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The team behind the hip-hop drama revealed Tuesday at the Television Critics Association summer press tour that the fourth episode of season four will be a homage to the pop star, who died in 2016.
The tribute is timed to the birthday party for Hakeem’s young daughter, Bella, that features everything from a Prince cake to a special performance of the Prince song “Let’s Go Crazy” by Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) and Jamal (Jussie Smollett).
“It’s completely Prince-themed,” exec producer and the episode’s director Sanaa Hamri told reporters after the Empire panel. “In a celebratory fashion, everybody, all of the cast, is going to be dressed in a Prince theme. Even my crew is going to, to kind of honor him.”
The special episode was the brainchild of Hamri, who was close friends with the “Purple Rain” singer going back to 2000 and even directed the music video for his 2004 single “Musicology.” “Because I’m a very close friend of the estate, they were very kind to me in allowing us to use a lot of the things that we needed to,” she said. “I know in a weird sense he trusts me with his work, he has been for many, so I say, ‘Why not do that now and honor him in the best way on a music show?'”
Hamri also revealed Prince watched Empire “religiously” when he was alive. He had previously allowed her to use a song from his Art Official Age album back in season one, and the two had even discussed his making an appearance on the series before he died. “I think this is very much something he would have wanted,” she said.
Hamri also spoke to specific parallels between Prince’s own music career and that of the Lyon family on Empire. “Prince always believed in owning your masters or your masters will own you. It’s about being free, it’s about doing the music that you want. The Empire family has always fought to be unique compared to the other people in the music industry. Our show also reveals the kind of dirty laundry of the music industry that Prince has spoke[n] about for years,” she said.
“He wrote slave on his face for a reason, because he didn’t want to be owned and not being free in doing his art,” she continued. “It was something he can identify with because he was there for many years, fighting with Warner. Bros.”
Beyond their mutual love of Empire, Hamri said she was working with Prince on a TV show at the time of his death. “He always wanted to do TV, so when I started to go to TV from film and music videos, this was the opportunity for me to learn the ins and outs of television,” she said. She did not reveal details of the project, which they co-wrote together, and which she said she is still working on despite his passing.
For the episode, Hamri also plans to invite Prince’s sister and fellow Empire fan Tyka Nelson to set. Three members of Prince’s band will also be on hand. “We actually shoot the Prince day on the 21st of August, which is actually the day of the solar eclipse, so I find that very meaningful and I think it’s almost like his energy is shining upon the moment,” she said.
The special Empire tribute is just one of the ways Hamri has been able to honor her friend since his shocking death. Earlier this year, she directed a music video for Nelson’s song “End of the Road,” which was released on what would have been Prince’s 58th birthday and featured shots of brother and sister together in their early years.
“I’m just so happy to be able to bring this to life this season and kind of celebrate him as a person,” she said of the special episode of Empire. “I think it’s the best way to pay homage.”
Empire returns for season four on Wednesday, Sept. 27 at 8 p.m. on Fox.
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