Jussie Smollett

Smollett wears a Tom Ford jacket and turtleneck.

There is no shortage of talented musical performers on Fox’s hip-hop opera Empire, but few of its stars have as much invested in the drama’s catchy jams—the soundtrack went to No. 1 on Billboard’s 200 chart—as Jussie Smollett, who plays the fiery singer Jamal Lyon, the gay son of the entertainment tycoon at the center of the show. “Jamal is very much like me in that he’s an autobiographical songwriter,” says Smollett, who cowrote several songs that have become hits, including the Lyon clan’s de facto anthem, “You’re So Beautiful.” “Many of my own stories parallel his.” But while Jamal’s public coming-out during a performance of that track was an emotional high point for the series and its fans, Smollett, who is gay, wants to make it clear that he was never actually in the closet. What he appreciates most about Empire is that it simultaneously offers fizzy diversion and serious conversation. “These things go hand in hand.”