Luke James balances success as actor and singer: ‘I couldn’t choose one over the other’

The Grammy-nominated singer/actor speaks with TheGrio about being a dual-threat as a vocalist and actor on 'The Chi.'

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When the world was first introduced to Luke James nearly a decade ago, he was a young man with movie-star looks and a voice with the range and depth of some of the greats. He signed with Def Jam after his Whispers in the Dark mixtape caused a buzz and the future looked bright.

However, record company politics and disinterest slowed his recording career, and he pivoted into acting. Today, he’s shining in his role as Trig on Showtime’s The Chi, and his recording career got back on track last year when his first independent album earned him a second Grammy nomination.

Luke James
Luke James (Provided)

James, 37, is emerging as one of the most versatile creatives working today, and he sat down with TheGrio to speak about his musical rejuvenation, the importance of being present in the moment, and the difference between his approach to singing and acting.

It’s understandable now why fans recognize James more as an actor than as a singer. For the past few years, the New Orleans native has garnered critical success in the Fox series Star, and for his portrayal of R&B legend Johnny Gill in the BET mini-series The New Edition Story. He’s currently entering his second season as a series regular on Showtime’s The Chi.

James stars as Trig Taylor, a young man with one foot in the criminal world and another trying to be a family man to his girlfriend and guardian to his teenage brother, Jake.

The key to James’ acting chops is something he’d like to keep close to the chest.

“I don’t know if I can go full, deep into detail of everything I do, because that’s just part of the secret of acting and stuff,” James said. However, he did offer one important element of his acting process.

“I like to come from an honest place, you know, I come from my own my own experiences personally and other things that I’ve known other people who go through it. And I use those things and I try to be as present as possible from seeing the scene. And that’s how we do it.”

His work on The Chi and other film and television projects, like the National Geographic Channel mini-series Genius: Aretha, has helped James build his empathy muscle, as well as expanding his perspective on his surroundings.

“I see the world differently since I’ve been doing film,” James explained. “I mean, I guess I’ve always seen the world differently as a musician, but I think doing film, it makes you tap into a world that you didn’t quite probably take any time to think about and have experienced.”

Luke James on the Fender Rhodes. Photo by Ben Abarbanel

It was his role in The New Edition Story, which required him to unleash his heavenly vocal chops to play Gill, that reignited his desire to get back into the music industry.

Going from being classmates with Frank Ocean to singing background for Tyrese Gibson, James’ music career appeared to be on an upward trajectory in the early 2010s once linking with Grammy-winning producer Danja, and writing for acts like Chris Brown and Keri Hilson.

He earned a Grammy nod in 2011 with his song “I Want You” off his mixtape, #Luke. Then after his 2012 self-titled EP and Whispers in the Dark mixtape the following year, he earned himself a major label deal with Def Jam.

After the buzz on his Rick Ross-assisted single “Options” from his 2014 major-label debut and the funky, sensual 2017 single “Drip,” which featured A$AP Ferg on the remix, music slowed down for James and he lost inspiration.

However, in 2020 he released to feel love/d, his first independent album. An album full of longing and affirmation over memorable drum and bass, to feel love/d earned him a Grammy nomination, thanks to the BJ The Chicago Kid and Ro James collaboration on the top 30 R&B single, “go girl.”

For the project, James was able to pull both from his life and his subconscious.

“For music, honestly, it comes from my own experiences,” James said. “But I have a great big imagination. So, I feel like I’ve and in some ways, I think my imagination is just me remembering past lives and stuff like that. So I just channeled those things.”

James considers all aspects and idioms of art as one and the same. As a child coming into his own as an artist, he says that acting, singing, painting, and creating has “always been a part of who I am.” Although he sees acting and music under the same creative umbrella, his approach and muse to each come from different places.

“I guess the actor’s goal is to be as human as possible, to have as much human experience as possible. And with that, it fuels my ability to go to, I guess, learn more and have more empathy for other life outside of my own,” James stated.

“But with singing, it’s a bit more channeling of a soul of a connection, a godly connection. And I think with acting, it’s more of a human connection. So that that that that’s kind of the difference for me, in my opinion.”

As the fourth season of The Chi marches to its climax and James prepares to perform music live again, he plans to give both equal attention for the foreseeable future.

“I’m enjoying both of them. I love them both. I couldn’t choose one over the other. I’m grateful that I’m able to do what I love to do in totality.”

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