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May 13, 2016

From West Philly to ‘Empire’: rapper/actor Bryshere Y. Gray

Yazz The Greatest comes home this Sunday for a good cause

Television Music
Bryshere Y. Gray John Salangsang/AP

Bryshere Y. Gray attends the LA premiere of "Meet the Blacks" at ArcLight Hollywood on Tuesday, March 29, 2016, in Los Angeles.

West Philadelphia-born rapper/actor Bryshere Y. Gray (aka Yazz The Greatest) has seen his career take off during the past two years, thanks to his breakout role on Fox’s smash music industry drama “Empire.” Gray plays Hakeem Lyons, the petulant and ambitious youngest son of two brilliant but dangerous music moguls. We caught up with Gray by phone to chat about his time coming up in the Philly rap scene, the challenges of balancing his real and fictional music careers and his homecoming this weekend for the Walk Against Hate.

For starters, can you give me a little bit of your personal history, growing up in Philly?

Well, I’m from West Philly. I was raised there my whole life. I went to Overbrook High School and I started playing football for the school team. I got hurt, broke my arm, so I started messing around with this music.

So, what were you doing between this time where you first started getting into music and landing the role on 'Empire'?

Well, I was working at Pizza Hut just trying to provide for myself, then after that, I got signed to a label and we were moving at a good pace. Then some opportunities to audition for some movies came up, I auditioned for some movies, and then 'Empire' came.

Were you releasing music before 'Empire'?

I was releasing music and giving away music to the DJs; DJ Damage, DJ Diamond Kuts and Cosmic Kev were supporting me, and I would do like local street shows, in the gutter, and the shows would be like one speaker, one mic and like a hundred artists there waiting to perform.

Philly’s rap scene is … interesting to say the least.

It’s definitely a grind in Philly. I did a lot of shows and built a buzz, and I did that. For four years, I had like 20 girl dancers, like a movement, like a young MC Hammer movement that I was doing as a kid in high school, and now it’s just grown.

This is my TV debut, and I appreciate it; I’m learning and getting opportunities, but the music is still like my wife." - Bryshere Y. Gray (aka Yazz The Greatest)

Jumping ahead to 'Empire': I’m curious because I see that the show has a lot of cast and crew members who are actual working musicians. How does 'Empire' complement your own real-life music career?

Right now, my own personal music is on the back burner. This is my TV debut, and I appreciate it; I’m learning and getting opportunities, but the music is still like my wife.

Do you think that as a musician, working on a show like 'Empire' has helped hone your skills or shape the way you craft songs and put together music?

Working on the show is just different. You hear artists like The Weeknd, and the music is put together so perfectly, that’s how I want my music to turn out, the music that I’m making right now. It builds and brings you through a story with the instrumental and what I’m doing vocally… I won’t have to say it once I play it.

Word. So you’re talking about a more holistic way of creating songs, not just a generic, ‘Here’s a beat, plug 16- or 8-bar rhyme and a hook’ kinda thing?

Yeah, and it’s a whole new sound. Straight from the heart.

Switching gears again, you’re going to be in Philly this weekend?

Yeah, I’m going to be performing at an event called the Walk Against Hate.

How did you get hooked up with this event and the movement around it?

Well, I always like to try and give back to the community, especially in Philadelphia. We’re going to be there spreading some love and positivity.

The Anti-Defamation League’s Walk Against Hate

And Diversity Expo
Sunday, May 15
9-11:30 a.m.
Marine Parade Grounds at the Philadelphia Navy Yard