Courtney A. Kemp keeps a picture she took of herself at Chicago's O'Hare airport - her hair in pin curls under a scarf, her breast hooked up to a nursing pump - as a reminder of her own strength. "This is you," she remembers thinking as she took the photo. "You walked through this. You've survived." She was traveling to Buffalo, just weeks after giving birth to her daughter, to bury her father, a man she adored. Talking about him on this brisk afternoon in March, nearly five years to the day after his passing, still brings her to tears. It's the type of grief a daddy's girl never gets over, and the type of grief a writer is compelled to channel into her work. "I needed to write about him," Kemp says. And so her father became inspiration for James "Ghost" St. Patrick, the drug kingpin club-owner at the heart of Kemp's hit Starz show, Power.
On the surface, Ghost has nothing in common with Herbert Kemp Jr., a man who worked his way out of poverty to become an affluent advertising exec; he seems more akin to executive producer and star Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, a one-time drug-dealer and Kemp's right-hand man in creating the character. ("He is a great storyteller," Kemp says of her friend and colleague. "We'll get on the phone and talk, and he'll tell a story and I'm like, 'OK, I'll take this piece and this piece, and marry them together.'") What the three men have in common is that they've all hustled to make a way out of no way.
"My dad was born with no money," Kemp says as she sits crossed-legged on the black leather sofa in her office. We're at Steiner Studios, a building hidden in a pocket of Brooklyn that's surrounded by warehouses and oversize loading trucks. Outside her doors, the cast and crew are days away from wrapping the upcoming third season. Homemade chocolate chip cookies are going around on set. "My dad and his sister, who is no longer with us, used to dance on the streets for money," Kemp adds. "They had nothing." And yet Kemp Jr., a son of former sharecroppers who moved North to work at General Motors, went on to become the first black man to graduate from Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. "I remember he would tell these stories," Kemp says, "[about how] in order to put himself through business school, he would have to clean the library while his classmates were studying." That "mental toughness," as Kemp calls it, is what you see in Ghost.
You'll also see her dad's fashion sense. "My dad was very, very invested in image," Kemp says. "He felt that as a black person, the thing you could control was how did you look, how did you dress, how did you sound, how did you smell, how did you act. All of that stuff that you could control would absolutely have a strong impact on your access." (Of course, she adds, that "didn't always change things when he hailed a cab.") Notice you only see Ghost wearing tailored suits on the show; in the series premiere, you see him inside an immaculate closet, carefully choosing his wardrobe. When anyone lays eyes on him, it's crystal clear he's the boss. Kemp's father, a "very dashing" 6-foot-3 man, also owned "beautiful suit after beautiful suit," she says.
When we meet, Kemp doesn't seem interested in looking the part herself. She's wearing black jeans, Bodin USA black leather calf boots, and silver hoop earrings. Her hair is brushed into a ponytail that shows off her pronounced cheekbones, and her burgundy lipstick matches her burgundy hoodie. She looks un-intimidating and younger than her 39 years. But make no mistake: She's in charge, and she's meticulous with details. She chatters away about the cost of music for the season and the pilot scripts she's signing for charity. The minute she realizes her storyboard with cue cards of plots and character development are in plain sight, she calls her assistant to roll it into the hallway.
"You spend a lot of time curled up over your laptop [as a writer]," she says. "Then all of a sudden you have a good idea and they say, 'OK. Now be the boss of 400 people.' What? I don't know how to manage people." Yet cast-members use words like "nurturing," "gifted," and "brilliant" to describe their leader. When Naturi Naughton (who plays Ghost's wife, Tasha) arrives to her dressing room, Kemp asks if she needs anything. Tea for her voice is her only request. Despite Kemp being pulled in at least five directions, she makes sure Naughton has that tea before going anywhere.
Kemp's family was one of the few black families in the suburb of Westport, Connecticut, where she grew up with her parents and older brother, and remembers hearing "nigger" spit at them throughout her childhood. Early on, she became a voracious reader with an appetite for learning about everything from presidential politics to Yiddish. She studied at Brown University, then attended Columbia University to earn her master's degree in English literature with plans to become a professor. But she ultimately craved a more collaborative career. "I knew I wanted to write professionally and get paid," she says. That led her to pursue journalism. She interviewed to be an assistant at Vogue, didn't get the job. Then Entertainment Weekly. "I remember thinking, 'Why can't I get this job at Entertainment Weekly? I'm as smart as anyone here. I'm just as qualified. I know what I'm doing.'"
She landed a position at Mademoiselle and worked at GQ for three years, but she eventually left the industry altogether to write for the J.Crew catalogue. "In my case, God intervened like, 'You are not going to be the first black editor-in-chief of Vogue, no matter how hard you tried.'" While at J.Crew, TV producers reached out in hopes of adapting a funny GQ article Kemp wrote about interracial dating. That series never materialized, but it gave her the itch to create for the small screen. She moved to L.A. and worked as a writer on The Bernie Mac Show. "My whole journey was very charmed," she says as if giving a testimony. "I'll tell you this: When you are in line with God's will, it's like a hot knife through butter. You can't stop it."
The Bernie Mac Show led to writing credits on Beauty and the Beast and Eli Stone, but it was on The Good Wife that Kemp hit her stride. Her dad saw the job as "the pinnacle of success," she says. "I was on an Emmy-nominated show, was an Emmy nominee." She aspired to create her own series but knew her father wouldn't approve of the risk, because he said as much. "I wouldn't have been able to write Power if he were still alive," she says point-blank. "I never would have left The Good Wife." He died in 2011 and everything changed.
When you are in line with God's will, it's like a hot knife through butter. You can't stop it.
Power is the success story not many saw coming. More than 1.43 million people tuned in to the season-two premiere, making it the network's most-watched original series debut in Starz's history. That same season's finale reached 2.39 million live viewers, another network record. This makes Kemp one of the few visible black female showrunners in the elite circle that includes Shonda Rhimes (Scandal, Grey's Anatomy) and Mara Brock Akil (Being Mary Jane). Because there are so few, she is always asked what it's like to be a black woman running a hit series. It's not that she's irritated by the recurring question, it's that she longs for the day black female showrunners are the norm. "I need there to be more me's," she says. "I just want to have someone to call and say, 'Girl, I just got off the phone with the network. This shit is terrible.' And to have someone else call and be like, 'Girl, I know. On my show this happened.' I just want to make a community."
Outside of the writers' room, Kemp is a mom to her 5-year-old daughter, Charlie. She is a woman going through a divorce (something she's not comfortable talking about in detail). She describes herself as "passionate," "loyal" - a "classic Taurus." And, again, she is a "fatherless daughter." That's the part of her identity that shifts her mood, that cracks her voice, that incites a sad smile and causes tears to stream down her cheeks. "That death, you see, I haven't gotten over it," she says. And although there is no substitute for the loss of a father's wisdom and no end to her yearning for him to celebrate her wins, there is always the show, the place where he lives on through Ghost.
Power's third season premieres Sunday, July 17, at 9 p.m. EST, on Starz.
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