They always get caught. No one ever doesn’t get caught,” she said. “It’s such a fool’s errand. It’s amazing to me. If you run a full game, a full deception, eventually, you’ll get caught. That always happens. It never doesn’t. I have to use a double negative. It never doesn’t happen. So, it’s fun for me.”
Premiering in June 2014, Power--which stars Omari Hardwick in the principal role, along with a diverse cast of characters exhibiting unscrupulous and deceitful behavior -- received noticeable fanfare on social media and earned solid ratings during Season One. After being greenlit for a sophomore season, the secret couldn’t be contained any longer, and new fans were curious to learn what the hubbub was about while old fans awaited lustily to see how things would play out. Now, five years later, Kemp is ready to bring this street tale to an end.
“I don’t want to be a show that drags on for nine or 10 seasons, and there’s no story to tell. This story is over. It begets the next story, but this story is over, and I wanted to pay it true homage and give it the respect it needed. When people say ‘Oh, I want more seasons,’ what they’re saying is they want more of the same, but you can’t do the same story over and over again. Some things have to end.”
Kemp is 42, with a round, warm face and shoulder-length black hair. She often tucks a few strands behind her ear when getting into the nitty-gritty of show talk. Her smile is wide, her skin clear. As a busy mother, creator and showrunner of a hit cable-network drama, the bags one would assume should be under her eyes are noticeably not there. She shies away from compliments about her skin, stating she’s wearing great makeup but admits she’s intense about skincare.
As she sits with her legs crossed, Kemp is relaxed yet alert. Donning a calf-length one-sleeved black dress, she’s removed her gold strappy high heels for nude ballet flats. She’s just finished her first VIBE photoshoot, and the excitement of it all begins to settle in.
In 2016, VIBE spoke with Kemp inside her Brooklyn offices about the show’s success prior to its Season Three premiere, the conversation’s focus being its leading men, Ghost (Hardwick), Dre (Rotimi Akinosho), Tommy (Joseph Sikora) and Kanan (50 Cent). Three years later, it’s the women's turn and Kemp is just as eager to give the ladies their well-earned shine: Naturi Naughton, who plays Tasha; Alani “Lala” Anthony, who plays LaKeisha, and Lela Loren, who plays U.S. federal prosecutor Angela Valdes, have all contributed to the delicious mess that is Power.
In past interviews, Kemp has stated Tommy’s character was always supposed to be a white boy. (Interestingly, Andy Bean who played Agent Greg Knox originally tried out for the role. Kemp said “his audition was f**king bananas,” but Knox wasn’t physically on par with Hardwick’s muscular stature making him look more like a little brother than an equal.) I asked her if she, in turn, intentionally envisioned a white Latina to embody the role of Angela, a question that merited furrowed eyebrows and a bristled response.
“Okay, so, first of all, I push back on ‘white Latino.’ I don’t even know what that means. I don’t know what that is. I don’t even know what that’s saying. What is a white Latino? There are people who consider themselves white Latinos; I guess that’s a thing I’ve never heard about before. Being from the East coast, so many people are Afro-Latino, so I don’t know what a white Latino would be.”
“However, [Angela] was always Puerto Rican.” Kemp continued. “One of the people I looked at ... I looked at Elizabeth Rodriguez. We looked at Monique Gabriela Curnen, who played other parts on the show, so we were going after Puerto Rican actresses. That’s what I wanted. Puerto Rican, no matter how they showed up. Again, I really don’t like that term ‘white Latino.’ I don’t even … how does that even work? I’m not going to even ask you those questions; I’m just confused. It was always to try and find someone who was Puerto Rican.”
She describes Angela as a woman with flint to move through the ranks of a masculine work environment, but also a woman who possesses a girly-tenderness. According to Kemp, Lela Loren has both.
“You have to have a certain amount of f**king flint to get through law school, and then you have to have a certain amount of flint to get through what are highly masculine, male-dominated environments when you talk about attorney’s offices and state attorneys and cops and law enforcement. These women are not shy, and I needed someone who could stand up to Omari,” Kemp said.
“When she fought with Omari, you felt her in the room, and we needed someone also with the softness to still have that little-girl sense of love. To still be in love with her first love. Lela had this very specific quality.”
Admittedly, Lela Loren isn’t good with names, but she makes up for her absentmindedness with hugs and cheek kisses. “I’m sorry, what’s your name again?” she asks while offering an embrace without leaving hints of red lipstick on the side of my face. The 39-year-old who grew up in northern California and Mexico is all smiles this Saturday afternoon. The Beverly Hills sun is kind, and a faint breeze blows through her newly cut shoulder-length bob. Loren runs her fingers through her mocha hair, confessing she wanted it shorter, but instead exercised restraint.
On Power, AUSA Angela Valdes knows nothing of holding back. Loren describes her character as a woman ultimately led by her heart, so much so, her tenacity and ability to color outside of the lines have caused many to question what ethics if any, she abides by. Loren said she understands the methodology behind Angela, but never personally subscribed to it.
“How you get something done is as important as getting it done. Ultimately, for me, it’s about the process. Keeping your integrity, who you are as an individual, how you achieve your goals, is as important as achieving your goals,” she said.
Loren is laid back and present. After posing with co-stars Naughton and Anthony, she kicks off her white Sergio Rossi pumps and wiggles her toes a bit before sitting pretzel-style on lawn furniture outside of the Four Seasons’ Il Posto Room.
Leaning forward with a glass of champagne in hand, ready for questions, Loren thinks before she speaks, often looking into the distance to draw on words to formulate her response, but after talking with her, it’s not hard to imagine her as a journalist, or an educator like her parents. She describes herself as a little nerdy and a voracious reader who’s found joy in Yuval Noah Harari’s 2015 novel Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind.
Valdes has a badge and a gun; Loren has a cat and a garden. Her real-life doesn’t mimic the one she plays on television, which has been delicious -- and also a bit daunting.
“The best part about playing Angela has been all of her wonderful contradictions. It’s so fun to try to find the through-line of someone that has such extremes. She can be so defensive and so manipulative. Then, at the same time, she can be so soft and fragile and almost pathetic,” she said earnestly. “But the hardest part about playing Angela has been realizing that in the outer world, there’s still a very narrow lane for women. As soon as a woman steps outside of that lane, fictional or otherwise, a lot comes at you.”
For five seasons, Angela was the woman partly responsible for breaking up the St. Patrick household, and for some viewers, that’s all they can see. They don’t see Angela’s ambition or persistence or that while leading a drug task force, she’s also caring for her sick father. If Angela’s reputation plucks at Loren’s nerve, she doesn’t show it.
“I think what playing Angela or being on Power really helps me understand is how you can only tell half the story because the audience inevitably brings the other half. No matter how clear you try to make that story, how it resonates with them or how they interpret it, they’re really feeling the narrative. Even times when people would take a scene and how I believe Courtney intended it, how I intended to play it and how it landed on them are so different. In some ways, you have to surrender to this lack of control because we’re only telling half the narrative. The other half is from the viewer.“
Kemp knows things may be changing, but when casting the show, she intentionally wanted a woman to play opposite Hardwick who wouldn’t traditionally be thought of for the role.
“I did look for a brown-skinned woman to play Tasha because at that time -- this is not relevant as much -- but at that time, there were no brown-skinned women on TV playing the beautiful, sexy part. Now, if you remember from the beginning, Tasha was always smart, but Tasha was the gorgeous one,” Kemp said. “I wanted that beauty, sensuality, responsibility and that partnership. Ghost and Tasha were partners, and I wanted all of that from a brown-chocolatey person.”
Naturi Naughton is an even five-feet high, but she has a six-foot-tall personality. On set, the 35-year-old doesn’t wait for direction from photographer Karl Ferguson Jr.; instead, she narrows her eyes during one frame, purses her lips in the next or crosses her ankles, leans forward and with her body says: “I’m here.” Beyonce’s “Formation” plays in the dimly lit 1,000-square-foot room, and Naughton -- in her figure-hugging, red velvet Galvan London dress -- pops against the slate-grey seamless backdrop. The singer-actress oozes confidence with every flash from Ferguson’s camera.
The assurance booming from Naughton is a far cry from when fans are introduced to Tasha during the Season One opener. As Mrs. St. Patrick walks into Club Truth with Ghost on her arm, the first time Tasha opens her mouth, she needs to be affirmed by her husband.
“Tell me I’m beautiful,” she says as she leans her head onto Ghost’s shoulder. He replies: “You already know you are.” But in later seasons, viewers realize Tasha actually didn’t know.
“Tasha was looking for Ghost to validate her, which is why she says, ‘Tell me I’m beautiful.’ The truth is she doesn’t know she’s beautiful. She doesn’t know who she is without him,” Naughton said. “In Season One, she was lacking a bit of self-confidence. She was lacking maturity. I feel like over the seasons, to now, she grew up. Six seasons later, she’s now like: ‘Okay, who am I without you?’ I think she’s gained self-confidence, and she’s unapologetic about the kind of woman she is. As opposed to looking for him to tell her she’s enough, Tasha now knows she’s enough.”
Her character’s new confidence runs parallel with where Naughton is in her own life. As a single mom to her two-year-old daughter, Zuri, Naughton has weathered her own storms, however, the new layer of thick skin didn’t come easy.
“I’m a woman now,” Naughton reflects. “A lot of it had to do with motherhood and relationships that I’ve been in, break-ups and heartbreak. I feel I learned a lot through some of those hardships and about what it’s like to love and not love, to be in love, to fall out of love, to have a child, to be raising a two-year-old. It’s a lot of work. You’ve got to be a strong woman to do that.”
“I’ve grown up because the show gave me an opportunity to grow. This character is so complex, and she has so many different dimensions. I’m a big girl now,” Naughton says with a smile. “I’m really proud of myself. I used to be hard on myself. I still am, but I’m proud of myself because I worked hard, and I’ve done it for six seasons. I was breastfeeding while shooting Season Five, and that’s hard work. I think I’ve allowed myself to feel proud of myself. And as a woman, we should do that.”
Tasha’s character received praise for being Ghost’s “ride-or-die” wife, which hasn’t always been easy for the character. Yet after five years of being loyalty-ish -- Tasha was married when she had her affairs with Shawn and Terry Silver -- Naughton says her definition of loyalty has expanded since walking in Tasha’s stilettos.
“There are a lot of different ways to stay loyal or be loyal, but to also see when loyalty is betrayed, how do you come back from that? [In] Season One, Ghost starts cheating on Tasha with Angela, and then lies to her in Season Two and says he’s going to end it, but he continues to lie to her and Tariq and with Kanan,” Naughton said.
“It’s so many different areas where she feels like the loyalty has been lost, but she continues to ride for him. That’s a deep wife-level loyalty that I have yet to experience because Tasha has been riding for Ghost, even when he was in jail, but I admire that in a way. She never jumps ship. She didn’t bail on him when things got tough.”
As Tasha stood by Ghost’s side throughout his philandering, the sole person loyal to Mrs. St. Patrick was LaKeisha. Played by Alani “La La” Anthony, Kemp made it obvious only one woman was truly benefiting from the friendship, while the other may have received a hand-me-down Yves Saint Laurent purse here or there. If loyalty is considered a weakness in the world of Power, Keisha’s back may sport the biggest target.
“I think it’s a very complicated friendship. I think it’s hard to be friends with somebody when you’re jealous or you want their life. That’s why things between the two of them get so tricky as the seasons go on, and especially in this last season because there is a real friendship there, but there is an underbelly of jealousy,” Anthony explains. “I feel like [Tasha has] never been a real friend to Keisha the way Keisha’s been to her.”
Anthony dissects the push-and-pull of LaKeisha and Tasha’s relationship donning an Area gunmetal cocktail dress and strappy Gusseppie Zanotti open-toe heels. While walking to a quiet location away from the chatter of the photoshoot, the sun hits her dress, and she sparkles. Her hazel-green eyes shimmer and her hair is the perfect amalgamation of blonde, honey and brown streaks. Before the interview begins, she requests an iced tea. La La, as she’s professionally known, or La, as she’s called by close friends, can best be described as the homie -- the very gorgeous, humble homie -- who’s just as comfortable in full glam as she is in a pair of Air Force Ones.
Kemp maintains every character on Power has agency and always has a chance to leave the situation. She especially underscores this when speaking about LaKeisha.
“We’ve given LaKeisha a lot of opportunities not to double down with Tommy. She can peel off at any moment, and she doesn’t. In [Episode] 409, he comes, and he begs her: ‘Can I run my money through your shop again?’ She mushes him and says ‘Tommy, get out of my face!’ And then she goes back to him.”
For Anthony, the most challenging part about bringing Keisha to life wasn’t her unwavering allegiance: It was her ignorance’s marriage to it. How could she not see or feel she was receiving the short end of the stick while offering friends and lovers the rod?
“I think Keisha can be naive at times. You just want to slap her,” Anthony said smacking the air. “Even that scene when she told Tommy: ‘You’ve never killed anyone, right?’ It’s those moments. It doesn’t make it difficult; it’s just understanding her perspective and why she thinks like that. I think we all know a LaKeisha. We’ve had a LaKeisha as a friend or we know somebody [like her].”
Anthony sips her tea and ponders some more about LaKeisha’s obedience to the game and to Tasha. She knows that’s where she and her character differ.
“[LaKeisha] is a loyal friend, and I consider myself a loyal friend. I think a lot of times, her kindness gets taken for granted because she is willing to do anything to help friends and to help Tommy. I don’t want to take that in my life. I don’t like for kindness to be taken for weakness, but I definitely want to be a loyal friend. I am the type of person to be that for the people I love.”
Anthony’s voice is raspy but welcoming. She’s professional and personal. Her legs are crossed and her back is straight. She offers nothing about her personal life. I also don’t ask. The only tea she spilled is that she doesn’t allow her 12-year-old son, Kiyan, to watch Power.
“He’s tried a million times but he’s not allowed to watch. He’s 12. I don’t think a 12-year old should be watching Power. People can disagree with me, but that’s how I feel.”
Portraying LaKeisha has given Anthony a perspective she didn’t have prior to landing the role. Now she has a clearer understanding of relationships and why people do what they do.
“Playing Keisha has given me more of an understanding of women, relationships and friendships. Not that I was ever judgemental, but we’re always so quick to say, ‘Well, that will never be me,’ and the next thing you know it is you.” she said flatly. “I always say everyone doesn’t know what they’ll do until they’re in that situation. Keisha is giving me more of an understanding. You have to look at someone’s background, why they think the way they do, why they function the way they do. This is all from childhood or how we were raised. It gives me more understanding when I’m talking to other women.”
Thirty-five minutes have passed since the start of the interview with Kemp. I push for two more questions and her publicist pushes back with two more minutes. When we began, Kemp hesitantly accepted compliments on the show’s run, noting that despite the hard work, long hours on set and the writing, she credits its success to something bigger.
“It’s hard because people keep saying that to me, and I don’t know what they’re congratulating me for, in a way, because it’s God’s will how many people watch the show,” she said. “I cannot compel that.”
Viewers have been tuning in -- on Sundays in the summer, no less -- because they’re that invested in the lives of the characters Kemp created. As a byproduct of that, life is no longer the same.
“Everything’s different,” she said somberly. “Everything is different. I think maturity and experience put lines on your face and grays in your hair for a reason, and I’ll leave it like that.”
As the woman penning the scenes portrayed onscreen, Kemp’s work is more recognizable than she is. When out and about in New York with series regular and boyfriend Michael J. Ferguson, she jokes she’s often asked by fans to take pictures of him with them. In California, they’re even more aloof.
“In L.A, nobody knows. In fact, sometimes it’s like, ‘Hey, Courtney, have you been working?' ”
After five seasons, Power’s mountain of manipulations and powdered substance will collapse and crash in the series’ final run, normally a 10-show stretch that Kemp and Co. are splitting into two: Part One whets appetites with 10 hour-long episodes that premiere Sunday, Aug. 25, and the remaining five arrive in January 2020. Anyone left standing at the onset of this new season may be in a body bag by the end of it all. Kemp has proven in the past that her loyalty is to the story, not to any singular character. So, all bets -- if they were ever on -- are truly off.
Eager fans will see how it all plays out when we tune into Starz to hear those three scrumptious words we’ve been waiting for all year:
“Previously on Power…”
Photographer: Karl Ferguson Jr.
Art Designer: Nicole Tereza
Videographers: Vince Patrick and Jason Chandler
Makeup Artists: Vanessa Scali (Lela Loren), AJ Crimson (Naturi Naughton), and Sheika Daley (La La Anthony)
Hair Stylists: Aviva Perea (Lela Loren), Alexander Armand (Naturi Naughton), and Ray Dodson (La La Anthony)
Wardrobe Stylists: Alyssa Sutter Studios (Lela Loren), Brian Mcphatter (Naturi Naughton), and Maeve Reilly (La La Anthony)