‘Raising Kanan’ Cast and Creators Weigh In On the Latest Installment of the Power Universe

Image: courtesy of Starz

“Our job is to tell a story about a character people already know that feels engaging and compelling and exciting and dynamic. And, at the same time, make sure that that character, the version that we’re sort of creating, for lack of a better word, feels organically connected to the character they know,” Power Book III: Raising Kanan showrunner Sascha Penn explains. “In other words, when you watch this, if you’re familiar with 50 Cent’s version of Kanan, I want you to be able to say ‘yeah, you know, what, that makes sense. I understand how that guy was that kid.”

So an encyclopedic knowledge of Power is not necessary to follow Raising Kanan, which Starz renewed for a second season days before the first season even premiered. Unlike Power Book II: Ghost, which premiered last fall, Penn says Raising Kanan “is a true spin-off in that we’re venturing to a different time, a different place. There are characters obviously that we’re already familiar with, like Kanan and Jukebox, but it really is a show that you don’t have to have watched Power to watch.”  

Taking on the teenage Kanan in his first true adult starring role is Disney alum Mekai Curtis. And while 50 Cent, who, with Courtney A. Kemp, constructed the Power Universe based around a drug dealer who wanted to go legit back in 2014, offered Curtis tips mainly about his real personal experiences about growing up in Southside Jamaica Queens in the early 1990s, this Kanan, Curtis says, is his own man. “With this character, essentially, we’re meeting an entirely different person,” he explains. “The whole goal of Raising Kanan is showing how Kanan got to the place we saw him in Power.”

“It’s a family drama of a 15-year-old kid who is trying to find himself out in this crazy life with his mother, who happens to be a drug [queen]pin right in the Southside of Jamaica, Queens and what he’s willing to do to protect her. It’s about a son’s love for his mother and a mother’s love for her son, and what they’re willing to do for each other,” Curtis continues. “Throughout the show, you’re going to get to see him go on his journey and pick up different pieces of information on the game and just, again, see him build up to what we saw him in the original Power.”

Tony winner Patina Miller, whom some may recognize as Daisy from the CBS series, Madam President, is electric as Kanan’s mom, Raquel “Raq” Thomas. Like most people, the South Carolina native wasn’t raised in any drug trade, but she is familiar with raising a kid against the odds. “My mom had me at 15. I grew up in a certain set of circumstances. I grew up without my father really being there so the single mother thing, I know all about that,” she shares. “So I’ve just been able to draw on all of my experiences and, the things that make me, I’ve been able to put into her. I understand her. I understand why she does the things that she does.”

And so does Power creator Courtney Kemp. While she admits to letting Penn run most of Raising Kanan uninterrupted by her, there is one exception. “Where I’m most vocal, probably, is about Raq, about being a Black, single mom” says Kemp who is a single mother herself. “The thing that Sascha cannot do from his own personal experiences is tell that story, but I can. When you see Raq make certain choices, those are choices that I’ve made. Sometimes you do have to choose between a romantic relationship and the best health and care of your child. Sometimes you have to make all different kinds of choices as a single mom because you want to take care of them first. That’s something I will say I bring to the table.”

“We very rarely get to see chocolate sisters get to be the lead of anything,” Kemp says of Miller’s role as Raq. One of the criticisms some lodged against Power was Ghost’s relationship with Angela, a Puerto Rican woman. They ignored that his wife Tasha, played by Naturi Naughton, was a Black American woman, Kemp notes. That cannot be the case with Raising Kanan, she insists.

“To see a woman, a Black woman in full, who always looks fly by the way,” Kemp says is still so rare. “I just want to bring our beauty forward. That’s what I want. Yeah, we do some crazy things in these shows but we’re beautiful while we’re doing it.”

Working with Raq are her two brothers Marvin and Lou-Lou, played respectively by London Brown, perhaps best known as Reggie from The Rock’s HBO series, Ballers, and Malcolm Mays, who many know as Franklin Saint’s childhood best friend Kevin Hamilton in the FX series, Snowfall. Brown’s Marvin is Jukebox’s father. Jukebox, Kanan’s first cousin who is gay, was famously played by Tony winner Anika Noni Rose. In Raising Kanan, Tony nominee Hailey Kilgore for Once on This Island takes on the young Jukebox.

“Obviously, the role was originally played by Anika Noni Rose brilliantly and intensely,” says Kilgore. “So I’m just excited to hit the ground running and bridge that gap between who the Power fans know originally and where she started.”

Part of that start involves her relationship with her father. “There’s just some unresolved issues and I think Marvin has tried to put them off for some time, but at some point, they just got to be addressed,” Brown shares. “And I think some of the underlying things that people will see is just Marvin ducking and dodging in trying to figure it out and being caught up in his own stuff. And so, at some point, he’s got to get it right with his daughter.”

With Lou-Lou, Mays says don’t let appearances fool you. “My character’s cool. He’s calm. He’s collected. But I think that [his demeanor] hides a deeper thing, a deeper desire, a lack of being at peace of where he is in life.”

Rapper/actor Joey Bada$$, who starred in the Oscar-winning short Two Distant Strangers, and film/TV star Omar Epps, who got his start in the 1990s with such classics as Juice, Higher Learning, The Wood and In Too Deep, add additional layers to Raising Kanan. Epps plays Detective Howard, who knows both sides of the law—right and wrong. And Joey Bada$$ is Unique, Raq’s friendly rival in the drug game. 

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“He’s got tentacles everywhere. He’s from the streets, in the hood. He knows that world, but, yet, he’s NYPD. He also knows that world. But he manipulates both sides to his own benefit,” Epps explains. 

Playing Howard, however, presented another unique challenge for the Brooklyn native. “Even though the show takes place in the ‘90s, he’s from the ‘70s. He’s from a different era so his whole mentality and way of being and way of looking at the world is completely different. And that was an interesting challenge for me to sort of ground him in that way of being.”

Joey Bada$$ had fun with his role. “Nique is a guy full of charisma. He is a star, like he’s literally a block star. I knew those guys growing so it was kind of easy to tap in and search for that inspiration,” explains the younger Brooklyn native. 

But while Bada$$ has had recurring roles playing himself in grown-ish, appearing as a love interest in Boomerang, a secret agent in Mr. Robot and Inspectah Deck in Wu-Tang: An American Saga, his first series regular role, he shares, proved formidable. “Nique was definitely more of a challenge. It was more ambitious,” he explains. “I got to go places that I never really went in my actual life, so it was definitely interesting.”

The Power brand “is about telling a very banal story that everyone can relate to, and putting criminality on top of that,” Kemp says. “This is a family story about a family business, about people running a family business. This is a story about coming of age. It’s a story that everyone can relate to, but it’s specific in time, place and obviously genre. It’s very specific in what this family is doing, but all of us have an uncle who’s kind of screwed up. All of us have difficult relationships with our moms, all of us have cousins.”

Raising Kanan airs every Sunday on Starz.

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