You know Courtney Kemp Agboh. If you don’t know her name, you at least know her brain. She’s the mastermind behind the hit Starz show Power, the fast-paced drama (which she co-executive produces with 50 Cent) that’s part nightlife glitz and part drug-life gore.
As fans of the show will attest, Power is addictive. In fact, I’m sure that plenty of you, dear MadameNoire friends, will miss your fix this Saturday. It seems as if last week’s Season 2 finale came too soon, but what a finale it was! It’s no wonder fans have been hooked on Agboh’s show since it first aired last year, but Agboh has had me hooked on her work for nearly 15 years.
I first saw her magazine byline in 2001. I’d just begun my writing and editing career when I heard about a young Black woman who wrote a story for GQ doling out advice to White guys about how to date Black women. (The advice was stuff like assuring GQ readers that if they ask a Black woman on a date and she says “I have to wash my hair,” she really means it. Because a night of hair washing for us could include heat caps, flat irons, flat twists, rollers, etc.) Agboh’s voice was daring, hilarious and honest. Keep in mind, too, that she published that story in a pre-Scandal time, aka, pre-Olivia Pope being the apple of the president’s eye. As it turns out, that GQ story launched Agboh’s television writing career. “Writing that one piece changed the direction of my life,” she says.
Agboh is proof that you never know where your talent will take you. In our interview, the LA-based wife and mom talks about recharting her professional path (from magazine writer to showrunner of a hit TV show). She also shares her thoughts about Power—the show and the word itself. And, yes, we tried to get spoilers from Season 3, but she’s pretty tight-lipped about what’s in store. However, she does offer a few hints here and there, so keep reading.
MN: What was the toughest part about leaving New York and your career in magazines to make a fresh start in TV writing in Los Angeles?
CKA: I had very much wanted to be the very first Black female editor-in-chief of Vogue. Barring that, I wanted to work at Entertainment Weekly. But those things were not happening. Obviously, now I know that God had a different plan for me. But at the time, the thing that I really wanted wasn’t working. Was. NOT. Working. So, I didn’t have anything to lose by going. My dad was still alive at the time, and he said, “There’s no point in going out there. You’ll be back in a year anyway.” He predicted my failure because that was the kind of dad he was. But it didn’t seem like a huge leap of faith to me. I had an agent because I’d gotten an agent after writing the article [for GQ] and trying to write a pilot [based on the GQ article]. I had an agent, so even though it’s a leap of faith, it’s not the same leap of faith than if had I come out here with nothing. I think that’s important, too. I had a couple friends out here. I slept on some couches, the whole thing that everybody does. But I had an agent—and she’s still my agent.
Congratulations on the record-breaking success of Power. With the increased attention that you and the show have been receiving, do you feel more powerful these days?
Oh, I am powerless. Completely. God is in control of everything. I do my best, and I show up. It’s great that the show is really successful; I’m thrilled about that. The flip side of that, though, is that I have no control over whether people tune in. So no, I don’t feel more powerful, because I didn’t make all this happen. There are so many different things that create an alchemy of success. Just like there are so many different things that create an alchemy of a failure.
My daughter is a very pretty child and she’s also a very smart child. People are always like, “Courtney, you did that!” I’m like, “No. No, I didn’t!” I did the same thing I would’ve done had I had a child that was not as attractive and average. I didn’t have anything to do with it. When human beings say they have power, it always makes me laugh a little bit. It’s like sure you have all this power. “Oh my God I’m the president of blah, blah company,” but then I drive across the intersection and some jerk hits me on the side and all of a sudden I’m a paraplegic. I have no power. By the way, this is exactly what Ghost’s storyline is about. Ghost is always like “I have all control over everything.” But no. No, he doesn’t.
What is power? How would you define it?
Illusion. Power is illusion.
The phrase “powerful Black woman” is almost used as often as “strong Black woman.”
Oh, God. And they’re both so tiresome, aren’t they?
But I do think power is something that many Black women are eagerly and sincerely chasing. So what’s your advice to women who might be on a power chase?
I think there’s a difference between power and direction. And there’s a difference between power and ambition. And there’s a difference between power and intention. Your ambition, your direction and your intention—those are all things that you can really deal with. I’m in a situation in my personal life where I’m realizing that I haven’t been heard by someone. The choices are that I can continue in that relationship and know that I will never be heard or I can decide to go elsewhere because I deserve to be heard. I don’t have any power over whether that person hears me or not, but I might choose my direction based on my ambition to be heard and my intention to be good to myself.
When I think of Black women chasing power, it sounds to me like the Black women who say to me, “When is Tasha going to beat Angela’s ass? She needs to snatch that girl up!” And I’m always like, “What the hell are you talking about?” If you have to resort to physical violence, you’re the least powerful person ever. And the women who are looking for that [from the show], I’m always like, really? Like, you would do that? Like, really? There are children involved! You’re gonna beat a b***h down? That’s what you’re going to do? You’re going to beat a federal prosecutor down? This ain’t the girl at the Duane Reade. This ain’t the cashier Shaneisha who stole your man. This is someone for whom assaulting them is a federal offense. So, when women say that to me, I’m like, “Really? That’s what Tasha should do? Okay, okay. Sho. Sho nuff.”
So the Season 2 finale just aired and fans are drooling to find out what will happen in Season 3. What’s next for Ghost?
Penny, I love you, girl, but if you’re trying to get a Season 3 preview out of me, you’re barking up the wrong tree. I will say this: I just pitched the Season 3 arc to the heads of PR and Marketing and their teams. Everyone was on the edge of their seats like “Oh, my God! No Way! You’re not going to f**king do that! Noooo!” They’ve been my only audience so far, but they’re pretty excited.
It just that it seems like all of Ghost’s former allies are against him now. So who can he trust now and who can trust him?
Part of that we’re in the process of figuring out. I don’t want to tell you anything that’s going to change. But I also think it’s important to really acknowledge that our friend Ghost has made some stupid choices. Not stupid. Stupid’s the wrong word. Let’s say myopic. He really did believe—and this is something that’s very important—that if he explained his course of action to Tommy after the fact that Tommy would actually sign off on it.
You almost feel badly when you see Ghost’s hurt expression because Tommy is so dumbfounded.
Right, you almost feel badly for him. But Ghost killed their entire network! You can’t be mad at Tommy for being mad. In terms of Ghost having allegiances, he doesn’t feel like he needs them. He feels like he’s going to be legit.
Is Ghost really that delusional? It seems so obvious to everyone else that he could never be legit.
That’s the point of powerlessness in the show. It’s the thing that I’m always trying to underscore: You don’t know what’s happening behind your back.
Is Kanan alive?
Anyway! Girl, next!
Do Angie and Jamie keep attempting their delusional happily ever after?
What I’ll say is this: They have set up a bad bargain. Their bargain is “You don’t be you and then it’ll all be fine.” So, he’s like, “Ghost is dead. That’s cool. I don’t have to be Ghost anymore. I can be Jamie and it’ll be fine.” But for both of them, this is a completely ridiculously bad-faith bargain that they’ve set with each other. But he had that bad-faith bargain with Tasha, too. Tasha wanted him to be a drug dealer and that’s it. The core of the show is that dilemma of Ghost trying to be two different people, or trying to be one person when he’s really two.
Will Angie and Tasha meet or have words?
There will never be a physical fight between those two women on the show as long as I’m running it. You can put that in print and you can underline it. I can’t promise there won’t be gunplay and I can’t promise that there won’t be knives. But there will definitely never be a physical fight.
What do you mean gunplay and knives? Are you dropping a hint?
I’m just saying this: If there came to be a situation where Angie or Tasha needed to die because the other one felt that way, then as a result of strategy, I don’t know. But in terms of like, “B***h, I’m gonna pull your hair. I’m gonna snatch the weave off your head,” y’all are going to have to find a different show for that.
Who’s your favorite character on the show?
I’m not gonna answer that one either. At the end of the day, I am the boss of a whole bunch of people who depend on me and who depend on the idea that their character is being fought for and being supported when I’m writing it.
All the characters are parts of me. At 3 a.m., when you have to do rewrites, the characters have to speak from inside you. So I’m identifying with different parts of them at different times. In some ways, Ghost is my favorite, just because he’s the most fun to write. He’s always kind of lying, which is always super fun. I think he says the truth, but it’s his truth and his truth is so colored. Like when he says to Angela “I love you,” he means it. He loves her. But it’s just that his love comes with a whole bunch of other crap.
May I tell you my favorite character? Tommy.
Tommy’s great! Tommy and Tasha are actually the most honest characters.
I get weak in the knees for Tommy. He’s a got all kinds of a Cutie White Boy situation going on.
Listen. Joe [Sikora] is fine. And I love the character Tommy because he does stuff I would never do. He just goes for it. He’s not innocent, obviously, but there’s something that’s very pure about him.
With the recent news about your overall deal with Starz, what other shows can we look forward to from you?
The next show that I want to do is about my upbringing and how I grew up, because Power is not that.
You grew up in Westport, Conn. right? I read that yours was one of three Black families in town?
You did your research! For a while the other large Black family were my first cousins. There was just nobody there. So I do want to write about that at some point.
And any plans to resurrect that old GQ story again for a TV project?
Interracial dating has changed so much since then. At the time that I wrote that, I’m not going to say it was taboo, but there were guys out there who were just on a safari, so that’s where that was coming from. Now you see White guys walking down the street with sisters with huge afros. You see all different kinds of people all together, all the time. I’m always interested in issues of dual identity and interracial dating is definitely up there. But I have more of a sophisticated idea about it all now. I was 23 when I wrote that. I’m 38 now. God, I’m old. How did that happen?