Just who is Jussie Smollett?
Is the “Empire” actor — whose arrest on charges he staged a racist and homophobic attack wound up threatening his career — the “heroic participant in good works and charities” as described in a letter sent to the FOX Entertainment CEO, which produces the TV series?
“This is the Jussie we know!” wrote Smollett’s castmates in hopes of securing his return to the show’s sixth season.
Is there a bruised apple in Smollett’s big barrel of good deeds? Is this another case of exaggeration on the part of the actor?
In the letter to FOX citing Smollett’s “commitment to true community service,” the list of deeds claims Smollett taught “songwriting to incarcerated youth at the Cook County Jail.”
“Nope. Not true,” said Cara Smith, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s policy chief.
“Smollett did not visit to teach songwriting,” she said. “He was there in late August 2017 for a tour of the Sheriff’s SAVE program,” an anti-violence program that targets young men — 18-24 from the city’s 15 most violent zip codes.
“One participant was a talented singer and sang a song for Smollett, who told the young man he’d been ‘discovered’ and [implied] he’d help him with his music career. The young man gave Smollett his phone number and to our knowledge there was no meaningful follow-up.”
She added: “Smollett did sing a few lines from an ‘Empire’ song.”
Smith said she wished Smollett had followed up with the inmate after the he sent the actor a recording of the song upon his release.
“These young men live in need of hope. And it’s sad to give them hope and not follow through,” she said. “One of the greatest gifts is to give hope for the future. What a shame to disappoint in that regard. They are no strangers to disappointment and the program strives to change that narrative for each of them.”
Aspiring musician inspired
Still, Nathan Wright Jr., 22, who describes himself as a rapper/singer/songwriter, holds no grudges.
“I had seen Jussie on TV and he was a huge inspiration to me — and when he walked into our SAVE program meeting in July 2017, I was stunned,” said Wright, whose stage name is SPZY and who is working with a group called Haven Volume.
“It was a complete surprise,” he said. “Informal and spontaneous. Jussie didn’t teach us songwriting or anything like that. So we just asked questions and he talked about staying away from the prison pipeline. Problem solving. Values. Life decisions. It felt like an honor to be in the room with him.”
A non-violent offender who pled guilty to criminal damage to property in 2016, Wright wound up in the SAVE program due to a parole violation. He finished the program in September 2017. “I met some beautiful people in that program,” he said.
While in the program, Wright sang a song he wrote called “Rockstar” to his inmates, “who kept egging me on to sing it to Jussie before he left,” he said.
“Then Jussie said to me: ‘Young brother. Are you an aspiring artist?’ When he asked me what I could do, he said, ‘OK, let me hear something.’
Wright sang “Rockstar,” and “that’s when Jussie told me I had it made,” he said. “He told me he was really blown away.”
He gave Smollett his contact information and in late December 2017, after Wright was released, Smollett emailed him asking, “‘How is everything going? Reach back. Jussie.'”
Wright told Smollett he was “writing more and more music. I even sent him a recording of my ‘Rockstar’ song I had made for him,” Wright said.
“But I never heard back from him again.
“Sure I was disappointed, but Jussie has a life. He never really made any promises. He never wronged me. He still is a huge inspiration to my artistry. . . .
“I’m not blaming him for anything. Maybe him not responding is supposed to give me the initiative to work harder.”
Hilary Rosen, a Smollett spokesperson, claims Smollett never saw the music file Wright sent because it wasn’t sent until the following February. “Because it was sent late, he wasn’t looking for it. He gets lots of music files,” she said, adding that the file has “now been located.”
Activist DeRay Mckesson, who coordinated the visit, told Sneed: “Jussie fielded questions about acting, songwriting, singing and other aspects of his career and the show ‘Empire.'”
Overall, Rosen said Smollett’s visit to the SAVE program was “a day-long session and they visited with many different sections” — including the interaction with Wright. While Smollett “recalls that he did contact him afterwards to praise his music, but they did not stay in touch.
“Jussie made no promises or big boasts. The cast letter simply says that this was one of many things he has done over the course of his time in Chicago.”
So what did Wright think about the alleged hoax story involving Smollett?
“I was surprised by the story,” Wright said. “Conflicted. I don’t know his intentions. I just don’t know how to feel.”