Courtney Kemp is having a moment.
Not only is Kemp the showrunner (she’s the executive producer and creator) of Starz’s critically acclaimed television series Power, she just inked a multi-year deal with the network and will work on several other projects with Lionsgate.
“Even the place where I’m sitting right now, in my house is not a place I’d even imagine I’d be sitting if you’d ask me four years ago,” said the 40-year-old.
To backtrack, young Courtney Kemp got her big break writing for The Bernie Mac Show at the age of 26. Soon after she got fired (more on this later), but her time at The Bernie Mac Show was just enough to show young Kemp where she belonged writing television. Just not comedy.
Kemp keeps it real with Her Agenda and chats about getting her first big break, getting fired in television and what it currently needs, her definition of success, and drawing the line with internet trolls.
Her Agenda: I see that you started off as a journalist, writing for GQ magazine and then transitioned to writing for The Bernie Mac Show. Can you tell me that defining moment when you found your lane?
Courtney Kemp: I’ll say this, I very much wanted to work at Entertainment Weekly or be the first black Editor-in-Chief at Vogue. I was in the Conde Nast building, and I started at Mademoiselle. I worked at GQ and also freelancing for Vibe and Time Out at that time. I was on the hustle. When you’re in your 20s in journalism, in New York City, you’re not making very much money, and you’re working hard. I was trying to get that great writing job and I couldn’t.
I was banging my head against the wall so many times. I was screwing up interviews, but I was just desperate to get that job. When all of this happened, I was writing an article for GQ about interracial dating. These two writers wanted to turn it into a TV series, which ended up not happening. Then I said ‘Oh, television! This is what I want to do.’
When I did finally get staffed on The Bernie Mac Show, everything went like hot butter for me. What I would say is rather than knowing I found my lane, it was more of [knowing] I was in line with God’s will and not my will. This television career was God’s will. Everything worked very simply. I continued to work. I wrote a spec (a sample episode) for The Bernie Mac Show and that’s how I got hired off of that spec for an interview — which never happens. You never get hired on a show you spec, but it happened to me because I was in line with what the universe wanted for me at that time.
Her Agenda: Let’s elaborate about that. I’m assuming you’re a person of faith. I’m a person of faith too, and I’m really big on being in line with God’s will. What I’m taking from that was you were being obedient. Tell me a little bit about finally letting go and taking the back seat.
Courtney Kemp: One of the terms I say often is ‘Okay God,’ I’ve got to get in line and surrender. But I wouldn’t say obedient. It’s an interesting word because it comes from a Judaic Christian model and that’s not how I think of my faith today. I would say that I practice as much surrender as possible.
Last night, I couldn’t get back to my neighborhood because there was a police stand off. I had to get a hotel room for my mom, who was visiting, and my daughter. This morning I woke up and I said ‘I’m grateful. I’m in such gratitude that I have money to put ourselves somewhere else because we couldn’t get home.’ As uncomfortable as things we don’t plan can be, we do get this opportunity to feel as if we do get taken care of.
I do find that having a spiritual foundation helps me in my writing and my business. Having a good sense of right and wrong and taking the next right action is key if you’re going to work in show business. There’s a lot of ways to do very, very bad things. I try to take all the very bad things I think about doing and put them in the show, Power.
Her Agenda: Speaking of which, how do you cope with people’s opinions on the show, especially with this season?
Courtney Kemp: People’s opinion in general don’t matter because we didn’t have people’s opinions on the first two seasons of the show and the show did well. We didn’t have audience feedback, so it doesn’t matter. Occasionally, if someone says something about me, I will respond to it. Someone said on Facebook, ‘you don’t care about Black women’ and I went in on her because I am a Black woman. I was annoyed. Another woman said, ‘You light skin women don’t know what it’s like to be in the world,’ and I had to say to her ‘I’m light skin because massa’ was in the cabin.’ Don’t take away my African-American experiences based on your own feelings. You don’t get to say that about me. Sometimes I feel like I have to draw the line.
Occasionally, I’ll respond to people that are negative, when they say something that’s really wrong about my perspective on things, or say something misogynist. Misogyny and racism don’t sit well with me. It doesn’t have to be outside people. I’ll come after a writer in my writer’s room where they’ll say something misogynist or I feel their characterization is misogynist.
We have this character Destiny, who Tariq sleeps with when he has sex for the first time in this season. When we were constructing that character, there were a couple of men in my writer’s room, who were not paying attention to constructing the character and telling a story with that character. They didn’t care enough about who she was and I said ‘That’s because you don’t think she’s a person. So let’s construct a person.’ Any person on my show is actually a real breathing human.
Her Agenda: What’s your definition of success?
Courtney Kemp: My definition of success is getting paid to do what you do anyway — that’s business success. I’ve made up stories since the time I was four years old. I just didn’t get paid for it before.
Her Agenda: Now that you’re writing stories and getting paid for it, do you feel like you’ve attained it?
Courtney Kemp: No. I think I am very fortunate that people like my show, but I could’ve written the same thing and people might have hated it. Success is also defined by your ability to help others. Can you help other people? I’ve been very fortunate to help other people, hire people, support people. I met my former assistant because she saw me speak at the New York Television Festival. I was able to give her a job and a way into writing. I’m capable of helping people today and that’s pretty amazing. That right there is the best definition of success — being of service.
Her Agenda: What do you look for in someone when you’re about to give them an opportunity?
Courtney Kemp: Lack of entitlement is pretty high. I was a straight-A kid and so I find that very helpful. I look for people who understand they shouldn’t have their own show on the air right now. A lot of people approach me saying they want to get their show on the air, and I say ‘No you don’t!’ You don’t know how to do this. You want to do this right and you want to get your show on the air when you’re going to run it, not when someone else is going to run it. I did a lot to get ahead in my 20s. I was willing to go the extra mile and work the extra hours. So for me I always look at that.
Her Agenda: I feel like people don’t realize the importance of the music when it comes to any television show. It really intensifies any scene. So, as far as your life is concerned, what’s one song that would describe your life right now?
Courtney Kemp: The song that describes my life right now maybe “Everything must change” by Quincy Jones. I’ve gone through a lot of change in the last few years. It’s been a ton of shifts. Even the place where I’m sitting right now, in my house is not a place I’d even imagine I’d be sitting if you’d ask me four years ago. Everything must change for sure. The other thing that’s cool about that song is that, the chorus ‘Except rain comes from the clouds/ Sun lights up the sky/And hummingbirds do fly’ that reminds me of the constancy of God.
There’s so many things that are designed that we have no control over. It reminds me of my lack of power and lack of ability. Things are going to happen the way they’re going to happen. The waves are going to crash on the beach.
Her Agenda: What is your motto that keeps you going?
Courtney Kemp: It’s the serenity prayer. ‘God grant me the serenity on the things I can not change’ for example people’s opinions. When you asked me about people’s opinions, I can’t change it. ‘The courage to change things I can’ that means that there’s a circumstance in my life that I can change then I have to have the courage to change it, which made me open my mouth and speaking up and taking care of myself in that way.
‘…And the wisdom to know the difference.’ That wisdom is deciding what it is. I have a situation that has been going on over the last 48 hours, where I’m really upset with someone. What I want to do is go and take revenge. Instead, I go ‘This is something I can’t change.’ But wisdom is what you get over time and not what you can get in a book. I think that’s probably my motto. Either that or donuts are everything.
Her Agenda: I feel that wisdom happens through experience. What’s your most successful failure?
Courtney Kemp: I’m so glad I got fired from The Bernie Mac Show. That was the best thing that could’ve happened. It redirected me back to television drama, which is where I should be. It taught me something about humility. I thought I was funny and I’m not funny. By the time I got to Power the way that I was funny changed. I was able to put humor into the show with confidence because the way that I write it’s not that funny. I can’t do set up jokes, I’m more observational.
For example, in this season Tommy says he doesn’t care about the guy he ran over, Domingo. He goes ‘Handicap people get the best parking spots anyway.’ That’s more of how I’m funny, instead of what I was trying to do in sitcom.
Her Agenda: What do you think is missing in TV right now?
Courtney Kemp: I would say a show that really confronts faith in someone in a contemporary setting. Not Handmaid’s Tale, but a way to look at faith intersects with our very selfish, materialistic culture. I think its something there. I’m not working on anything in that area by the way. It’s not my next thing.
Her Agenda: What’s next for you?
Courtney Kemp: I don’t know. I’m going to develop more shows. I’m opening my company, which is called End of Episode Productions and I’m planning to orient myself in the direction of world domination, if that’s the universe’s will for me.
[Editor’s note: This interview published on August 21st 2017. It has been edited for length and clarity.]