BUILDING HER OWN EMPIRE: An Interview with Serayah

Words by Ebony Williams


Photographer SEQUOIA EMMANUELLE @sequoiaemmanuelle

Editor-in-Chief VIKTORIJA PASHUTA @viktorija_pashuta

Producer/CFO JACKSON CHONG @jacksonchong_

Stylist AMBIKA SANJANA @styledbyambika

Makeup GILBERT SOLIZ @gilbert_soliz

Hair TRE MAJOR @themakorlook_productions

Video GEORGE MASIN @georgemasin


SERAYAH MCNEILL is known for landing the iconic role as the ambitious badass Tiana Brown-Lyon  in the hit American musical drama series Empire. Originating from Encinitas, California, the actress, singer, and model is climbing the ladder as one of Hollywood’s most recognized rising stars.
 A woman whose artistry was shaped by her infatuation with the 90s and her love for listening to her grandparents’ music, McNeill released her first-ever single “Driving Me” in 2017 and continued with a string of catchy heart-tugging, booty-moving hits that make you want to cry during a sing-along or dance your heart out like no one is watching. At just 25 years old, the humble actress has one hit show under her belt, a highly-anticipated album on the way, and stars in the upcoming Lifetime film Envy: A Seven Deadly Sins Story, premiering on April 10.

Gown AFFFAIR @afffair.fff Earrings ADIBA @adiba.official Diamond Ring GISMONDI 1754 @gismondi1754 Cuffs CHIMENTO @chimento_official Shoes ENRICO CUINI @enricocuini

BASIC: What was your upbringing like and how did you get to where you are today?

SERAYAH MCNEILL: I grew up around San Diego. We moved to Atlanta and then back to Los Angeles. Moving around and adjusting to where I was living helped me find a sense of identity and made it easier to be around different people. When I moved to Los Angeles it all came full circle because the people that I know now are also from the areas I used to live in. My upbringing made it easier to navigate how I move and live currently.

BASIC: Being introduced to the world as Tiana Brown-Lyon from Empire, you gained the opportunity to collaborate with a cast of brilliant actors. What is one of the most important things you learned during this project?

SM: I booked Empire right out of high school. I learned so much while being on set—from the actors and those behind the scenes. I learned the art of acting as a whole and how everything works. Before I got Empire, I was interested in going to film school. I was always fascinated with the camera and asking questions, seeing it all come together. The bulk of what I know about the industry and how it works came from the show.

BASIC: Talk to me about your latest project Envy: A Seven Deadly Sins Story. What made you want to be part of this film?

SM: This is my first lead role and I was able to dig into a character that was a lot more grounded than what I’ve played before. She has a lot of layers, obstacles, and things she’s trying to overcome in this story. I loved that my character wasn’t one-dimensional. This role made me dig into places I never knew I could, a great role for me to step into after Empire.

BASIC: We heard you recently joined the cast of 50 Cent’s latest Starz series Black Mafia Family. For hip–hop heads like me, this is a story I’m really looking forward to. How did you land the role of Lori Walker?

SM: It’s crazy how it all happened! This movie is relatable and a lot of people are anticipating it. Plus, the character I get to play is dope. I know some of the family and I was able to talk to the woman who my role is based on, as well as her sister. I was able to get a sense of her and the story. It was an honor to be casted and play a real person. I can’t wait for people to see it. 

BASIC: In BET’s upcoming film The Favorite Son, you’re starring alongside some amazing talent. What was your first reaction when seeing the roster and will you be showcasing your vocal skills?

SM: When I saw the casting list, I was excited! I know a few people who were attached to the project. There are some major names attached. I mean, it’s incredible. I will be singing a little bit in the movie and my character has a lot going on with herself. She’s not innocent, so there will be a lot going on with her story. 

BASIC: Do you prefer real-life stories or fictional? 

SM: I don’t have a preference. It’s very interesting to play a true story because it requires a different level of taping into your artistry. There’s also something awesome about being able to create the character yourself. With fictional [stories], you can truly make it unique and go crazy with your imagination. There’s different levels to it. I enjoy both though. 

BASIC: Who is your dream co-star in a film?  

SM: Oh, man, there’s so many! But Kerry Washington has a great project on Netflix and I would love to play alongside her and Viola Davis. It would be an honor to be on projects with them. 

BASIC: Your latest release “Miss You” ft. Blac Youngstais literally on repeat in my house. When
did you know you wanted to be a singer?   

SM: Very early on. I was always surrounded by music and my uncle was a bass player for many artists, one of which was Destiny’s Child. At about six years old, my grandma took me to a Destiny’s Child concert. I remember seeing them and feeling mesmerized by the stage. It blew my mind—all the commotion and chaos. I wanted to do what they did. I started writing when I was nine years old and knew that I wanted to make people feel as inspired as Destiny’s Child made me feel.

BASIC: We really get that 90s vibe from the images you share. You’ve definitely tapped into that Jada Pinkett energy and your dance video in black and white gave us major Aaliyah and Janet vibes. Will we get a full album?

SM: Oh my gosh, I LOVE Jada Pinkett! Thank you so much! As far as an album, that’s what I’m working on right now. I don’t want to rush it. I’m taking my time and it’s getting better and better. I do have some singles that I want to put out first, but an album is the goal.

Pearl Blazer Dress FARAH SANJANA @farahsanjana Black Patent Heels ENRICO CUINI @enricocuini Green Emerald Studs MAHRUKH AKULY @mahrukhakuly

BASIC: What is your one pick-me-up song that instantly puts you in a good mood? 

SM: Oh, “Just Fine” by Mary J. Blige.

BASIC: If you could perform a duet with any artist, dead or alive, who would it be? 

SM: I would have to duet it with my fellow Gemini brother Tupac. J. Cole is another one of my favorites. 

BASIC: Your Instagram selfie game is strong, always using the sun as your best friend. You have also shared a few videos on your YouTube channel about your nighttime routine. Can we expect a skin-care line in the future?

SM: RIGHT! Posting those videos made me realize people do care about that stuff. Skincare has always been important to me. I’ve always said that if I wasn’t doing what I am now, I would’ve became an aesthetician. I love how great skincare can make you feel confident. Skin is so sensitive. There’s a lot that goes on with it and can cause us problems. I feel like there are ways to handle those problems that many people might not be aware of. That’s the next thing I’m working on for sure, so keep a lookout for that. 

BASIC: What does self-care look like for you? How do you keep yourself sane, especially in our current climate? 

SM: I have been reading more than I ever have. I love self-help books and I know anything is possible by the mind and the energy that you transmit out into the world. I try to keep myself (as much as possible) to a certain level of humility and stay grounded. We’re all dealing with certain things from the past and you have to be aware of yourself to make changes and grow. I’ve gotten really personal on my social media and my team is great at encouraging me to share my stories and journey. By doing that, it allows me to learn and grow while also helping others who might feel like they’re alone. So far people are loving my Motivational Mondays, so I’m going to keep that going. 

BASIC: What books are you reading?

SM: I really like A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle and The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. The Four
Agreements for me was super pivotal and is a re-read. I pick up something new each time I read it. 

BASIC: If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be? 

SM: Care less.