After releasing his 10-track debut album, Sum of My Music, in March, the 34-year-old crooner has earned a new wave of fans outside Empire viewers. Penning visceral verses about the ugly truths of jealousy and overcoming his insecurities as an openly gay black man, Smollett is morphing into a force bigger than his epochal character Jamal Lyons, who is lionized by TV junkies.
Billboard caught up with the multifaceted star late last month in New York to speak on his Sum of My Music tour, his debut album, overcoming his jealousy issues, dealing with insecurities, and his advice to openly gay artists looking to break through in the music industry.
You have to be a pro at this point I'm assuming when you're onstage, right? Or do you still have pre-game jitters?
There’s definitely pre-game jitters. I get freezing cold right before I get onstage. Like, freezing. It’s so weird. My fingertips get really cold and they’re like, “Yo, this n---a ‘bout to pass out.” But then the moment, I mean the second, I hear the first bit of music leading me in, it’s done. Then, I get really, really hot. I’m like a melting glacier. I know people are like, “Yo, this fool is like a crackhead.” I’m not. I’m a weedhead. [Laughs] We just put a lot into it and give it our all every single night. Of course I got jitters. We do our push-ups in the back, you know what I’m saying.
What have you learned about yourself so far on this tour as a performer, both good and bad?
As a performer, I have to pace myself. That’s the bad thing. I don’t pace myself enough to find those moments of rest. This is just me being honest. It’s hard to turn it off after a show, so you end up being up. Not like partying or anything because I don’t go out and drink and stuff because I’m worried about my voice. I spend a lot of time worried about my vocals and just wanting it to be the best.
I drink a lot of water on stage [laughs]. One of my best friends came to the LA show and she came to the back and hugged me backstage, giving me so much love but and said, “I don’t know how you do what you. But one note: Beyonce did all of Coachella without one sip of water.” And I’m like damn. Now every time I take a sip, I hear her voice.
Now you’re out here thriving as a director as well. How would you compare your level of confidence as a director to you being an artist or an actor?
I have major confidence in myself as a director as far as music videos go, because that’s my vision and my team and Frank Gatson, we work so hard. I feel like I’m still introducing myself as a director. As an actor, my confidence is there. As a vocalist and performer, as well. All of these things, even though I’ve been doing ‘em forever, I still feel like I’m introducing myself to the world every single day. I also feel like that’s one of my gifts -- never getting too comfortable. Frank Gatson always tells us all, we can have a bomb ass show and he’ll tell us the next day, “Don’t get comfortable just because you had a good show. Don’t get comfortable.” Every single day is like the first day. Once it becomes monotonous and repetitive, it becomes boring.
The fun isn’t there anymore.
You don’t work as hard. You’re not working as hard on something that feels like a fine old machine. There’s always something that happened last night that doesn’t have to happen tonight. I’m definitely introducing myself as a full-fledged artist right now to everyone.
I like the project a lot.
Tell me a couple that’s your favorites.
I love "Insecurities" and you being open about your struggles. Do you still find yourself fighting certain insecurities, and if so, how do you make sure those are short-term battles?
That’s a good question. For “Insecurities,” I’m not in the same place that I was -- I’ma have insecurities for the rest of my life -- but because I’m not in the same place that I was when I wrote it, those are other people’s insecurities. The insecurities named in the song, those are other people’s insecurities that people put on me. Now, this whole tour. I’m so grateful that it’s sold out, but there will always be an insecurity to me of “Will they care?” They get music every single week. Will they actually be like, “Yo, we’re touched by what he does”?
Another one that I loved was “Hurt People.” What do you think is the remedy to prevent hurt people from hurting other people?
The remedy is to stop. I know that sounds ridiculous and general. I don’t judge people on what they do. I judge people on how they react when they are approached with what they did. I know it sounds simplistic, but it’s just to stop. That’s what the song is about. We all go through things in our lives, but that don’t make it alright. We give ourselves excuses. The reason why you’re hurting someone is because you may have been hurt before, but that the reason, not an excuse. If we just acknowledged that in ourselves, sooner or later -- I don’t know. I’d like to give some deep answer but I don’t fuckin’ know [Laughs].
Honestly, it’s easier to love. I say this in every single show that I do. The volume of the hateful people is so loud. It’s deafening. If we just lowered that volume down and raised the volume on love, it would be such a better place. Again, it sound childlike, but sometimes the easiest answers and the most genuine remedies are usually very simple. People want to make it all deep like, “How can we stop it?” By stopping it! You hurting people, like a good person gets with a fucked up person, the fucked up person hurts the good person and the good person now ends up hurting people.
In 2018, it’s kind of a fantasy when we try to think that love can overcome hate. Now we’re in this place where hate is everywhere you go.
We’re in this fast food nation where everything has to happen like that [snaps fingers]. Like, courting someone is being thirsty. Talking about love, peace and harmony is being corny. I think the younger generation has shown that they are the new “flower children,” if you will. We’re in the generation of people that -- but it’s the generation after us that will change something.
I released a song called ”Fucked Up World.” It’s a fucked up world, but here we are in it. I ain’t going nowhere until it’s finished. We don’t have any choice but to live in it. I don’t understand when being an asshole became cool. Being a piece of shit makes you popular. When did attention equal success? We gotta change our molecular structure on some shit. That’s all.
On "Don't Go," I found it interesting how honest you were about your jealousy issues in your relationship. Normally, people are too cool to admit things like that.
Especially a brotha. A man will not say he’s feeling that shit. We’re going to try and reroute it and be like, “Yo why you dressing like that? Yo why you gotta wear --” all that bull shit just to hide the our feelings and the fact that I’m jealous. I’m feeling jealous right now. I’m feeling uncertain about our situation. I don’t like your “homeboy.”
Or I’ma go through your phone.
In a heartbeat. And just so you know, I’ma have that password. If you change that password, I’ma change it and we gon’ have a problem [Laughs].
Have you been able to minimize that jealousy in your relationship?
Yeah, I always say that’s the old me. That’s the December 2017 me. New year, new me. To remedy that, is to just admit it. Like, “I'm not feeling real secure right now. How can you help me right now? Show me your phone and that will make me feel better.” [Laughs] I’m not here so much to talk about the remedies as much as I’m here to just be honest.
Taylor Bennett and I had a long conversation about society's struggles with embracing an openly gay black man. For young artists on the come-up, what advice can you give them in terms of trying to be comfortable with their identity? Because in the African-American community, a lot of people try to make it seem like it’s a double-negative being black and gay.
Seriously. I remember going into an audition when I was 8. I remember this white casting director told me my mother is black, my father is Jewish and she was like, ”You’re black and Jewish. Oh my God, don’t let you grow up and be gay.” Now, I look back and I’m like, “Oh shit.” [Laughs] That stuck with me. My mom would always say constantly to honor honesty. Always, she would say that. For me, I like to lay things out on the table so I don’t have to explain them. I feel like if I hide it, I’m somehow telling myself that it’s wrong. I believe everyone’s journey is different.
Your journey is your own. Be inspired by other people’s journeys, but you can do your own thing. There’s no rules to this life. There’s no rules now how to be black. There’s no rules to how to be gay. Just be who you are and that’s the best thing I can say. You will come into your pride and come into the understanding of who you are. It’s your own journey. As far as being comfortable with who you are, recognize you are more than just some box they want to put you in. Be proud. I’m a gay man but I lead in my blackness. Take your pick. What do you want to talk about?
In this world of media and society and people, there’s always that feeling that you have to re-introduce yourself every time you meet someone. I understand that frustration but what comes with that is the sense of freedom that no one can take away from you. If I get in an argument and someone yells out a slur about my race and sexuality, I’m like, ”That’s all you got?” It’s about finding that comfort in yourself, and then working out how you’re going to work it out with the rest of the world. It your inner journey first.
If you could pick one word to title this chapter of your life, what would it be and why?
Ownership. I own all of who I am. I own my life, I own my love, I own my masters. From every piece of who I am, I own it. I’ve never sold myself to anybody. I’ve leased myself out before, but there ain’t ever been an option to buy. When you’re working for other people, you’re working with those people. Even if they have the ability to fire you, you still are working with those people. It’s just ownership of what I know, who I am and what I have. That will be my legacy. I could leave this earth today or in sixty years, and ownership will always be my legacy.
Now if you could pick one song or album to be the soundtrack of your life right now, what would it be and why?
Probably Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, because that was a moment when he took ownership of himself. I’m not comparing myself to Marvin Gaye. He’s a god to me. He took ownership of what he knew was important to him. He didn’t try to make an album that was what the record company wanted him to make or what was out at the moment. He didn’t try, he did. He made an album that reflected his mind. Artists don’t create art and sit around and sit around and debate what that art should mean. He put it out there, and look what it is.