An executive producer and director on Fox’s record-breaking series Empire, responsible for executing the show’s musical moments, music biz vet Sanaa Hamri continues to innovate and pave the way for the family drama’s success. The show’s Season 1 soundtrack grabbed a Grammy nomination last year, and in Season 2, Hamri has facilitated the presence of even more music per episode, all the while incorporating live instrumentation into the mix. In signing on to the series, Hamri was compelled by the opportunity to reflect not only the reality of life in the music business, but also of life in a contemporary, diverse world.

From the start, the writers of Empire have strived to write equally rich, complex characters for men and women of all races and sexualities, with the belief that the moment for change in issues of representation is now. As the second half of Season 2 concludes, Hamri has set her sights on Season 3 with the promise of continued cliffhangers and surprises along the way. Below, Hamri speaks to her innovative approach to directing the show’s musical numbers, her dream cameos for the series, and the truth about diversity, as she sees it.

Did you get your share of music biz drama in your prior time working in that industry?

Empire may reflect the music industry as a whole, but I feel like being in television and being able to tell this story, we create the drama on-screen, but we don’t have any drama outside of that. The music industry is one of the hardest industries to survive in, and to continue to work in and excel—it’s just the nature of the type of people around the artists. Thankfully, we reflect those issues on our show, and I don’t have to deal with it behind-the-scenes.

How challenging is it to execute these big song moments time after time, given the time constraints of television production?

Every time we have a music number, I always think about: What can we do that’s different? Whether it’s the look, the style, the choreography, the tone, I’m always competing with my past self, and I’m also always watching the latest that the music industry is doing. I feel like we’re leaders in that; for example, in one of our episodes, we had a rap battle between Jamal and Hakeem, and for that episode, which I directed, I just envisioned this rap battle being massive.

It was slightly hyper real and I had Funkmaster Flex there, who’s an amazing DJ from HOT 97, because I wanted that authentic vibe, but I also created something with the signage and all that. It was funny because a lot of rap battles are not done that way, but the point of the story is, Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz wound up doing a video that was an homage to that rap battle. So I feel like we need to be unique, in our own way, to lead the way, and not copy and follow.

Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) find themselves in constant competition in their battle for the Lyon empire.

With an increasing amount of episodes per season, is it challenging to keep coming up with fresh ideas?

It is. A lot of times I look into art and other music; Lee Daniels is very much about contemporary visual art, and sometimes those are inspiring for pieces. It’s hard. We have a whole team on Empire that puts everything together, so each musical number, for example, is about: What’s the look? What’s the vibe? I just try to keep it fresh.

You’ve pushed the music of the show forward in new directions, helping to bring more musical numbers per episode and incorporating live instrumentation. What are some of your other ambitions here?

I am a person who always wants to innovate, and I like pushing boundaries; I like being outside of the box. I like making people think and being daring, but one doesn’t create just to do that. One creates out of the truth of the character. When you mention live instrumentation, it’s something that has been very important to me because young people need to learn how to play instruments—there’s so much digital music. So any time we have a chance to have a live band and show the process, I try to keep it as real as possible.

What’s great is that our showrunner, Ilene Chaiken, loves creating stories where we see the process of the character creating the song—Jamal does that a lot—and it helps people understand the art of making music. As long as we stay true to that, that’s what matters. It’s not really about being showy just for the sake of it; it has to fit within the story, and within the character, and the authenticity of each.

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“When you mention live instrumentation, it’s something that has been very important to me. It helps people understand the art of making music,” says Hamri.

Is the process of directing those musical scenes very different depending on the talent involved?

As a filmmaker, it’s a different skill set to film and capture the moment of music, and it really depends on who’s singing, whether it’s the Tiana character, Hakeem or Jamal. When you’re dealing with scenes that are just direct drama scenes, you’re dealing with character and many levels, but then we snap into our performances and that becomes a moving art piece. What I love about Empire and what the writing team has been doing is, we tell stories through the music, so you have to be able to tell that moving, visual art piece and infuse it with real character and authentic moments. That is one of those things which requires a certain kind of panache and skill set to achieve, and when they both come together, then we’re doing a really great job.

How has the process evolved between yourself and Timbaland? Is there a shorthand between you at this point?

Timbaland has been our music executive producer, and we work with many people within that umbrella. We’ve had Ne-Yo and Jim Beanz, and there is a shorthand. Second season, we had a lot of music per episode; I know for third season, we’re going to be more focused, in terms of the amount, and have more music that deals with story.

Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson have worked together before in 2005’s Hustle & Flow—is there a shorthand there as well, and how does help you as a director?

Terrence and Taraji are really amazing actors—they get the process and they’re very collaborative. Usually on set, it’s almost like a dance and I can feel them, in terms of where the scene is going. And they’re daring, and they want to try different things. Sometimes I read a scene and expect it to go one way and they completely flip it on its head, and it’s surprising how poignant they can make it.

It’s about being open and collaborative. Lee Daniels, who directed the pilot, had created this more film directing environment in which we do have a lot of improv and a lot of collaboration, unlike some other television shows, and because of that legacy that Lee has established, the actors are very fluid when I direct them. And it is an ensemble cast—the group that we have on Empire is just so strong, and we’re very tight.

Much of the success of Empire comes down to remarkable cast chemistry, as modeled by series leads Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson.
Much of the success of Empire comes down to remarkable cast chemistry, as modeled by series leads Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson.

Empire is a show that has been embraced by black viewers, who rarely see television catered to them. Is this show an example of the way in which issues of representation might be shifting in TV?

I think there was always this ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ about who’s watching television. If you look around you, America is very diverse, and everybody looks different, and the diverse people are looking and watching television. Minorities are not a minority—they’re a majority. That’s the truth that everybody’s scared to talk about. I’m not scared to talk about it, because I know it’s the truth. This show is about family, it’s about music, and it’s about these characters, who happen to be African American, whether Latin, whether white. And ultimately, it shares these themes that anybody from any walk of life can connect to. I think that’s what’s important.

Empire is about being inclusive of everybody and everybody’s issues—I feel like that’s what the world is now. The world was always that way; it’s just now we’re realizing and we’re no longer scared about telling what the real truth is. And the truth is that people need Empire, they want Empire, and everybody feels part of the show.

What still needs to happen in television to further the progress we’re seeing?

In order to make great art, we need to be fearless, and being fearless means embracing differences as well as not categorizing—what, where, how, who—just telling great stories. I think that we have to make a change and continue. I’m multiracial; I know sometimes when I walk in a room, not many people look like me, but at this point, it doesn’t really matter to me because I have my own voice.

We all have different voices, and we need to embrace those voices because ultimately, that’s what audiences want. They want the truth, and to have fun at the same time. We don’t have time to be preachers about this, but what we do have time for is making change and having people at the forefront. We hire a lot of people of color as directors, we have a very diverse cast, a lot of women are around, as you can see—to me, that’s what’s normal. The ‘other’ is not normal to me. The ‘other’ is strange.

What do you think about the way in which the show portrays women?

 Women need to be depicted as they truly are, from all walks of life. We can’t just be the character that’s the martyr, or the character that’s one-dimensional. On Empire, you have Cookie, who was in jail, got out of jail, and she’s the smartest one. She is able to challenge Lucious, who is a mastermind, and as someone who can challenge that, Cookie is her own mastermind with her own different ways of doing things.

We also can see through her character that there’s not just one way. She is unapologetic; she wears whatever she wants to wear, she says whatever she wants to say. To me, that is being a feminist! Just do whatever you want to do. Be complicated. Men have had very complex roles for many years; women not only deserve to have it, but should have it because we’re just as complex. Our genitalia shouldn’t dictate what we do with ourselves, in terms of excelling. That, to me, is from the dinosaur age. We’ve got to move on.

Henson took home a Golden Globe this year for her portrayal of Cookie Lyon.
Henson took home a Golden Globe this year for her portrayal of Cookie Lyon.

It’s a cliché at this point, but this “Golden Age” of television really does continue to open new doors. Hopefully, this is the moment we’ve been waiting for—for issues of representation to finally be tackled in a satisfying way.

 Yes, I think this moment is the moment. Women have to start being fearless, even more so. I look at Ilene Chaiken and I see what she’s done, from The L Word to Empire and how she embraces women and constantly is championing us in all our skill sets. We need more of that. I try to do that; she taught me that, about embracing that and pushing women to the forefront, as well as Lee and Danny Strong. They hired Ilene and me—they wanted those voices.

But I feel like as women, we need to stop competing with each other and support each other. I look unto men and see their good qualities and I try to take from that, as well. I think it’s not just a one-sided thing; it’s about embracing both genders, taking the best qualities of both and moving on, and creating your own paradigm. Because later on, much later from this interview, the genders are going to collide and it’s not going to really be about male and female anymore.

Though critics haven’t always been kind, Empire has been a major success for Fox. How do you feel about the show’s success and what it might mean for shows of its kind being made in the future?

Well, let’s just start talking about “shows of its kind.” It’s a family show with a music backdrop—that’s what it is—and I think our show is always being unapologetic and true to the characters. If there are going to be more shows that are unapologetic and true to the characters in different worlds, I embrace that. Fox has been very supportive. They are our platform and are giving us all of the encouragement to be different, and to be strong in our mindset. I think that other shows should keep pushing and feel more free to speak one’s mind without conforming to a certain mindset in order to create a show.

That’s one thing that I realized about Lee Daniels and Danny Strong—they co-created this show and they were like, “Let’s do a family drama with a King Lear, Shakespearian vibe set in music.” That’s different and cool, and they went with it, and I just really applaud them for that. I’m very happy to be part of the team, and I feel like also, critics are going to say whatever they want to say—that’s why they’re called critics. We can’t go by that. People enjoy the show, and as an executive producer and director, I just think about working hard and staying true to the actual show.

What has Season 2 meant for the people behind the series?

Season 2 is about family. Season 2 is about the emotional connections between each of the characters, and about transitioning and evolving as artists. I think we, the behind-the-scenes people, are doing that as well. We love the success. What we love the most is being able to move audiences, and I think we focus on that, versus numbers or versus, how is it doing? It’s always great, and that means we have a great audience, but I think our focus is not that. Our focus is constantly about the work, and we’re very excited and passionate about it. Ilene sends me articles all the time if she sees something; we’re constantly talking. We’re a community that really cares about our product.

The showrunners have indicated that they will be pulling back on the amount of guest stars going forward, but are there any dream cameos that come to mind for you?

I want to see different types of musical artists showcasing their work, as long as it works within story. I really want D’Angelo to perform on the show with his band—again, I’m always going to push for live instrumentation and musicianship. I would love to have (saxophonist) Maceo Parker on. There are so many great artists out there that don’t have the exposure, whether it’s Lianne La Havas or Judith Hill.