Photo: Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP

Jussie Smollett ended his day at 1 a.m. on Saturday morning, got on a plane and flew from Chicago (where his hit series Empire is filmed) to New York City. Hours later, the actor had an afternoon call time at the Tribeca TV Festival. Smollett made it on time; he was neatly put together and his smile was beaming. While you may or may not have seen a faint semblance of tired in his eyes, you unequivocally felt the joy in his heart. Thankfully so—it was the Empire season 5 premiere and a room of adoring fans looking forward to meeting their beloved play-cousin, Jamal Lyon.

You see, that’s what hustlers do—they hustle. And don’t get it twisted, this form of hustle is innate. It’s an “I had my SAG card from ’87, and I’m only in my 30s” hustle. It’s an “I got to find $3 because I have only $17 in my account, and I need this 20 dollar bill” (as Smollett often tells the story) hustle. It’s an “I must succeed” hustle. After all, it takes a great deal of hustle to build a career as a singer-songwriter, actor and activist. Now, Smollett can add another feather to his cap: director.

Smollett had his directorial debut on Empire towards the end of season 4, but y’all knew nothing ’bout that. He’ll be back in the director’s seat during season 5 as well. But the Queens native’s run with Empire started with a direct message to Lee Daniels.

“Never underestimate the power of the DM,” Smollett said to Afropunk Chief Content Officer Emil Wilbekin, following the premiere. And the crowd went wild.

After years of putting in the work, Smollett has risen to fame. Despite his celebrity, the actor feels strongly that “securing the bag” isn’t worth losing his integrity.

“As an actor, it’s about not accepting certain things that someone may throw at you—whether it’s a script, whether it’s a storyline, and always being aware fully of the storyline and the platform that you’ve been given,” Smollett said. “I’m not going to do a disservice to communities that I represent.”

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As a black gay man who is an activist living in America, Smollet sits at the intersection of many identities. Thus, he represents many-a-communities. In a Breakfast Club interview, the activist mentioned that in the media, some outlets focus on his sexuality rather than his race because it’s easier to digest.

“I think that very often in this industry—but maybe in this world as a
whole—people like to concentrate on one thing that is a
little bit more acceptable to them or more of a talking point for
them and they tend to ignore what we’re really talking about because
it’s not the popular thing to talk about and it makes them
uncomfortable,” Smollett told The Root.

If you haven’t noticed by now, Smollett is a man who leads with his blackness. After all, blackness is a part of Smollett’s being, and it comes through in all facets of his life. Leading with blackness is, in essence, a part of Jussie Smollett’s truth.

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“For me, It’s about walking in my truth fully. Whatever it may be.
Walking in my truth, and proudly. Never, ever, ever having a feeling
that I should shut up and I should not speak about the problems that I
have as a black man,” Smollett said. “Leading with my blackness is celebrating who I am every single day. That’s where we come from. It’s a celebration of who we are. The ownership of who we are. It’s freedom.”

Let’s get free.

Empire airs Wednesdays on FOX.