Gladys Knight. Anthony Hamilton. Courtney Love. Jim Beanz. Those are just a few of the acclaimed musical guest stars that Fox’s Empire has boasted in its first season. That list will growing this week when Grammy winner Estelle visits Lee Daniels and Danny Strong’s hip-hop soap opera with her first-ever acting role in the ninth episode, “Unto the Breach.”
“This is a huge moment. People don’t normally have all of these opinions on Instagram or Twitter about a show. But with the rise of Being Mary Jane and Empire, these shows show what culture is doing, what’s happening in life right now. It’s a good thing. If people are talking, it’s a good thing,” Estelle told The Hollywood Reporter.
British singer/songwriter/rapper Estelle released her first album in the U.K. in 2004. Three years later, she was the first to sign with John Legend’s label, Homeschool, and released her first U.S. album and first major-label album Shine. The lead single from that album, “American Boy,” was a hit with audiences on both sides of the pond and earned her a Grammy in 2009 for best rap/sung collaboration” with Kanye West.
Estelle joins Empire as a musical sensation in her own right, Delphine, who strikes up a friendship with Jamal (Jussie Smollett) after watching him perform at the white party and being inspired by how he came out. They strike up a friendship, as she is the first artist to show him genuine respect and support, and she enters the Empire Entertainment fold to record a few songs. One of them just happens to be Estelle’s own hit single, “Conqueror.” Originally released earlier this year as a single off her True Romance album, the song was also remixed as a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Here, Estelle talks with THR about recording another version of her empowerment anthem, this time as a duet, as well as what to expect when her character teams up with Jamal.
How did it come about that you would be coming to Empire with your original song but not as yourself on the show?
I’m friends with Jussie, and I know Terrence [Howard], and I’d worked with Taraji [P. Henson] before, so I saw some posts about [the show], and I put it out there that I’d love to be a part of that show. [Producers] heard my song “Conqueror,” and they said, “We want you to do a scene with Jussie. We want you to sing in the scene with Jussie, be kind of like an artist friend of his.” So I said, “Absolutely, cool, yeah!” The way everything was building up, it just made sense; it’s a real cool moment. I liked the idea of playing a character [though], especially for me, wanting to get into more acting and do that kind of stuff, I feel like I wanted to expand my brand and do more of what I love doing, which is acting. I do a lot of videos, and in doing those videos, that’s what you do: you’re acting in those videos. I’m a voice actor, too, and the more I get into this industry, the more I’m like, “This is fun.”
How was it decided that “Conqueror” was the song Empire would use?
It was always absolutely this song. I think the producer had only heard this record, but it also made perfect sense; it’s perfect for what [Jamal] goes through.
Who is Delphine, and what is her relationship like with Jamal?
The story [with Delphine] was that [she] came to Empire before, and [Lucious] passed over her, and she blew up, and now they’re trying to resign her as a superstar. [Jamal] meets her for the first time as a fan — a super fan — and she says, “Oh yeah, cool,” but she’s very much like, “Darling, hey!” in the grand sense of the word. I was trying to channel Diana Ross and what I would imagine Shirley Bassey was like when she was younger. She’s very real, but she has a very regal energy. I tried to channel that into the character, and it wasn’t too far off. I like that [Empire] chooses people and characters that aren’t too far away from who they already are.
What kind of interactions will Delphine and Cookie have? Cookie hasn’t loved all of the people her sons bring around.
I [do] get to do a scene with the whole family [and] it doesn’t seem like she hates me, so that’s good! (Laughs.) I think if you look at the way they’ve written Cookie’s character in parallel to Elle, Courtney Love’s character, I think this could be another great partnership! I don’t think they’re a threat to each other; it’s more of a recognizing each other.
After coming out so publicly but also through music, “Conqueror” really does feel like the perfect song for Jamal to sing at this point in his story, almost like an anthem.
I could tell Jussie related to it as well, just personally. I think you can act as much as you want, but the real is the real is the real. I understand that feeling of being passed over and being the underdog and always having to prove yourself. It’s a very irritating feeling, but it is what it is, and this song kind of describes that and how man, I will fight for who I am, and what I believe I am. I’m not going to give up.
How was your process recording “Conqueror” for Empire, and also filming a scene in which your character is recording the song, different from what you would do as Estelle in your own recording booth, no cameras on you?
Well, the vocals are one thing: Jussie can actually sing, so he just added stuff; he added the Jamal stank to it! (Laughs) And we did extra back-ups on it, and it just felt natural. I think he did a great job of it; the energy of it was still there. And [as far as shooting the recording of the song], I sung live every single time, and they were laughing; they were like, “You were singing live every single time! What the hell?” But when I shoot videos, the producers and the directors are always like, “Sing out” in the music videos because there’s a different energy that comes out than when you’re miming, when you’re mouthing words. So, they were like, “Sing out; have your eyes closed if you have your eyes closed; do what you normally do.” When I’m in the studio, I have my eyes closed; I almost look like I’m sleeping I’m so in that moment. But I had to keep my eyes slightly opened because I had to look at Jussie and connect with Jussie. (Laughs). You can’t completely lose yourself, so it’s a little different, but not too much.
Has working on Empire inspired or influenced anything in your own new music?
Everything I do affects the next thing I do. It just pushes you to another level every single time. “Oh I could do that; maybe I should have tried that; I’ll try that the next time I go into record something.” You can see what people gravitate towards, and you can’t transform for every single one who actually responds in the public, but you can’t not pay attention to it. It does inform the next thing. I’m never going to do a record like Hakeem’s record, “Drip Drop!” (Laughs) I’ll never be able to sing it, but I may write it and have somebody else sing it.
What are your expectations for the episode, especially now that the show is just exploding in the ratings and on social media?
I have no clue! I’m walking into this moment as my first primetime TV role, and that’s a huge look for me. It’s an awesome new look for me. But when I was on set, it was very much just about, “Say the lines in the most realistic way you can. Don’t go out there and try to do too much or don’t go out there and try to be anything that you’re not, if that makes sense. Don’t try to pass yourself off as any one thing. Say the lines as you would say them if you were you in this situation.” And I did get direction on it (Laughs), so I think people will appreciate it. I think people will see a new side to me [and] something they’ve never seen before, and I’m excited for it to air. I’m going to have a viewing party, my first one ever!
Watch Empire’s version of Estelle’s “Conqueror” featuring Smollett.
This article originally appeared in THR.com.