The Lyons are returning to television, and one character who’s set to make her mark in the new season of “Empire” is one who isn’t afraid to make her voice known.
Nessa, played by 23-year-old actress Sierra McClain, stirred headlines late last year when she performed “Need Freedom,” a song inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Since then, Nessa has taken on the role of singing several socially conscious songs, touching on real-life events:
Fox News: I know you can’t reveal too much, but could you give us a sneak peek of how your character Nessa is expected to shake things up this season?
Sierra McClain: Well, she already started shaking things up in the first half of the season. You’re definitely going to see more of that. People knew she was edgy, but now I feel we’re going to get to know her a little bit more and where her influences come from. You’re going to see her evolve, but more importantly, audiences will really get to know who she is.
Fox News: You previously mentioned how Terrence Howard topped your list of favorite people to work with on set.
McClain: He does! He’s been one of my absolute favorites... Terrence and Taraji [P.Henson] just took me in. Terrence is just hilarious and he really helped me out during the first few days, especially when I performed ‘Need Freedom.’ I was so nervous and I wasn’t even sure what I was getting myself into. And those shoes I performed in were messing up my ankles. He would tell me, ‘Sometimes, you have to tell them that you need to sit, you need to take breaks.’ He also encouraged me to speak up and ask for more comfortable shoes. And that same day, Taraji just came up and gave me this big bear hug... She would say, ‘If you need anything, you just let me know.’ That really set the tone for me for the rest of the season…you never know what the atmosphere is going to be like when you walk into a situation like this one. And that’s for any project, especially for one that’s been highly successful for two years.
Fox News: How did previously being in a girl band helped you prepare to play someone like Nessa?
McClain: It was everything, honestly. I’m not sure if I would have been as prepared. At one point we were signed to Hollywood Records and we were constantly in the studio. It was mainly me, my two sisters, and my dad... I had never sung a full song in the studio by myself — lead vocals, backgrounds, everything. I wasn’t even sure I was going to be able to pull this off. I was so nervous going into the studio for that first song, ‘Need Freedom.’ My dad would tell me, ‘This is what we’ve been doing all these years. You got it.’ Thankfully, I was able to go in there and sing.
Fox News: How did it feel to perform a track that touched on real-life events?
McClain: I felt it in the studio, but I don’t think I really understood the impact of what was happening until after I watched that episode. I was moved by it. I’ve had so many discussions at home about it because these are my people I’m seeing on the news. These are my people going through this stuff. But to be able to stand on a platform, especially one like ‘Empire’ which is huge, and to sing about what’s happening and shed tears? It was speaking in a universal language because music speaks to everybody, no matter who you are, no matter your race or orientation. That was moving for me. I was able to say with my peers, ‘This is what’s going on. It’s not cool to be indifferent anymore.’ We have to speak and use our voices.
Fox News: Looking back, what does ‘Need Freedom’ now mean to you?
McClain: My family and I, we look at these cases. This could have easily been one of us. It easily could have been my father. It could have been my brother. It could have been any of my uncles or cousins. You really put yourself in those shoes for a second…as much as you possibly can, you become a voice for those victims and their loved ones. You stand in those shoes and say what they want to say as much as you possibly can for the masses…’Empire’ kicked off that season really well. They started talking about police brutality and kicked it off with ‘Need Freedom.’ It set the tone for the rest of the season…They take political stances and sometimes people are afraid to do that, especially with a show like this one because the audience is so diverse. It was such a big moment and I don’t think i realized it until afterwards.
Fox News: There may be critics who will say politically charged songs shouldn’t belong in a mainstream show that’s for entertainment. What’s your response to that?
McClain: Where else are they going to go? Where else do you put that [message]? That’s exactly where you put it. You put it where everybody can see, where you can’t turn away from it... when you put a politically charged song in a show like ‘Empire,’ the message is undeniable. You can’t say that you’re ignorant to it anymore. I don’t know where else it’s supposed to go. That’s the perfect place it’s supposed to go.
"Empire" returns March 22 on FOX.