Taraji P. Henson is one of my favorite actresses. I have been a huge fan since the 90s. She, for the most part, has been a film actress, spreading her magic in films like Baby Boy, Tyler Perry’s A Family That Preys, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the critically acclaimed, multi-award winning Hidden Figures. One of her best known roles was in the film Hustle & Flow, for which she won an Oscar along with Three 6 Mafia in the Best Original Song category. In Hustle & Flow, Henson played her role of ‘Shug’ opposite Terrence Howard’ lead role of ‘D-Jay’. Over the years, Henson and Howard have been paired together in numerous films and their chemistry on the big screen has been unmatched…that is until filmmaker Lee Daniels (The Butler, Precious) and Danny Strong paired them together on the small screen.
In 2015, Daniels and Strong introduced Luscious and Cookie Lyon, a divorced couple of neighborhood hustlers-turned music moguls on the FOX hit show Empire. While the premise of Empire is about a family building and maintaining their musical Empire, there are also some very complex story lines including a son who struggles with bipolar disorder, a gay son seeking his father’s acceptance, and another son who is trying to reconcile his feelings of abandonment upon his mother’s return to the world from a 17 year stint in prison. The Empire cast is diverse and will see Rumer Willis become a regular, Demi Moore (her mother) become a returning character who creates further romantic tension between Cookie and Luscious, episodes that tribute Prince, and appearances by Forest Whitaker and others.
While this fourth season promises to be exciting, if you are like me, what you are most looking forward to is the return of Cookie. Cookie Lyon is smart, she’s not a college graduate, but she has a good mind for business and how to market a musical product. Cookie is upscale stylish, but test her and she gets Harlem homegirl in a minute. She’s tough, she’s feisty, she’s sexy and she’s also very sensitive and dedicated to her family and their success and legacy. Cookie mentioned early in the show that she was an avid reader because that is all she had time to do while in prison those 17 years (aside from plotting her takeover of the Lyon empire), so I began to wonder what a bookshelf in her plush pad might look like. These are the very real books I think the fictional Cookie is likely reading on those few days she takes away from ruling the roost and getting her friends, family, associates, and enemies together the way only she can.
A Sick Life: TLC ‘n Me: Stories from On and Off the Stage, Tionne Watkins
In this memoir by Tionne Watkins, one-third of one of the biggest selling female groups of all time (TLC), readers and fans learn the dual life lived by those in the limelight. Watkins, who is better known by her stage name T-Boz, talks about how she lived with the debilitating illness Sickle Cell Anemia and how that affected her life and her career. T-Boz tells her story straight up, no chaser and uses her own unique voice. This would be a favorite of Cookie’s as she would appreciate Watkins’ honesty, candor and struggles.
Real Love, No Drama: The Music of Mary J. Blige, Danny Alexander
Like Cookie, MJB has been on her business game coming from a background where poverty was the norm, to selling over 50 million albums, winning numerous albums, performing for Oprah, and at the White House, and working with U2, Aretha Franklin, Elton John and other legends to becoming a legend in her own right. Despite these many accolades, Blige also struggled with substance abuse, depression, domestic violence and disappointments; still she persevered. No More Drama, named after Blige’s 2001 album is the first complete book to tell the story of how an ordinary girl with an amazing voice became the legendary “queen of hip hop soul.”
This Is Just My Face: Try Not To Stare, Gabourey Sidibe
Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibie co-stars on Empire along with Henson and Howard. She got her start in the Lee Daniels directed film Precious and from there has been on an unconventional path to stardom. Sidibie has often been criticized for her weight and appearance, but has shown that women of every size, shape and color can accomplish the extraordinary if they have the dive and determination to do so. Cookie would agree that the challenges one faces do not determine the outcomes of one’s life and everyone has the potential to be great.
My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy, Albert “Prodigy” Johnson and Laura Chekoway
While Empire Entertainment has a trove of artists representing the different genres of music, Hip-Hop will always be the mainstay and foundation upon which the ’empire’ rests. This year, one of the most prolific and underrated rappers of the 90s and beyond passed away from an accidential choking in his hotel room. Prodigy (Albert Johnson), one-half of the legendary Mobb Deep recalls his rise from Queensbridge Houses in New York to the rlease of the group’s first album, 1995’s The Infamous and managing fame while remaining true to oneself.
Prodigy talks about a similar struggle with Sickle Cell Anemia (like Watkins, above), working to raise awareness about AIDS among African American men after NWA front man Easy-E died from the disease in 1995. Prodigy isn’t just music royalty himself, it was a family affair similar to that of the Lyon family in Empire: his grandfather and grand-uncle were instrumental in helping to develop the Bebop era of American Jazz; his mother was a member of The Crystals who were ‘infamous’ for such 60s hits as “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Then He Kissed Me,” and “He’s A Rebel;” his father was a member of the Doo-Wop group The Chanters and his great-great-great grandfather was one of the founders of Morehouse College in Atlanta. A prolific story told by one of the best to ever write a rhyme.
Hip Hop Alphabet, Howie Adams, Michael McLear & Darryll “DMC” McDaniels
Now that her youngest son Hakeem is a father, that means Cookie is a ‘Glamma,’ and will be grooming the next generation of Lyons to takeover the family business— but first they have to know their Hip-Hop ABC’s: that is, all of those who came before them and paved the way. Hip Hop Alphabet, with Foreword by DMC of the legendary Run-DMC is just the right book for hip-hop generation parents to begin to teach their young children about the music and the culture they moved from an underground trend into a mainstream pop culture trendsetter.
Around The Way Girl, Taraji P. Henson
If ever there was a book to define who Cookie is, it would be the memoir written by Taraji P. Henson, who plays Cookie. In her bestselling book, Around The Way Girl— a title she pulled from a LL Cool J song— Henson tells her story of how she went from her D.C. upbringing to becoming an Emmy-nominated, Golden Globe-winning Hollywood starlet. Henson talks candidly about her father, a Vietnam vet and her mother, who survived violence at home and on the streets. She talks about being a single mother, her time at Howard University and how despite all the fame and glory, like Cookie, she is just your average girl from the neighborhood working to pursue her dreams.
Empire premieres tonight at its new time 8:00 PM Eastern on FOX. Taraji P. Henson is currently on the cover of the latest Marie Claire showing off her new look and giving us the scoop on what’s to come on season 4 of Empire.