How Yazz the Greatest Went from Philly Street Performer to ‘Empire’ Star
It’s a struggle for most people to be either an actor or a musician. But Bryshere Grey — a.k.a. Yazz the Greatest — is excelling at both, seemingly out of nowhere.
But like that of most successful artists, Yazz’s fame has been a long time coming. He’s been performing since childhood and was already getting noticed by the likes of Jay Z for his music before “Empire” came calling.
Now, Yazz plays the heir to Lucious’ music industry throne on “Empire,” the cult TV show that follows an industry family’s ups and downs with soap-opera-like drama throughout. In just two short years, Yazz went from relative unknown to rapper/actor who poses for selfies with J. Lo just because it’s Thursday.
We caught up with Yazz and asked him about his past, his future, and what it’s like to record music and act with industry legends on “Empire.”
Where did you get your start as a rapper in Philly?
I got my start performing out on the street — you know, in front of H&M, on the subway trains.
Do you still spend time in Philadelphia?
Yeah, I got a lot of family back home. I barely have free time but when I do, I try to head back to Philly sometimes.
What was your upbringing like?
It was rough, my mom worked two or three jobs to provide for me and my sisters and I was just a kid in a rough community that tried to just fit in and made dumb decisions. But I had my mom and I had my family backing me, so I was good. But to sum up my community, about 12 people got killed in three days a few days ago not too far from where I used to stay.
Did you ever feel like it was risky to pursue a creative career?
It was just hard to meet people [who are powerful in entertainment] when you’re in the hood. You don’t meet people like that every day. You gotta move to LA or New York. In Philly, I was lucky to run into my manager Charlie York, and from there, I started moving. I met Charlie four years ago.
You don’t just play a rapper on Empire, you’re also a rapper in real life. How do you fit it all into your schedule?
It’s challenging, I spend about 20 hours a day [working]. I’m the third lead on the show under Taraji, so I get a little pressure. It’s my first acting role. It’s on a big TV show and I was kinda just thrown into it. I’m so appreciative of Lee Daniels. He trusted me.
Was acting in your original plan?
I told my grandpa before he died, I said, “I wanna be a celebrity.” And he was like, “You can be anything you wanna be,” and before he died, he said, “Imma go to God and Imma make sure you’re somebody in this world and you have a purpose.” I guess his prayers were answered.
What’s it like playing someone in a dysfunctional family on TV when your real family seems so close and loving?
We’re like a family on the set but when we’re in the characters… It’s the second season so we know what they would think and what they would do. Every character is a different layer of who we are. It’s us, it’s just a different layer of who we are. We all know realistically what happens and that’s how we approach it.
What’s the most surprising thing your character, Hakeem, has done?
For me, it was when Anika was pregnant from my character Hakeem, and when Hakeem betrayed his family. I read it, like, “Oh my goodness, why y’all making me betray the family?” Oh, and Naomi Campbell coming into the show — I was really thrown off because I was doing a scene and she just walked in and I was starstruck a little bit. We got through it, we got to know each other in like five minutes, and it ended up being a legendary scene for the show.
What’s it like being around such legends in the TV and entertainment industry?
I’m like a sponge, I just learn from everybody — Ne-Yo, Swizz Beatz, Timbaland. With the music I work with those three, Naomi with the fashion, Taraji with the acting. It’s just an all-star team. I’m soaking up the knowledge, which is fun. If you’re 35 or 40, you’re too old for that.
What’s the creative process for the music on the show?
We basically go by the storylines, we can’t just go in studio, we need to get club popping, radio smash hits to express our characters. [On] a regular TV show, music blends in with the storyline so it makes it more powerful.
Like “Drip Drop,” that song was for a scene. Hakeem got betrayed by his girlfriend, she cheated on him with another girl. They told me to go in the studio and make that song with Timbaland. In my mind, it was just having fun. I took that piece of advice from the writers so I could make it into my own kinda. And the thing that’s so beautiful, we didn’t really get a concept on that, we just wrote that record for Gabourey Sidibe and she’s such a beautiful person. It wound up being a legendary song too.
What are some other great celeb encounters you’ve had?
Michael Jackson’s mother reached out to me a couple of months ago asking me to come talk to their family and perform for them. I was excited about that but I couldn’t do it because I was working. Harry Belafonte, he was very memorable to meet, it was great. J. Lo said she loved what I’m doing, she loved the work that I’m putting in. That was amazing because I’ve had a crush on J. Lo since I was in high school. It was at “American Idol,” I performed like four months ago before we went on and she was a fan of me.
Do you and your castmates hang out a lot?
Yeah, we hang out all the time. I might go hang out with Trai, cook something with the whole cast. We’re like a whole family when we’re working together. We’re all busy and everybody’s doing their own separate things but when we’re filming, we spend as much time together as possible.
Do you talk to fans on Twitter?
Yeah, I think it’s important because of the responsibility, you’re just thrown into it like I was. The responsibility was just handed to me like that and you can’t use it just to turn up. You gotta use it for inspiring and I gotta do that each and every day. Inspire people and make them want to get better. If you don’t like your job every day, go find a job that you love.
How did you get the role of Hakeem?
I was touring at the moment and I had just auditioned for a big film I didn’t get and I didn’t wanna act anymore in my life. I said, “Don’t give me any more acting roles.” Of course somebody hands me an acting role. I take it seriously, I do an audition on my iPhone. I fit it in, Lee Daniels loved it, the rest is history. When I left the office to audition everyone was crazy. I shake my homey Jamal Hill’s hand. I’m like, I hope I got it. And we’re here today. Empire season two.
Is that common, to do an audition over iPhone?
I never auditioned over iPhone before, but I think that’s the process now. I’m doing a lot of auditions now but I guess that’s the process.
What was the scene?
It was the scene when I just got cracked in the head by Cookie for calling her a bitch so I had to audition that scene and a scene prior to that. It was fun, I thought it was hilarious, and I was getting an ass whooping and I had to act like it hurt, so I thought it was hilarious.
Do you have a lot of performances coming up with festival season?
Yeah, I’m doing a lot of homecomings, I’m excited about a lot of colleges, I’m in Illinois, a lot of colleges. I have Dre’s night club on the 22nd. We’re starting on a tour March 27.
Is it hard to play for those really big crowds?
At first. it was a little intimidating. 50,000 people not knowing who you are. But now it’s more inviting. I’ve done the big shows and they’ve been crazy, super turnt, super great energy. They’re just welcoming.
Have a lot of people found your music through Empire?
A lot of people found out about me through Empire. It gave me a platform to talk to people in Japan and Russia and all over the world and I appreciate that.
What’s it like for your first role to be in such an iconic TV show?
I’m happy to be part of history. At such a young age I’m part of a groundbreaking phenomenon TV show. I’m just happy to be involved in the TV show. Whatever platform they’ve given me, I want to keep inspiring kids and keep moving forward. Positivity and peace is what we need in the world and it takes us, the leaders in the world, to show the kids that it’s possible.
Interview by Molly Mulshine
Photography and Creative Direction by Prince + Jacob
Styling by Alexandra Mandelkorn
Grooming by Cherish Brooke Hill
Hair by Mike Lowery