'Empire's' Bryshere Gray Breaks Down What Makes Hakeem Tick

The young hip-hop star talks about his first acting role and what the youngest Lyon is really after.
Chuck Hodes/FOX

[Warning: This article contains spoilers from "Dangerous Bonds," the fifth episode of Empire's first season.]

From the pilot episode of Empire, the hip-hop soap opera from Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, young Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray aka Yazz) Lyon were strongest when they were together — making music and having one another's backs. But in true dramatic form, that couldn't last long.

Now the boys are not only going to their separate corners to make their own, individual albums, but they may just be plotting a bit more personally against each other, too. After their older brother Andre (Trai Byers) set off some of Hakeem's crew to rob Jamal at his new music studio, Jamal assumed it was actually his baby bro behind the whole thing. The line in the sand was drawn, and he retaliated by getting physical with Hakeem, who didn't understand what was going on or what had changed between them.

Additionally, Hakeem's been juggling two women — the older, wiser Camilla (Naomi Campbell), and the seemingly perfect business arrangement of Tiana (Serayah McNeill). But each comes with their own baggage, and things are certainly getting more complicated with the latter now that Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) is managing her and the secret's out that she has a girlfriend (Elizabeth Whitson).

The youngest of the Lyon brood, Hakeem has been out to prove himself since Day 1, and already he has made some questionable choices — with the things he's said, the company he keeps and the lyrics he writes. What will it take for him to grow up? With his character in the spotlight, THR talked with Gray about all Hakeem has on his plate.

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You were an artist first, outside of the show. How much of your own style are you bringing to Hakeem and his music?

In the first episode I wrote all of Hakeem's music, but I had to sit back, and I had to learn from the best. I'm learning from Timbaland; I'm working with Jim Beanz as a songwriter; and I'm playing right now, so it's a great opportunity. 

Do you find that your experience working on the show is influencing the songs you're now writing for your own album?

Yeah, when me and Terrence [Howard] get in the vans going home after working long hours on set, and we’ll be writing songs, calling Jussie like, "Yo, we got this great hook, we want you to sing it!" I’ll do the verse as Hakeem. It’s like a family musical both on set and off set.

Hakeem is becoming known in the world of the show for some controversial moments — his rant about Obama, an upcoming song that is anti-women — but who is he really as an artist?

Hakeem, you know him by just being a spoiled, young brat. He's the child of a billionaire who doesn't have any guidance on being a man in this world, so he gets advice and his strategies from mistakes he makes in life. He's very reckless. He’s a kid that’s trying to grow, so you get to see him grow in front of your eyes. He doesn’t think when he says things. It’s challenging, but I learn from people like Will Smith, and he gives me advice, saying like, “If you ever feel like you can’t find it or you feel embarrassed when you’re doing something, don’t feel embarrassed; you’re bringing real life on camera."

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He was asked in the pilot episode if he really wants to be dad, and your response was so interesting because it wasn't an enthusiastic "Of course I do." So, what is it you think he really wants?

I think Hakeem would want to be president if you’d let him. He wants to be Lucious; he wants to be a boss; he wants the glitz and the glamor, but he doesn’t want to work hard for it. That’s his main flaw. You’re going to have to pray for Hakeem: he’s going to need Jesus; he’s going to need guidance; he’s going to need time — he’s going to need all of it!

Do we need a similar miracle for him to actually give Cookie a chance?

You've got this kid out here who's got so much talent, that's trying to learn the right thing, but he doesn't know how to find it, so he finds it through older women, and it's because Cookie wasn't in his life for 17 years. I wish Hakeem would get over it. It’s been 17 years, but his mom came out and she loves [him]. I wish he’d get over it, but Hakeem has emotions about that situation and won’t let it go. Eventually he will, though.

Speaking of older women, Hakeem has been in a relationship with Camilla for awhile now, but he was pursuing Tiana pretty hard. What's the major difference between those relationships at this point?

Tiana is [someone] that he’s playing with, and he’s starting to catch feelings for her. Of course, it would be a perfect match for Hakeem to be with Tiana, but Hakeem really, deeply, truly loves Camilla [and] there’s a lot of envious, petty things going on. Hakeem got caught in the hot tub with Camilla, so Tiana does a stunt to get Hakeem ticked off.

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Do you think Hakeem idolizes his father or his brother more?

Hakeem wants to satisfy Lucious. He wants to stay up to his expectations of what Lucious wants him to be, and he goes toward Jamal for advice — especially on music. He can tell Jamal anything and not be judged. These are two brothers who truly love each other. I think they’re a great dynamic duo and a force to be reckoned with.

Jamal has been such a help to Hakeem with his music, but that can't go on forever, especially after "Dangerous Bonds."

It was an intense episode, and we clashed a lot. It builds up throughout the season because Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, oh my God, those two guys write scripts where we all just can't believe what we read when we turn the pages!

Empire airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox. Do you think Hakeem can climb to the top of the charts and take the Empire Entertainment crown? Make a case for him in the comments below.

Twitter: @danielletbd

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