Chris Rock Detention Center
Chris Rock, Sam Jones, JTDC Superintendent Leonard Dixon, and staff members of the JTDC. (Photo/JTDC staff)

Having garnered more than 16 million weekly viewers, and multiple Television Critics Association, Critics Choice, and Emmy award nominations, nearly everyone is eagerly anticipating the second season of the mega hit TV series, Empire.

But as we clamor to grasp its standing in pop culture, lost in the mist of the growing body of Empire lore has been scant consideration of the significant contributions some of its star performers are making in the lives of many Americans.

For instance, Empire’s Chris Rock departed from an exceptionally rigorous day of production to address youth at Chicago’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

The facility is the largest youth detention facility in the nation, reportedly housing between 250 to 350 youth a day and employing more than 600 employees. Situated under the auspices of the Circuit Court of Cook County, the largest circuit court system in the nation, it is quite arguably the epicenter for juvenile detention in the United States. And Mr. Rock’s visit with the youth was symbolic of a perfect hybrid of pop culture and social justice consciousness.

Mr. Rock spoke candidly about the need for the youth to accept responsibility for their behavior and to resist the temptation to blame others for their current circumstances. In so doing, he specifically warned against a seemingly popular inclination to blame black fathers. Exceptionally genuine and compelling in nature, Mr. Rock lamented that too often black fathers are denounced for the perilous conditions facing many black youth, without being afforded deserving credit for their favorable contributions.

In a heartfelt attempt to highlight the importance of valuing family over potentially destructive childhood friendships, Mr. Rock spoke passionately about his unqualified love for his children. He explained that despite his many accomplishments and vast acclaim, his children and family are what matters most. He urged the youth to explore ways to foster healthier family and constructive relationships and to explore ways to improve themselves, respect authority, and embrace realistic dreams. But while reassuring the youth of their capacity to accomplish their own dreams, Mr. Rock appeared to acknowledge the societal challenges facing black youth. “You cannot be anything you want to be,” Mr. Rock warned. Still, he reiterated that with hard work, sound relationships, and proper choices, the youth could be successful. After concluding his remarks, Mr. Rock graciously took questions, shook hands, posed for pictures, but warned the youth, rather affectionately, not to “stab” him, as only a great comedian can do.

Mr. Rock’s address could not have been more fitting. It comes on the heels of a Harvard University study that ranked Cook County 96th out of 100 counties in the U.S. for raising successful children, a pediatric study indicating that suicide among black children has nearly doubled since the 1990’s, and an alarming homicide rate among Chicago’s black youth that has garnered national attention.

Perhaps Mr. Rock’s selfless, and potentially life changing, generosity provides a tantalizing example that we all should follow. Without question, it introduces a new dimension to the Empire story that is endlessly important to understanding this cinematic phenomenon.

Samuel V. Jones is a Professor of Law at the John Marshall Law School and recognized authority regarding social justice.