From the Street

What ‘Empire’ And Other Hip-Hop Dramas Say About America

Street-savvy shows featuring a healthy dose of hip-hop swagger and style are finding viewers far beyond the traditional black audience. You can thank the Millennials for that.

Chuck Hodes/FOX

Following the success of Fox Television’s “Empire,” TV executives are eying a crop of new, hip-hop related dramas, signaling both the mainstreaming of urban street culture and the influence of Millennials, the most diverse generation in American history. These shows feature the swag, language, edge, music, wardrobe, subject matter, street savvy, and entrepreneurial hustle of hip-hop, all of which resonates deeply with much of today’s Millennial demographic.

It all started with the slick Starz crime drama, “Power,” which, after a successful debut, was quickly scooped up for a second season that will air in June. The urban crime drama, produced by Grammy-award winning rap artist 50 Cent and acclaimed Hollywood film producer Mark Canton, follows James “Ghost” St. Patrick, played by Omari Hardwick, as he struggles to leave the illegal drug life and pursue nightclub ownership, all while trying to exit a marriage for his mistress. It’s a fast-paced program that features a multi-ethnic cast and is visually slick and contemporary with deep nods to hip-hop/pop culture lingo, wardrobe, and savvy.

Then came “Empire,” which was green-lit for a second season after only a few episodes aired. The series was also recently picked up for distribution in the U.K. Unlike “Power,” this drama is set directly in the music world of Lucious Lyons (played by actor Terence Howard), a former drug dealer turned hip-hop mogul, who has to run the gauntlet between IPOs, past sins, and an outspoken ex-wife, Cookie (played by Academy Award nominee Taraji P Henson). This series, too, features a multi-ethnic cast, but where “Power” is a pure crime thriller, “Empire” delves into the drama that comes from a family’s fight for control and power. This show features guest stars from Courtney Love to singer Mary J. Blige, and touches on every pop culture topic of the moment from homosexual intolerance to ALS.

Not to be outdone, Netflix recently announced an original hip-hop drama series of its own, directed by Baz Luhrmann of “Moulin Rouge” fame. Others reportedly in the works include one from Snoop Dogg for HBO with acclaimed director Allen Hughes at the helm, a miniseries from VH-1, and a project by Leonardo DiCaprio and his friend, the rap great Q-Tip. The CW is cranking one out, and other production companies and networks are no doubt busy as elves shortly before Christmas, because the interest is so hot.

“The major reason why we’re seeing success of these shows is the diversification of the youth population, particularly among Millennials. This is the future of TV; it all rests right here,” said Darnell Hunt, sociology professor at UCLA and Director of the University’s Ralph J Bunche Center. “It just makes sense that hip-hop would be harnessed in this manner because it’s a potent vehicle—when it’s well-done. It’s the larger driver in popular culture and among this demographic, in particular.”

These new dramas are, in some ways, a response to the fractured racial politics bedeviling America lately. While prime-time TV screens show the hope and creativity of African-Americans, other screens show a black man being gunned down by a white cop.

Shows like “Empire” and others like it reveal voices, lifestyles, perspectives, and circumstances that had been previously unseen on American TV. And Millennials are demanding the inclusion of “new” types of stories and cultures, which demonstrates that some parts of America experience—and interpret—the world differently.

Canton, co-executive producer of “Power,” sensed such pent-up desire for hip-hop influenced dramas early in the game. “50 Cent and I were both talking about our lives growing up in Queens, and … started talking about a classic idea that one person with a lot of power can touch people … in both good and evil ways,” he said.

“The result is ‘Power.’ And we’re seeing new generations connect with that kind of ambition-driven drama that comes from the streets of any metropolis along with the music of its time,” he said. “The connection … never gets old.”

Nor, Hunt said, will it ever go away. “A lot of people might pass this off as a fad, but one thing is sure, diversity cannot go away. For the first time ever, we see minority groups—Latinos, African-Americans … mixtures of all the above—about to overtake what was the traditional majority, so if you want to be relevant, you have to tap into that in TV or anything.”

This trend of a more diverse, street-wise set of programming will prove itself far more sustainable than other “urban” attempts in the past, given the sheer size of the Millennial generation, which is the largest generation in the nation’s history, according to a Pew report. It’s the most diverse, too. According to Pew Research Center, 20 percent of Millennials are Hispanic compared with only 6 percent among Americans now ages 84 xand older. Other so-called minority groups such as African-Americans likewise make up a larger share than in previous generations.

But like all big changes in a society, not everyone is on board. Haters gonna hate, after all, and some critics have called these dramas “undemanding escapism,” and “robbed of originality.” Others critics have said that the genre is over-scrutinized, and that these shows trivialize the success of the lifestyle, culture, and those behind it.

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Courtney Kemp Agboh, creator and showrunner on “Power,” dismisses any negativity. “What’s important is what the viewers think,” she said. “What we are working on for this show is an American drama. America has naturally evolved to a diverse mix of people and a lot of them gravitate to hip-hop. Further, I think the racial fault-line of today’s younger viewer is not nearly as wide as previous generations so it’s natural that we capture that mix, and that they are accepting of it.”

And what of those who say that the trend reinforces negative stereotypes of people of color, especially women? As one of the few female showrunners of color in Hollywood, Agboh adds,”First, all people of color were portrayed as criminals on TV. Then they were all judges. I am hoping we are getting to a variety of dimensions, finally. I always include smart women on my shows, and I think they are reflective of certain types of people in society. That’s what we should all have: the freedom to create and present all types of characters in programming.”