West Philly native and Empire star Bryshere Gray is conquering the world, one performance at a time.

Not many in Hollywood can claim to be truly “West Philadelphia born and raised,” but actor and musician Bryshere Gray is among the loud and proud. “It made me stronger,” he says of growing up in the neighborhood. “It’s a struggling community just like every hood that’s in the world today.” But for Gray, equally important was “coming up out of it” and making his mark on the world beyond the confines of West Philly.

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As a teenager, however, his passions lay with football. But after an injury to his arm sidelined him from the football field for four months, he discovered untapped reserves of talent in another field. “I started to do music: writing and producing my own,” he says. “Eventually I was signed to Interscope Records.” Gray created (and still uses) the stage name “Yazz the Greatest.” “Yazz is my middle name; that’s my alter ego,” he says.

Just months after signing his record deal, he was asked to audition for Empire, a new pilot on Fox also starring Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson. “I was very nervous,” he recalls of his audition, only his second ever. “You get a little stunned because the casting directors have been in the game for a long time. And here’s me, just starting out,” he says. “When Lee Daniels called to tell me I got the role, I was screaming like a little girl in my mom’s living room in Philadelphia. It was definitely a blessing.”

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Gray plays Hakeem, the ambitious and talented youngest son of hip-hop mogul Lucious (Howard) and his ex-wife Cookie Lyon (Henson). “Kids look up to the character and really believe in his storyline. They’re really into the show,” he says. “There’s a responsibility [with that].” To that end, Gray is very active in speaking to young people around the country about his own career and how they, too, can change their lives. “It’s good for me to talk to them, try and knock some sense into their heads.” He follows this maxim: “How can I make myself better to be better for them?”

Anyone, teenager or not, would be lucky to have Gray’s level of professional success. In addition to Empire, he’s recording an album and shooting a movie (which he says he can’t talk much about at the moment). “I’m just living my life,” he says. “I’m 21 years old. I’m just happy to be having a wonderful experience right now.”

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By Juliet Izon | People