Reminder: 'Empire' is not socially conscious TV – and it doesn't need to be

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“The revolution will not be televised.”
- Gil Scott-Heron

After a remarkably successful first season, Empire returned to Fox this week to kick off Season 2, and they returned with a bang.

Episode one opened to more than 16 millions viewers and an average 6.7 rating in the coveted 18-49 demo.

The show received 1.3 million tweets during the broadcast, making it the No. 1 most-tweeted one-hour scripted broadcast ever.

While many people couldn’t wait to get their Cookie fix, there were also a great number of people, especially from our community, who simply could not put their support behind Empire because — in their opinions — the show simply doesn’t represent blackness in a positive light.

I can understand why some people feel that they are stuck in an entertainment climate where projects featuring predominantly black casts are typically overlooked unless they revel in society’s deepest stereotypes of African-Americans. I can also understand the desire to use popular black entertainment to simultaneously highlight our community’s issues, so we can be educated and entertained at the same time.

But if black people are so concerned with advancing the knowledge base in our communities, it is the height of intellectual laziness to put that effort squarely on the shoulders of a prime time television show. To ask whether or not Empire is “good” for the collective consciousness of the entire black community is asking the wrong question.

The real question is: why does a successful “black” TV show, movie or album need to be positive and enlightening in the first damn place?

The flawed ideology that black creatives must design art that quells white people’s ignorant beliefs about Black folks is sad as hell. We need to break those mental chains that demand that it is our responsibility to end racism and discrimination by essentially screaming at white folks, “Hey, look how good we truly are!”

Black creatives should be free to act, direct, sing, dance, write and perform whatever satiates their soul and their visionary appetite, not attempting to save the black race with every performance. To make uplifting societal importance the goal of their work is invasive, unfair and unnecessary.

Empire, Scandal, Power and other shows with black casts do not need to be socially conscious, nor do they need to be absolutely reflective of black people’s lived cultural experiences in a white supremacist society. They are entertainment programs that exist to, well, entertain us. When it’s time to have fun, we can turn to black comedies that reflect our lives, like Black-ish, or to comedies that are wacky and completely based in fantasy, like Black Jesus.

When we want hyperbolic drama, we should turn to Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder, so we can sit back and be amused by the acting and the writing without parsing each scene for positive portrayals and social awareness. It was great that Empire gave a nod to the Black Lives Matter movement at the beginning of last nights’ episode, but it’s not the responsibility of the cast and crew to take the mantle of positive black representations, especially when they abound everywhere else beyond TV.

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It’s also flatly wrong to believe that black entertainers must shoulder the brunt of responsibility to fill the assumed academic void in our community, when scholarly books, articles and studies are easier to access than ever before. I can’t help but laugh when people like Dr. Boyce Watkins cheaply evoke the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King to denounce shows like Empire, as if blacks lack the ability to be socially conscious and have a good time.

It’s men like him that would walk into a strip club and scream at the DJ for playing Future or 2 Chainz, instead of Wynton Marsalis or Duke Ellington, then yell at the dancers for not wearing Kente cloth lingerie.

Black kids, black teens, and black adults are now living in a world where Ta-Nehisi Coates is explaining the fear black men face of having their bodies taken from them, and where Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is explaining to us why We Should All Be Feminists.

We are blessed to have insightful works from incredibly talented black authors such as Charles Blow, Michelle Alexander, Janet Mock, Dwayne Alexander Smith and Jesmyn Ward. We’re also living in a world where people don’t need to leave their couch to access the greatest works of Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou. This is the true information age, and enlightenment is only clicks away.

To believe that weekly, 60-minute escapism through one of the few “black” shows on TV will lead to our community’s doom is beyond ridiculous. The revolution was not going to be televised then, and it damn sure won’t be televised now.