The Melodic Journey of Luke James: From NOLA to Center Stage

    He’s opened for Beyoncé, penned hits for the likes of Chris Brown and Justin Bieber, earned Grammy nominations, appeared in movies and on television shows, and recently debuted on Broadway. So how would Luke James describe himself? Singer? Songwriter? Actor? All of the above?

    “An artist,” he says. “I’m an artist in totality, through and through. I’m a growing artist; I’m expanding. I hear it in my head, ‘Expand your territory,’ and I’m trying to walk that walk.”

    It’s with the mix of confidence and caution hinted at in this self-description—sure that he’s following the right path, but aware that he needs to keep his ears and eyes open for direction and help along the way— that James shared some of his life experiences and career lessons with WayMaker founder Louis Carr for the fifth annual Blueprint Men’s Summit, in October (see sidebar).

    From a start singing backup for Tyrese to a breakout role as singer Johnny Gill in the popular BET Networks biopic miniseries, The New Edition Story, James has evolved into a performer one reviewer credits with “some of the most soulful performances you’ll hear today.”

    That artistry was nurtured in his native New Orleans, raised by a single mom. In a city celebrated for its rich musical heritage, he was moved by the power of melody from an early age. A student of NOLA’s renowned St. Augustine High School, while others wanted to play sports, he always wanted to be in the band.

    Even before he attended, “I would always hear them practicing,” he remembers. “Every now and then, my mother would drive me over to the school and you could watch them rehearsing, and it just floored me. It moved me, how they moved as a unit. And at Mardi Gras, just the presence of the band, this enigma that was just profound to me, because I saw kids that looked like me. I idolized them, and as I got older, I wanted to be one; I wanted to be a Purple Knight.”

    A big brother
    Reflecting on his time at St. Augustine, James cites the aphorism that it takes a village to raise a kid and thinks back to some of those who played an elder’s role in his childhood, and not just teachers. He recalls some “old heads” who passed on their wisdom, as well as some younger people “who would always say, ‘No, no, no, go over there. Don’t hang over here.’ They were always telling me and my friends, ‘Don’t be over here.’”

    He vividly remembers the time he was out in the street with a BB gun, playing Bad Boys. The local mailman saw him acting out the Will Smith and Martin Lawrence cops-and-crooks drama and moved to intervene.

    “I’m running across the street, and I can hear him now yelling from down the street,” James recounts. “I can hear him. And then he’s running with his bag—with the satchel, the mail and it’s hot—it’s New Orleans. And I remember him with his hand on my shoulder saying, ‘Young brother, young brother, please. I know you’re playing, but that’s not how it’s perceived outside of here.’ And I remember how that saved my life, you know?”

    James gets to channel some of that experience of community care and concern in playing Trig in the gritty Showtime coming-of-age drama The Chi. Though he has his own baggage from the past, Trig is trying to turn things around, for himself and for others.

    “His struggle is really, really hard… he has to take everyone with him,” James says. “He understands that he’s had a family before, when he was a kid; he remembers these things. And all he’s trying to do is reimplement that in his new family, with his little brother, and showing him a better way.”

    The drama underscores James’ conviction that “it takes everybody in the block to hold each other accountable and to help each other, because you can’t do it alone. You just can’t; it’s impossible.”

    Later, he circles back around to this point: “We need each other, that’s the biggest thing that I really feel, that this world wasn’t made for you to handle it alone. It’s important to fight, to create a foundation of family that will hold you accountable and hold you up, and I think a lot of us travel this world like lone wolves but deserve to be in a pack and to be loved, we deserve to have family. And we deserve to have a family that will give us space to be our true selves and love us through and through, and so therefore we can truly be the lovers that we really are.”

    The right time is as soon as you feel it in your spirit.

    A supportive friend
    It’s not only in The Chi that James gets to be part of using drama to encourage reflection and growth.

    He is also one of the stars of Thoughts of a Colored Man, one of the first plays to open when Broadway recently raised its curtains for the first time since the pandemic. He’s honored to be making his live theatrical debut in the groundbreaking piece, which interweaves the experiences of seven different Black men.

    It’s about “all the highs and lows of the complexities of Black men,” he explains, “learning that we are not a monolith. We all think different. We see the same thing and think differently, and we all deserve a space to be happy.

    “We all deserve space to be angry… a space to understand our lustful behaviors, a space to understand our passion and the space to really realize the benefits, why we need wisdom, and why we must never forget our ancestors and that we stand on the shoulders of them and never take any of this for granted, you know?”

    Some may be surprised to learn that, despite his sunny disposition, James has battled with depression. From a dark period when his way ahead seemed stalled, he has some advice and encouragement for others facing the shadows.

    Keep in mind that “you don’t stay there forever,” he says. “That’s the person before. If you can, remember that it is just a season, and everyone’s season is different… The best thing I can say is keep moving forward.” Let friends in on your struggles too, he adds. When he was having a hard time, he relocated to Miami to be around people he trusted, knowing their everyday activity would help force him out of the shell that he felt stuck in.

    “And that really helped keep me in the light,” he remembers, “because, I know it can get foggy and it can get hard to make the decision and the will to do things like that… you don’t want to be a burden… But that’s what your friends are for. And that’s what love is.

    “It’s hard to know it in the moment, it really is. It’s really dark. I understand that. But you have to move forward.”

    What have been some of the toughest decisions he has had to make? Though he always saw the world as a big place to explore, there was leaving New Orleans. “It’s called the Big Easy for a reason,” he says. “It’s easy to get to stay there: You don’t want to leave.”

    But if you are going to pursue your dream, you need to make some tough calls: “You have to just make that the decision to do it and do it scared.”

    Don’t wait for the perfect time, because it’s not going to come. “We all like to wait for ‘the right time,’ but the right time is, as soon as you feel it in your spirit, you move, you jump on it.”

    A role model
    James credits his mom with shaping him to be a dreamer from a young age, by way of her example and encouragement. She worked for NASA and Lockheed Martin, “so I was introduced to a lot of technology. And space, of course; when you think of space and you think of what’s out there, it makes you ponder.” And she “introduced me to so much culture.”

    There were other formative influences for the young man growing up without a father—teachers and others who stepped in to fill some of that role. Some “become like uncles and whatnot; you know, parents outside of home… We could come to them and talk to them about anything. They would talk straight to us, you know; they didn’t speak in a way of like, we’re the pupil.” They were “getting us ready, in a sense, for the world.”

    The other big personal stretch he has been learning to make is in thinking of himself as a business—“really seeing myself as a brand, as an entity that what I do and create from what I love.” Here he goes on a tangent: “I’ve just started saying this: I think I’ve spent most of my life failing at the things I hate doing so that, right now, there is only the options of the things I love! I can only do this to make a living and I’m content with that.”

    Sure, he has his moments of uncertainty, but they don’t last long. “I always sit in the center space of gratitude because I’m doing what I love,” he acknowledges. “And I know that is not a normal thing for all of us: I truly love what I do.”

    Luke James: My WayMakers

    My mother. She taught me about God. My mother told me God is within and I’m of God, and my mother instilled in me purpose and she gave me the space to find myself, and from her, that’s how I met all of these other beautiful people… Prince… personal conversations I’ve had with him because I watched him all my life and he was one of the first that indirectly gave me permission to be my full authentic self, to really live in the space of what I love doing, which is music.

    It takes everybody in the block to hold each other accountable and to help each other, because you can’t do it alone.

    From an interview with Louis Carr

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