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What 'Empire' Got Wrong: The Disappointing Underrepresentation of White People in the Music Industry

By Deadline Genevieve | TV | April 1, 2014 |

By Deadline Genevieve | TV | April 1, 2014 |

The first season of Empire was a genuine cultural phenomena. Week after week, the audience tuning into to see the drama and manipulations of Lucious and Cookie Lyons and the struggle between their three adult sons grew to record shattering numbers. But as great as the show is, it seemed to present a view of the music industry where the dominant executives and artists were all black. While there are many talented black artists and executives in the modern American music industry, the fact is that they were over-represented in Empire to the detriment of the show’s credibility.

It’s a simple and easily observable fact that the music industry is, by and large, dominated by white people. There are people of color who have certainly made their mark, but you’ll notice that below the “super star” level, the next few tiers of popularity are far less diverse. It is simply unreasonable to think that an independent label like Empire Records could be as successful as they are supposed to be without significant diversity on their roster, but the only evidence we see of such diversity is one incredibly stereotyped old rocker who is quickly discarded after an episode and a half. Looking at the Billboard Top 200 albums of 2014 there’s only one artist of color in the top ten, and you have to go down to #25 to find the next one. All told, of the 200 best-performing albums of the year, 37 were by artists of color or groups that included a person of color. Adding in soundtrack and compilation albums likely to include songs by black or other ethnic artists, the number goes up to 50. The Top Artists of 2014 has about the same amount of representation with 25 artists of color, but in both cases legacy artists like Bob Marley and Michael Jackson are ranked alongside and frequently above current artists. Leaving aside the niche element of Empire’s roster, all the focus appeared to be on one or two brand new artists to the detriment of older artists who were likely far more lucrative. This simply isn’t a way to run a record label.

Beyond the narrow focus artist-wise, there was a marked lack of white people at all levels of power in the Empire headquarters. Looking at the Billboard 2015 Power 100 list, there are a total of 8 black executives out of over 100 (some spots have two or more people) power-players. This means that Empire’s entire structure, with Lucious, Bunky, Andre, and Anika all having a great deal of power in the company, is completely unrealistic in light of the actual ethnic makeup of the music industry. You can argue that Anika is half white, or that Andre’s wife Rhonda seemed to have an important place in the company, but Anika’s biracial identity was barely explored, and Rhonda was criminally underutilized this season. The latter seemed to exist more as a prop to characterize Andre and his place within his family.

While I’m sympathetic to people wanting to write what they know or staying true to their particular vision, the idea that a company like Empire Records could exist and be so successful with virtually no white executives or major artists is simply unfathomable. All one has to do is look at the actual music industry to see how far off the mark they are. The show has been renewed for a second season, and I sincerely hope the writers and casting directors take the chance to take a hard look at the world they’ve created and work to make sure that the hard working white artists and executives get their due credit.

Genevieve Burgess is a Features Contributor for Pajiba. You can follow Genevieve Burgess on Twitter.