When Buzzfeed, a news and social media content company, known for their popular personality quizzes, asked him what his most recent Google search was, he replied succinctly and honestly: “My favorite poet, Langston Hughes.” With his recent and some what overwhelming success on Fox’s newest drama “Empire,” the passing of his father earlier this year, and the plethora of other things individuals tend to Google, I’m sure his answer was a bit of a surprise. But actor, singer and songwriter Jussie Smollett in many ways embodies the essence of Langston Hughes’ poetry: perseverance, identity, celebration of difference and of course, talent and undeniable skill.
Smollett was born in Santa Rosa, California. As one of six children, there’s no doubt, he grew up knowing about all teamwork. Ironically, his first breakout film,“The Mighty Ducks,” was about the power of working together. He played the role so well he was nominated for the Young Artist Award for Outstanding Young Ensemble Cast in a Motion Picture, a prominent recognition from the Young Artists Foundation. It was clear that Smollett had found his niche in acting. But the dream, like the one Langston Hughes mentions in his poem “Harlem,” didn’t come to full bloom immediately–it was deferred. While Smollett’s next film “North,” a comedy film about a young boy traveling the world in search of perfect parents, occurred only two years after “The Mighty Ducks,” there was a 15 year gap between “North” and his chance to act in “Pitch This.” But throughout his journey though, Smollett had the support of his family cheering him on. In fact, his brothers and sisters cheered him on while they too pursued acting.
Illustrating that support on television, the siblings acted in the sitcom “On Our Own.” The show, following the Jerricho family, depicted life for seven siblings living without their parents in St. Louis, Missouri. Little did Smollett know that in many ways, the show would reflect his own life as he reached a high point in his career. Just this January, Smollett’s father, Joel Smollett Sr., passed away after a considerable battle with cancer. In fact, he died the same Wednesday “Empire,” Lee Daniels’ social drama which largely features Jussie Smollett, premiered. Sharing the news on his Instagram profile, Smollett remembered his father with these words, “my family lost our king, but we gained a righteous angel. In another post, he wrote, “ I love and honor you. I will continue to work hard to make you proud and will always & forever be your son.” Of course, he has done nothing short of that, both on “Empire” and through his music.
A lover of the arts, Smollett not only acts, but sings and writes music as well. Often featured on “Empire,” Smollett’s artistry as a musician began long before the show ever premiered. According to People.com, the 31 year old has signed with Colombia. “Less than a year ago, I was an independent artist, doing it like anybody else,” he told the magazine. “I was recording my album in a home studio and then, within four weeks, I was recording in Miami at the Hit Factory with Timbaland and Jim Beanz.” But Smollett doesn’t stop there. Revealing a secret to Buzzfeed, he told the media platform that he’s actually an amazing cook. It seems that not only like Langston Hughes’ “Harlem,” poem, Smollett is not only a renaissance man, but that his deferred dream has indeed exploded, all over Hollywood and in the best way possible.
In a way, Jussie Smollett, like Langston Hughes, embodies it all: humor, craft, skill, personality, intelligence and a unique identity. Born to a Jewish father and an African American mother, he calls himself “Blewish.” His well groomed and well kept appearance makes you wonder how he gets away with eating french fries and Twizzlers, two of his guilty pleasures. Yet admittedly, “bigotry, apathetic humans” and a waiter commenting on how fast he eats, drives him crazy. If we’re honest, he’s just the kind of guy that makes people swoon with adoration while praising him for his likeability.
Knowing how much he loves Langston Hughes, I imagine his father, if he could, would read Hughes’ “Mother to Son” to Smollett, retitling the poem “Father to Son,” for this specific occasion. I imagine he would look Jussie in the eye and recite the following with a heart full of pride: “So boy, don’t you turn back/ Don’t you set down on the steps/ ‘Cause you find it’s kinder hard. Don’t you fall now/ For I’se still goin’, honey/ I’se still climbin’/ And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”