I, like most of America, was introduced to triple threat Serayah through her smash hit show Empire.
A show filled with a roster of household name talents, (Academy Award nominees Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, just to name a few) it’d be easy for a newer performer to be eclipsed or lost in the crowd. Serayah can’t relate. Not many actors prompt an IMDB lookup from me in the middle of a TV show, but it was during a screening of Empire where Serayah’s sassy and bold portrayal of pop star Tiana Brown encouraged a quick Google search. Tiana was performing her own single “Look But Don’t Touch,” where the song’s fun beat and the performance’s overall high-energy evoked a stage presence from Serayah that simply could not have been feigned or mimicked.
I was more than surprised to learn that the role of the great Tiana Brown was the major acting debut for Serayah, who spoke to me over the phone on an early Friday morning about the character, and how she’s grown with her. Her voice was more gentle and soft-spoken than I expected, considering the firecracker role she plays. As we talked, Serayah explained how the stark differences between her and her character were beneficial to her own sense of self in the long run,
“I’m a lot more calm than [Tiana] and I’m very chill. Tiana’s a bit more on edge, she’s a bit edgier than me, but it’s cool though because I get to pull from my inner edge and my inner attitude, things that I think she says. Which is cool because I can use her as an alter-ego forever.”
“[Tiana] gives me so much personal confidence, because my character rarely wears clothes. She’s always prancing around in every episode in something really out there and it’s cool, it’s bold, it is what it is. But playing that character and being in the situations that she’s been in on Empire has given me a lot of confidence in myself.” Serayah told me how as an actress she’s come to appreciate the character even more over the years, “She comes from a place where she didn’t have much, but right now she wants to have it all. She’s against anyone who’s against her rising, and she’s not scared to say so. I understand that a lot more.”
Tiana’s bold attitude is layered with other aspects of the character that Serayah was tasked with approaching as a novice actor. It was revealed early in season 1 that her character was bisexual, which left Serayah appointed with portraying a young LGBT figure on screen. It’s an integral element of the character that she wasn’t originally made aware of upon taking the role, and while Tiana’s bisexuality posed no personal issue with Serayah, the duty of representing a group so often inadequately represented and marginalized on television brought about a larger amount of responsibility in how she chose to approach the character. “In the fourth or fifth episode,
“In the fourth or fifth episode, first season, I went to a table reading and my character had a girlfriend, and I was like, ‘oh!’ Not that I have a problem with that, but I didn’t know. I was 19, I didn’t have experience with that, and it’s on camera, and it’s with someone I don’t know, in front of everyone, so that was one thing that I didn’t understand at the time. But once they explained why my character was doing it, I felt better, bringing across meaning to what she was doing.”
At 22 years old now, Serayah has done a fair amount of growing and learning on the set of Empire. With co-star Taraji P. Henson as an available guide, she says she’s learned a lot from watching the veteran actress at work, “[Taraji] is a fearless individual, so most of what she does on camera, off camera, and what she stands for, I think it’s just about being fearless and really challenging yourself, and challenging those who say you can’t do something. In that way, she’s very influential, and I look up to her. With acting you just have to do it. Overthinking it is where you go wrong. She’s very much a free spirit and she gets it done and watching her do scenes like that is really really motivational.”
As her online presence has grown and she continues to excel on screen, Serayah has become a bit of a role model in her own right. With well over a million followers online, she says what’s most important about staying sane amidst the chaos is perspective. “Loving [your]selves first, and genuinely, is so important. There are so many things out here right now, especially with my generation, there’s social media, and all that stuff, so it’s really about knowing who you are before you open your eyes and the first thing you go to is Instagram.” Her own Instagram page is filled with fun solo shots from red carpets and photo shoots, but her piece of valuable advice to the young girls that follow her? “Know who you are before you’re diluting your brain with images because it’s kind of like a depressing thing. People look at everything that everyone has and wish they had it but they don’t really know what’s going on behind that picture or that video. This is all a perception, and I would say to just love who you are first.”
Serayah’s also been praised for the choice to wear her natural hair on screen, a position that becomes significant once it’s put into perspective how often black women in film and TV are forced into altering their locks. She says the choice came about quite organically, “I’ve always been natural. I’ve always had curly hair, I just always wore my hair, so when I went to the audition I just wore my hair like that; my headshots are like that. It was actually Lee Daniels’ decision. He said, ‘Okay keep your hair, we wanna keep her hair the same.’” Serayah says she was surprised by the outpour of support for how she looked on TV, “I didn’t know that it was such a big deal because I didn’t notice that a lot of African American actresses do wear weaves or straighten their hair. I was actually honored to be that for young girls.”
As she’s grown into her public role both on and off screen, Serayah is more ready now than ever to establish herself as a performer outside of Empire. Her catchy new single “Driving Me” was released this month, and she says her music derives a lot from her own experiences. “I think the biggest difference [between my music and Tiana’s] is just content. Content-wise, her music pertains to what’s going on in Tiana’s life, and what’s going on with Empire and the label, so I think that’s really the only thing. I put myself in every song that I do. I try not to dilute myself or water it down. I think, sonically, we sound alike, but as far as the meat of the song, the lyrics, would be a lot different, because I wanna put my real life experiences in my real music.”
Her lively new track was co-written with Jazze Pha, the record producer best known for his collaborations with Ciara and T.I. “He’s such an amazing person and the fact that he’s so talented. [With] the song, we were just in the studio, we were just having fun, honestly, we were just throwing out words.” The concept behind it was meant to be pretty relatable for fans, “It’s literally one of those songs where it’s catchy and it’s fun, and I wanted to talk about a boy driving me crazy, but I felt like all girls have been through that. So we found a fun way to do that, and the video is awesome and fun as well.”
Playing a pop star on Empire has served as a sort of boot camp for Serayah. While “Driving Me” will be her first music video apart from the show, her character Tiana has shot quite a few numbers that demanded a great deal of commitment from her. “I have to rehearse probably about three of four days before we shoot depending on the number, and those are anywhere from ten to fourteen-hour rehearsals, jam-packed in to make it a really big production, with dancers. It’s really tiring, and when we shoot it, they usually book out performances for a whole day of work, so we shoot those for eighteen hours.” As she spoke about these ridiculously long days she sounded more excited than most would when describing a workday going into the wee hours of the morning. Her solid drive is evident, and she’s obviously not afraid of putting in the work for a great performance.
The video for “Driving Me,” which drops in mid-October, will pretty much solidify Serayah’s solo star power. The singer-dancer takes notes from the books of her R&B influences growing up for the entire video concept. “The people who inspired me to do music and to perform are Destiny’s Child because I saw them when I was really young. My grandma took me to see them, their Independent Women tour, and I have been obsessed with performing since. Janet Jackson has [also] inspired me. So this video is very much Missy Elliot, Ciara, Destiny’s Child influenced, because I grew up watching really high quality, big budget music videos, and that’s what I loved. That’s what I loved about entertainment, I love watching music videos and dancing and trying to learn it. I wanted to show that in my first music video.”
“Driving Me” is just the beginning. Serayah has a full EP prepared for release, with which she wants to demonstrate to the public, “my taste, my style, my content.” Empire has just jumped into its fourth season, where Serayah hints that fans will see a different side of her character, “[It’s] a softer side, a more domestic side. It’s really cool actually to see her so mature. Most of the things that she’s been given, from being in a relationship with Hakeem, she’s grown a lot, so you can expect that.” Right as we are getting acquainted with new side of Tiana Brown, the same could be said for the actress. Serayah wants to let the public get to know her through her music. “I just want people to feel connected. I want them to say, ‘oh, I’ve been through this. I understand this’ And whatever that is, [if it’s] ‘I’m turnt up with my girls’ in a fun song, or whether it’s ‘I’m really sad right now, and such and so broke my heart: I feel this way.’”
As she embarks on her music career ready to bare her soul, Serayah offers up what keeps her in the right headspace for success, “[There are] so many opinions from so many people in general, judgements, and that kind of stuff, what you should be doing and what you shouldn’t be doing. I think a daily thing is that you have to remind yourself that you are who you are and staying true to yourself.”
She seems more than ready to remind us who she is.
Empire airs Wednesday at 8/7c on Fox. Serayah’s new single “Driving Me” is available now.
Photo Credit: Nikko Lamere