Luke James On His New Play, His New Music and Letting Us Know Why Black Folks Need to Show Up for Themselves

Image: Ben Abarbanel

Luke James is a simple man with an impressive plan. A celebrated singer, songwriter, and recording artist, the New Orleans original has put in his 10,000 hours with still-classic bops like “These Arms,” “go girl,” and “Drip.”

With two Grammy nods under his belt, a history of opening up for Beyoncé and singing alongside the inimitable Prince, James has not shied away from the label of loverboy, as much as he has grown into a man focused on using love as an action. 

Exhibit A: James’ impressive pen game has opened doors into appearances on the small screen. From Fox’s Star to BET’s New Edition Story to his current role as Trig Taylor on Lena Waithe’s The Chi, the 37-year-old has proven his chops as an intriguing actor that is built to last in the ever-changing entertainment industry. 

Add to that, last year’s release To Feel Love/d found the Louisiana-bred multi-talent flexing his smooth-edged brand of R&B, and his delve into deeper emotions has set the stage for his next adventure: stage actor. As member of Keenan Scott II’s ensemble Broadway play, Thoughts of a Colored Man, James joins Keith David, Tristan “Mack” Wilds, Bryan Terrell Clark, and a host of other characters to reveal a deeply human story that “reverberate(s) far beyond the barbershops and basketball courts of their community.”

Not content with sitting still, James spoke with EBONY about his musical hiatus, his excitement to be on Broadway, and lessons learned from Beyoncé and Prince. 

EBONY: You’ve been balancing your music career with acting, so the people want to know—how do you feel about this point and time in your career? 

Luke James: I feel great, man [laughs]. I am like a kid that’s been given a LEGO store—better yet, earned his own LEGO store and I get to play inside it all day. I get paid to play in it all day. And everybody with me is just happy that I want to play in the LEGO store and that feels awesome.

That’s a great feeling to have. Before diving into The Chi and your upcoming projects, let’s backtrack a bit to your last album—To Feel Love/d—and what was going on with you during that time while it was coming together?

To Feel Love/d was a welcomed experience. Four years prior to it, I fell into a deep depression and I didn’t want to do music. I didn’t want to create. I didn’t feel like I once did when I first started out. I didn’t hear music the same and it didn’t come out of me as it did when I was a kid. I wasn’t having fun being a part of the music business, and it showed. 

On top of that, I didn’t feel love or loved. In creating that album, it was my attempt at finding a new me within the essence of my childlike self, if you will. During the recording process, I was blessed with the opportunity to be in The New Edition miniseries, and it was with those experiences that strengthened my own processes. While filming we would dive into old NE songs, ones that they’ve never played before, and it was a rewarding moment in my life. 

I got to break bread with Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Babyface, New Edition and their entire crew. Listening to their stories from on the road and feeling that energy took me away from being “Luke James,” influencing the essence of to feel love/d, and gave me back the spark that I needed.

Love—both internally and externally felt—really brought you out of your hiatus and reignited your evolution, Luke.

Yeah, tenfold. It was those experiences that were important to me and re-instilled in me that you have to love what you’re doing. Moving forward, I am taking all of these moments in and applying it to the albums to come after.

The newest LEGO brick that you get to play with is as a cast member in Keenan Scott II’s Thoughts of a Colored Man. What are your thoughts about the resurgence of Black theatre on- and off-Broadway? Also, can you share a bit of detail about your character in the play?

This resurgence is absolutely important. The Black consciousness and its expression is very important to us and society as a whole, especially in America. I think that more productions like this are exciting and highly important because these stories need to be told, and Thoughts of a Colored Man is a stage production that will be shown in such a cool way. I am so excited to be a part of this Renaissance.

I had no idea that this would be the path I’m on, even as someone with a healthy love affair with theater. I read August Wilson, and at some point felt that if I was invited to do a stage play then I would love to do it. Once I put it out there into the universe, I got a call from Keenan Scott II, and we sat down to talk about what he was working on. They gave me the spiel and I read the script—and I loved it. On the page, it was everything, and I was elated to be a part of everything. 

The play features seven Black men, who are all named after their particular emotions. It deals with the complexities within Black men and how we’re all different and have feelings. All seven of us can look at the same thing and see different views. But the thing that connects us is our differences. I play “Passion,” and I am ready for everyone to see what happens. It is a brilliant cast. Some of us have never performed in the theatre before, while others have made a solid go at it. I’m so eager to work with these fellas and to give people an experience that they’ll never forget.

Speaking of “passion,” you showcase a lot of that as Trig on Lena Waithe’s The Chi, while conveying thoughts of a Black man that addresses love, protection, and family in this fourth season. How would you like to see your character evolve as far as future seasons go?

Honestly, I would love to continue the journey that he is on now. What we’re seeing now is Trig trying to find himself amongst all the craziness that’s going on. He wants to know where he fits in in this new world that he’s in. Most cats that really live that life, don’t want to be in it, you know? Society and their surroundings keep them there and push them to stay down, but for Trig and others, they fight and fight to escape. Those stories are beautiful—where they triumph above all of the adversity they face.

I am eager to see where the writers want to take Trig because, ultimately, I’m grateful to be a part of it all. I give all praises and credit to Lena [Waithe], Justin [Hillian], and Gandja [Montero] for their effort and work in the writer’s room. Everything you see with Trig is on the page. I’m just here as a vessel and do my part to tell the story they want the audience to experience. They have it all figured out and while it is a slow burn, we get to see a different outlook on another type of Black man—and I’m eager to see his growth.

It is the hug that we need right now, and with everyone coming face-to-face with their own traumas, a show like The Chi has a place in addressing them and acknowledging ways that we can work through them.

As a professional musician, you have access and insight as a creator that is valued by your contemporaries and those who want to be in that same position. With that said, what are your thoughts on the continuing #BlackTikTokStrike that is happening between the social media platform and its creators?

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Image: courtesy of Tiffany & Co

It’s amazing! To be fair, that’s how we got to be. If we want anything to change in a positive way—this is the type of energy we need to keep. Ultimately, none of us are coming from a hateful place. We’re coming from a place of positivity, love, and appreciation. Our people aren’t the type to take someone else’s art and claim it as our own. We always show love and acknowledge our sources.

Throughout our history, others have taken advantage of us—from inventions to music to what’s happening now. And if we’re not going to show up for ourselves and take care of each other, then that sort of behavior will continue. Now is the time for the creators, the artists, the entrepreneurs to step up and speak truth to power. We won’t take the bulls**t anymore and I am proud of all these #BlackTikTokStrike participants who’ve taken a stance against this inequality. It needs to be called out. 

As 504 original, it goes without saying that you don’t hold your tongue for anyone—but you also continue to remain a student of the game. For those who don’t know, you got a chance early on to work alongside Prince and Beyoncé. What were some lessons that you learned from them that you could share with the EBONY reader?

There’s two things that I got from both of them. One, do the work! I got that from Beyoncé. Prince, too, but I went on tour with Beyoncé and saw her do the work from the ground up. Late nights, early mornings, and wear all the hats, you know what I mean? The boat won’t sail unless you make it go. And she is no stranger to work, you feel me?

This is art that we’re talking about, so you should love what you do, and know that it is extremely hard to do at the level that she’s on. Honestly, it’s not for everybody and everybody shouldn’t be trying to get on that level. Not everybody can be a brain surgeon, and not everybody should. That’s not everyone’s calling—but that is her calling. 

From Prince, man, I learned that it is important to be original. Be ballsy. Be daring. Do it scared! On the other side of that fear is joy, happiness, and the freedom to do what you want to do. Even if it doesn’t work, you don’t have the “what if’s” or “woulda-coulda-shouldas,” you know? And for anybody who is aspiring to be a true creative, it would be unfair to the people who support you and look to you for that originality to not be the very original self you are. 

I got that from him. Know who you are and be daring while doing it. 

Image: Ben Abarbanel

What do you have in the works that people should keep on their radar?

Obviously, Thoughts of a Colored Man. We’re getting ready to start production on that very soon. I’m eager to be in New York and perform. I just wrapped on an upcoming Shudder production through AMC, which is an untitled series focusing on Black horror. It is going to be very interesting. I think that’s going to come out just in time for Halloween season. 

I have a live album in the works that I’ll be putting out on vinyl. To feel love/d Live is with a 40-piece orchestra and it is in line with all the greats that I loved watching growing up. From Sammy Davis Jr. to Sam Cooke to Marvin Gaye to Barry White, I’ve always wanted to have that experience and with this project it is a dream come true. We were able to record it visually and sonically, and I can’t wait to give this to the people to enjoy.

Kevin L. Clark is an editor and screenwriter who covers the intersection of music, pop culture and social justice. Follow him @KevitoClark.

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