When Lydia Harris has been included in the hip-hop history books, it has mostly been as a wife. Her husband, Michael “Harry-O” Harris, claims he was one of the first to bankroll Death Row Records, the legendary—and legendarily doomed—West Coast label that launched the careers of greats like Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur. But if it were up to an industry that has hosted more than its fair share of violence, exploitation, and disrespect of female artists and entrepreneurs over the years, Lydia would have been forgotten altogether.
But times have changed. Battling decades of marginalization, women have begun demanding recognition for their behind-the-scenes contributions, from Dee Barnes’s story coming to the forefront around Straight Outta Compton to the rise of D.J.s and beatmakers such as Speakerfoxxx and Wondagurl. It’s a shift that has also made way for a new pop-culture icon: Cookie Lyon, the ruthless underdog of Empire, Lee Daniels’s music-industry soap. Cookie, played by the formidable Taraji P. Henson, is arguably what made the show such a hit: a former drug dealer, the well-dressed, loudmouthed firebrand co-founded Empire Records with her husband, Lucious, and, following a 17-year prison sentence, has now dedicated her life to regaining control of what’s hers, by whatever means necessary.