Real-life rap star Bryshere Gray may play a young-un about the booze and babes on Fox’s new hip-hop drama Empire but the 21-year-old Philadelphia native already has performing at Budweiser’s 2013 “Made In America” festival and opening for 2 Chainz and Fabolous under his belt.
The rapper/actor, better known as Yazz The Greatest, makes his small-screen debut as Hakeem Lyon, the youngest of Lucius Lyon (played by Terrence Howard) and Cookie’s (Taraji P. Henson) three sons, vying for the Empire throne. But Gray is far from the bratty, budding spitter he portrays on TV. To get to his primetime slot, he’s gone through some adversity. “I grew up in West Philly with a single mother, working three jobs trying to provide for me and my sister,” he tells VIBE, “And not having money and trying to be this artist… it was hard. I just kept at it and it got me here.“
Get familiar with Bryshere Gray in the full Q&A below.—Richy Rosario
VIBE: Congratulations on your first acting role. How does it feel now that the show has premiered?
Bryshere Gray: It’s a great opportunity. This is my first acting gig, and I get to work with Lee Daniels, Taraji P. Henson, and Terrence Howard, [all] Oscar nominees and I’m blessed to be in this situation.
How did you score this role?
I was doing my thing. I was living in Philadelphia and rapping. I was doing a lot of shows all over my city and performing out on the street. I just wanted people to hear me. I was just so eager and ambitious. If I wrote a song that night, I was going to perform it to the world and that’s what I did. So I met my manager, Charlie Mack, who is like Will Smith’s best friend, and he gave me the audition. I did a video audition for Lee Daniels and he loved it and sent me to L.A. I auditioned [there] with Taraji and Terrence, cause they were doing their auditions for Lee, too. We got to do it together.
What was that like?
(Laughs) Well, when I walked in he was like ‘Mr.Yazz, we’re ready for you in the room.’ I’m expecting to just walk in to the director, Danny Strong, and a camera [but] I see Terrence and Taraji. I was kind of blown away because they’re like gods where I’m from. They’re so respected. So it was cool I kept it together. I did my audition scene with Terrence and he loved it, and it was a rap.
What have you learned so far from Taraji and Terrence?
I learned how to treat a woman from Taraji. She teaches me things on life experiences, cooks for me, Jussie and Gaby—we hang out outside of set and it’s like a real family. Terrence, on the other hand, is like a big brother. We had Christmas at his house. It was good to just really connect and get a different relationship other than Lucius and Hakeem. We call each other on the phone as we’re leaving the set. We’re just getting out of work and we’re writing songs on the phone in our vans going home. That’s how we are.
It seems like Hakeem and Jamal have a close relationship. How does that play out on the show being that you guys are competing for the top spot at Empire?
Hakeem and Jamal’s relationship is very dynamic. Hakeem knows Jamal is gay; he accepts it because he loves his brother so much. Hakeem didn’t have nobody growing up but Jamal so he looks up to Jamal. Jamal is the person that Hakeem tells every secret to. Their relationship is very close. Hakeem knows he needs Jamal at the end of the day because together, they’re a crazy duo.
How do you relate to Hakeem?
I see similarities music-wise. I don’t get to write the music on the show, Timbaland writes the music so that’s a non-similarity because I write my own music, but to have Timbaland write is an honor. There’s really no other similarity because Hakeem is so disrespectful, ruthless and spoiled. I’m the complete opposite. I’m a sweetheart.
Speak on the relationship Lucious has with Hakeem?
Hakeem is Lucious’ favorite son. He has a lot of Lucious in him because he learned from his dad to treat people bad, seeing him deal with other girls so Hakeem doesn’t really know how to respect females. He really is a product of his habitat. But Lucious keeps blaming Hakeem when really, he needs to get himself together so Hakeem has a good role model. Hakeem doesn’t have the ambition and doesn’t want to work as hard to get to where he wants to be.
It seems like Hakeem has major mommy issues because Cookie wasn’t there.
Oh yeah, it stems from the fact that Lucious didn’t let Hakeem see his mother [while she was] in jail for 17 years. Jamal was old enough to go see her after school. Hakeem stayed with a nanny and stuff like that so when Cookie came back home to visit, of course, Hakeem was very disrespectful and very hurt. When you hurt sometimes, you do things you don’t mean.
Let’s go back to your music career. How did you start rapping?
Well, I started rapping when I was 16. I was working at Pizza Hut. (Laughs) I was just tired. I was like ‘Is this life?’ I just graduated and I started rhyming and really fell in love with it. When I did my first performance, I was like ‘This is what I really want to do.’ People loved what I did on stage. I used my first Pizza Hut check to pay for my music video and I promoted it everywhere on Facebook at crazy hours. (Laughs) I was writing raps at my job and I got fired. After I got fired, I just really committed to it.
How has your rapping skills helped you with doing the show?
It helps a lot with the character, it gives a different bravado.
What’s the creative process like, making music with Jussie? It seems like you guys have great chemistry on the show.
We really have a brotherly relationship. When we was in Miami, that was our first time really connecting. I lost my ID and you know they’re not letting you go past the airport if you ain’t got no ID now. So I’m lost now, [thinking] ‘We have to do a table read for the next episode. I have to be in Chicago. I’m going to miss my flight.’ And Jussie stayed the whole time. He could’ve left and went to his table read. but he stayed with me and made sure I was cool. We got on the flight and got there a little late but we got there. That’s when I was like, ‘Man, that’s my brother right here.’
Is it a full-circle moment for you being from Philadelphia and having Empire set there?
It is a full-circle moment. To have Philly embrace me, it’s great because there is a lot of talent in my city that’s hidden so it’s great for me to represent my city.