Last night's season premiere of "Empire" was a fantastical return to form for TV's biggest show. But mixed in with all of the backstabbing, power plays and cannibalism, "Empire" delivered a pointed message -- that 1.6 million black men are currently being held in mass incarceration. And Lucious Lyon, murderer, is one of them.
Cookie posed the powerful question: "How much longer? How much longer are they gonna treat us like animals? The American correctional system is built on the backs of our brothers, our fathers and our sons. How much longer? It's a system that must be dismantled piece by piece if we are to live up to those words that we recite with our hands on our hearts. Justice for all. Not justice for some, but justice for all. How much longer?"
As music on "Empire" often does, the song "Born to Lose," performed by rapper Sean Cross, Swizz Beatz and Lyon brothers Jamal and Hakeem at the #FreeLucious concert, echoed Cookie's sentiment. According to Cross, "Born to Lose" not only carries a powerful message, it also sets the tone for the entire season.
"Lee [Daniels] came to us and said that he wanted a specific sound for the direction he was going in this season," Cross, who wrote the "Empire" track with songwriter Harold Lilly, told MTV News. "That's how we came up with 'Born To Lose.' We got Yazz involved and Jussie [Smollett] involved, and they did a great job. Yazz just killed that verse. It all came together in a matter of days."
Cross, an "Empire" fan himself, was just happy to be a part of the record-breaking phenomenon. "It's a home run for television, and not just black television, but a home run for television. Period," he said.
The moment didn't come without controversy. Yes, criminal injustice is a problem, especially for young black men, but that doesn't negate the fact that Lucious is a murderer. He actually shot Bunkie, so this is not an innocent man here. Many called it a mockery. But did the gruesome truth really muddle the message? Not for Cross.
The rapper said balancing the slapdash story lines with the tragic reality wasn't a challenge because the song he wrote was from the perspective of someone who thought Lucious was an innocent man. (It seems the Lyons are the only characters privy to Lucious' dirty deeds.)
"Lucious is going through what black men go through every day, so it coincides automatically because it's an everyday reality," Cross said. "That can happen to anybody in that position. That, along with what's going on today in Lucious' life, is the same thing."
Regardless of controversy, "Born to Lose" -- which was inspired by Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" -- is a powerful song. (Cross begins his biting verse with "Hands up / don't shoot.") It was inspired by the injustice Cross has faced as a black man in America.
"We don't want to keep bringing race up all the time because it's getting tiring, but it's actually a reality," Cross said. "Me, as a black man, I speak for millions of black men who are going through this thing, that we see on the news every day. We see it, and we're living it. We want it to end. We just want to live equally, like everybody else, without the hardships. We know life is gonna have struggles, but it's just too much -- and we needed a particular record like that for today, for now. We can party, and we can have a good time, but where is the reality?"
The massive success of "Empire" has come at a time of great tension in race relations in our country, and the question of whether or not the show has the responsibility to address this tension is a pertinent one. For Cross, the answer is simple.
"We all have the responsibility to address anything that is wrong, to report the truth," he said. "We like to paint pictures of what America should be. We can't just paint that picture anymore; we have to live that picture."