New Orleans native Luke James opens his latest album with a singular question, why don’t you want me? Through the opening moments of To Feel Love/D, he asks this question in a somewhat romantic way. However, it can also be taken as a question for fans and himself. Leading up to the release of his latest album, The Chi actor talked about the search for appreciation and validation within the music industry. Nearly a year later, he has seemingly found that validation. Yes, it is great to have the support of fans and those within the industry. Not to mention, he earned the support of the Grammys with a nomination for “Best R&B Album” on Sunday. Above all else, he has found a sense of appreciation and validation within himself. From his acting, to music, the New Orleans native comes across as a man who has found love and peace from within and anything else is just icing on the cake. James chopped it up with Culture Editor Ryan Shepard about validation, finding peace through a tough period in world history, working with Spillage Village, releasing his latest album and so much more.
Editorial Note: This interview was conducted in October 2020. It was lightly edited for clarity.
Luke James: Hey, how are you doing, man?
Ryan Shepard: Good. Good. How are you?
I’m magical, man.
That’s good. That’s a good way of putting it. First off, I want to say thank you for taking the time to sit down and talk to me. While I was getting ready to have this conversation, I was reading and listening to different things you said leading up to the release of to feel love/d. One word that you used a lot was “validated.” Months after its release, I have to ask this question. Do you feel validated?
Yes, I guess I do feel validated. To be truly fair, the validation [I was seeking] comes more so from myself. I kind of got that. While being quarantined, being still and having to deal with one’s thoughts that come day-to-day, I have actually found that validation. I have found that validation in my creations and what I put out on this album. Regardless of any of the trending ideologies that would kind of hinder that particular type of ideology, whereas one truly just cares about his own art. And I do and I love what I did.
In your answer, one word that I heard you use a lot was “love.” When was the first time you felt like you loved music or you loved acting?
The first time that I felt that I loved acting was…I don’t know. I guess it was my first job. I think I’ve always been creating characters in my head and telling stories in different ways especially looking in the mirror and all that kind of jazz. I think I’ve always loved acting. For me, it was a matter of whether I had the courage to actually seek it out and perform in that type of medium.
Music is something that just kind of came to me and I’ve had since I was a child. It’s a bit more natural to me than acting, but that tide is turning. As for music, I don’t know when the first time was that I realized that I loved music. I had to have been a child. I was just saying to someone else that I saw a video online of a violinist performing for a school of toddlers. They were probably no older than one or two years old, but there was this one kid that gravitated toward her. The kid literally walked toward her and just stared up at her as she performed. It was so moving. In a way, it actually brought me to tears because that was probably the first moment that he felt music. I probably had a moment just like that, but I don’t remember it. I know it had to have happened. It’s definitely out there, but I don’t remember when.
“I think there’s no time to hold off on sharing your gifts with the world, especially when it’s something that can bring joy and happiness into the world”
That’s really interesting. I think we all hope to have that moment where we discover what it is that we feel like we’re supposed to be doing. For me, I discovered I loved writing when my Dad gave me a pencil, notebook and backpack at four or five years old. At that point, I had no concept of what writing was exactly, but I knew that it felt right. I guess those moments come at different points in time for different people.
I had a bunch of instances like that growing up. As I got older, I had a bunch of moments in which I experienced validation and I knew that music or the performing arts in totality was what I was supposed to be doing. When I think back, I had a lot of opportunities to act and get into the theater, but I probably sabotaged them because of my fear of the stage. You know, it took me forever to get the courage to sing by myself. Right now, I feel butterflies when I even think about going up on a stage. It took years [for me to feel comfortable on stage]. That took jumping off the ledge, no parachute, no telling what’s going to happen and just being free. I had a bunch of moments as a child when I was just too afraid.
With music, I’ve just had a lot of different moments where I felt validated. In church, I remember someone came and prophesied over all of the kids and I remember the lady telling me that I was meant to be heard. The lady told me that I would go around the world and people would listen when I spoke. I always remembered that and held on to that because I knew that I wanted to be an artist. I wasn’t sure what the medium would be. I wasn’t sure what I would do. But I had always wanted to be an artist.
During the pandemic, we haven’t been able to enjoy concerts like we normally would. Artists are finding ways to perform virtually, but it’s not necessarily in the traditional venue. How has it felt not being able to perform in front of crowds for an extended period of time?
To be fair, I was just getting started. It was a blessing that we finished the first leg of the To Feel Love/D tour right before the lockdown. It was a beautiful thing that we finished at the world-famous Troubadour. There’s not — if they’re considered one of the greats, then they’ve definitely performed there. It was just an amazing moment to finish off there and I guess I wasn’t ready to sit down. I wasn’t ready to stop touring. I was ready [to keep touring]. We had already figured out some cities that we wanted to go to overseas and then the lockdown happened.
I guess I’ve just been taking in the time and you know, there’s a reason for everything aside from the know. And just accepting the stillness, you know? [I’ve enjoyed] being still and being present and in that, I’ve found some freedom.
While talking to different artists, I’ve found that some are hesitant to put out new music during this time of uncertainty. In your case, you put out an album right before we had any idea how our lives would change with the pandemic. Do you see putting out music during this time as a positive, a negative, etc? I guess a better way to put it is…how do you assess or grapple with putting out music in such an uncertain time?
It’s a negative because we had to lockdown for the sake of humanity. I can only think of the small pockets that have been inside of this time. It’s been a heavy, heavy, disastrous time. I guess when one can find those pockets of joy it’s a true blessing.
To answer your question, I don’t know. I know that this is a time where people are experiencing a lot of pain and seeing a lot of hate. I’m just glad I put out material that can hopefully combat that. In some ways, when someone is feeling the weight of the world on them and my album happens to come on or whatever, I hope that it at least helps settle their minds and spirits. For people out there in the fight, I’m hoping it allows them to settle their hearts and take a second to breathe.
One of the songs from To Feel Love/D that I enjoyed the most was “Go Girl” with BJ The Chicago Kid and Ro James. Aside from the song being really good, I enjoyed it because we don’t often get to see three or more of our favorite R&B acts on one song. How did that song, in particular, come together?
It was a no-brainer to get all of us on the same record. We had all talked about it before I even conjured up the actual song. We all basically grew up together in this business, so we always talked about doing projects together.
“Go Girl” came about while I was on my hiatus. I was creating freely and creating without critique. When we went back to the studio to listen to everything that I’ve done and whatnot, we picked that song out and my producer, Danja, said, “We should throw BJ and Ro on there.” It was his idea and bam, that’s how it happened. It was nothing but a phone call and a decision. I didn’t hear it at first. When I first wrote the record, I didn’t hear anybody else on it. I didn’t critique it to be fair, so I didn’t think that far ahead. I’m glad we made that happen.
As we talked about earlier, there is so much going on in the world. From protests to pandemics, there is a lot going on in the world. With everything that is going on are you able to create more art or is it more difficult to create art in these difficult times?
It’s difficult in the sense of my emotions and my feelings to connect to something. Maybe, in that sense it’s difficult, but it’s not hard at all to physically do it. I record at home a lot. I create at home a lot. I have my little studio setup. I just bought a piano. It came in two days ago. You know it’s not hard for me to create. My home is my little sanctuary to hone in on my craft. So, it hasn’t been hard in that sense.
You recently joined the cast of The Chi on Showtime. In the past, I’ve been able to talk to Curtiss Cook and Michael Epps who are both incredibly talented as well. Lala, Jacob Lattimore and so many other talented people work on that show alongside you. What do you take away from being able to work alongside so many other talented people?
I love Curtiss. He’s an actor and a thespian through and through. I admire that about him and I’m grateful to him for allowing me to pick his brain about the craft. That’s been my experience with everyone there. It’s just been a loving environment. They’re a family. This is their fourth season and they’ve been together for three years now. I was just grateful to be welcomed so warmly by everyone. It’s just a good feeling to be around talented people. These are just talented Black people who are just awesome at their craft. I was just a student and it was awesome to have the opportunity to be one.
Recently, I saw your tweet about A Raisin In The Sun. Outside of the shows and music that you’ve been a part of, what shows, albums, books, movies, etc. have you enjoyed or inspired you over the last year?
I’ve been watching everything Black. For sure! I’ve been collecting books and reading up on some things. I’ve been collecting all of the August Wilson books. I’ve been reading a lot of the work of a lot of different playwrights. I’ve been diving into that because I never [read them growing up]. I wish I would have known about them when I was a child. During this time, I’ve just been taking time to really read.
I’ve also just been getting better as a musician. As I said, I bought a piano and I just really want to know how to play the piano. I’m tired of not knowing, so I bought one and I’m taking lessons. I’m just trying to hone in on my craft. That’s just pretty much what I’ve been doing. I’ve been working out more, eating better, and connecting with friends and family. I’ve just been trying to take this time and use it properly.
Taking things up to the moment, I’ve also noticed that you’ve been actively tweeting about, posting about, and speaking about a number of systems that negatively impact Black people. With the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others, how do you maintain your mental health and still move forward with the art that you create?
Prayer. Meditation. For me, I’ve been working through the anger that I feel consistently living in this place. It’s nothing new to us. We’re all just feeling it at one time and that makes it even more intense because it validates our feelings.
As I said, prayer and meditation in different forms has helped. I run. I just picked up running this year and I wasn’t big on running before. I had messed up my leg last year and I rehabilitated myself back to good health….well, good enough health. Now, when I feel the weight of the world on me, I go running. I work out. I put it in music. I use [the emotion]. That’s how I do it. That’s how I channel it. That’s all I have right now and that works for me.
That’s good to hear. Running also helps me a lot. I’ve been doing it since high school and it’s always helped me clear my head. Wrapping things up, I just have two more questions.
In addition to your album, I saw that you contributed to “Baptize” from the Spillage Village album. That’s one of my favorite songs right now. J.I.D has the line that I really love. He said, “At the Saks Fifth, with a religious sack to grab gifts. How you get money and act as if poverty’s past tense? We see bad sh*t happens, but what happens to bad sh*t?”
That line makes me think about staying connected to where we come from and what matters regardless of the material things we earn. With the success that you’ve achieved, how do you stay connected to your hometown of New Orleans?
I’m very connected to my mother and my family. Their struggle is what makes me persevere and has kept me on this path. I’ve had many ups and downs. I’ve had many moments of wanting to quit this business or escape from this business, but I think about my family, friends and the people who believed in me way back then. Man, that’s what pushes me.
I don’t. I don’t know what else to say. I feel him. I feel him on that. I don’t understand how you can disconnect in that kind of way. What drives you? Because that’s what drives me. My mother and her happiness drive me. My future family’s happiness drives me. My brothers, sisters, cousins, people from back home who rooted for me at talent shows and the people who paid for my haircuts before the talent shows drive me. The people who showed me New Edition introduced me to Babyface’s music and taught me about the importance of writing music drives me. I do this for them. I’m expanding more than I ever knew for them. If you have it, you owe it to yourself to drop a little bit of heaven everywhere that you go.
If you have it, you owe it to yourself to drop a little bit of heaven everywhere that you go. That is a bar. I’m going to use that and I’m going to remember that. I’m going to use that and the J.I.D line in my Twitter bio or something.
Let me just say, J.I.D is hard. That Dude? It’s only just a matter of time. Timing is everything, but if you preserve, the real thing will rise to the top. And those cats? They’re the real thing. They’re true creatives. They’re craftsmen who really put the work into their craft and you can tell. You don’t get lyrics like that not knowing how to do what you do or how to express yourself. I really appreciate them reaching out to me and letting me be a part of the album.
I just wanted to end on a positive note. Looking ahead, what things are you most looking forward to being part of in 2021?
Man, I’m looking forward to being as Black as I can be. I’m looking forward to being as happy, joyful, talented and gifted as I can possibly be. I think there’s no time to hold off on sharing your gifts with the world, especially when it’s something that can bring joy and happiness into the world. That’s what I want to do. I want to expand my territory. I want to do more filming and all of that good stuff is in the works. I’m just really happy for what’s to come. I’m grateful for where I am. I’m grateful for where I’ve been and I’m grateful for where I’m going.