Luke James is ready to be out in these Chicago streets. The New Orleans-born actor and singer just celebrated his 37th birthday on June 13 and, after a blizzardy winter of trudging through knee-deep snow, he — like the rest of us — is looking forward to taking advantage of everything Summertime Chi has to offer.

Although summer 2021 is going to look slightly different due to the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down staple Black Chicago events such as the Silver Room Block Party and the Chosen Few Picnic & House Music Festival, Black folks will still be outside: barbecuing at the lakefront, partying in the Playpen, twerking at weekend brunch, singing along to Erykah Badu at the Pitchfork Music Festival, and watching the colorful floats and performances at the Bud Billiken Parade. James said he can’t wait to see this famed part of the city come alive for the first time.

“I’ve earned a Summertime Chi because that’s all everybody was talking about, and I had never experienced it,” said James, who lives somewhere near Fulton Market in the West Loop. “I shoveled 15 inches of snow. I need to see the vibrations, and I need to see the sun out. I need the good weather.”

James isn’t into passively experiencing the city either. He wants to fully embed himself in Chicago’s rich culture. When he speaks about the city, he refers to it as his home away from home. Although Chicago’s heavily segregated neighborhoods differ from NOLA, which he described as a pot of gumbo in terms of its diversity, some of Black Chicago’s neighborhoods mirror his native 7th Ward.

Like Beverly on the far South Side. There, he saw the bubble of middle-to-upper class Black families who live in the neighborhood with a suburban feel that features many historic and spacious brick homes. Since his time in the city, he’s heard someone say they don’t go beyond that imaginary street boundary, most times that’s Roosevelt Road or Cermak Road. He’s also had people tell him to “be careful up there,” referring to Chicago’s violence

“I mean, it’s quite beautiful. This entire place is beautiful. I went to Beverly,” James said. “That’s a beautiful part of town. I always thought you would have to go on the outskirts of Chicago to see that. But that was because we filmed The Chi on location a lot.”

James is now a season regular on Showtime’s “The Chi,” playing the role of Trig Taylor, the once estranged older brother of Jake who returns to the city to get custody of him. Prior to that, James appeared on TV shows such as BET’s miniseries “The New Edition Story,” FOX’s “Star,” HBO’s “Insecure,” and in the 2019 film “Little.” He will be making his Broadway debut this fall in the play, Thoughts of a Colored Man.

His rise to fame started with his voice. He began his music career singing backup for R&B singer Tyrese. Soon, James was an opening act on Beyoncé’s “The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour” in 2013. His first single, “I Want You,” from his 2014 album Luke James (Deluxe), earned him his first Grammy nomination. Today, he’s got a total of three nominations under his belt. 

James’ solo career brought him to Chicago a few times, including a live performance at the Shrine in 2015. Plus, he’s good friends with South Side crooner BJ the Chicago Kid, a singer-songwriter known for his single “Turnin Me Up” and various collaborations with Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Solange, Schoolboy Q and more.

The relationships that James has built with BJ and his castmates on “The Chi” — the ones who also call Chicago home— helped solidify his commitment to portraying both his character Trig and the city authentically. In order to do that, he said it was essential to learn Chicago’s history and all the forces that have shaped the city into what it is today. His quest to discover more about the city is ongoing. 

“Those are the folks that have been pivotal in me getting connected to the city and just being at one and honest as a Chicagoan,” James said about BJ and his castmates. “It’s quite the same as New Orleans. Any type of show that is supposed to be in New Orleans, and depicting the people of New Orleans, we’re very tight about our culture and how it’s shown and the authenticity of it,” James said.

(L-R): Curtiss Cook as Douda, Michael V. Epps as Jake and Luke James as Trig in THE CHI, "Soul Food". Photo credit: Elizabeth Sisson/SHOWTIME.

“The Chi” is currently airing its fourth season, which follows Jake, Papa and Kevin as they “confront the harsh reality of how the world views young, Black men in the aftermath of an act of police brutality,” according to Showtime.

In the season four premiere that aired in May, Trig’s teenage brother Jake (played by Michael Epps) is assaulted by Chicago police officers while traveling with friends after school. The assault is recorded on a cellphone and the video goes viral. Jake is taken into custody and cuffed to the side of a hospital bed. Trig is furious and — spoiler alert! — does get revenge by assaulting the cop who beat up his brother.

“He is a human being who is longing for love in totality, longing for a space to be himself, not to tote a gun, not to have to look over your shoulder, not to have to retaliate,” James said about his character. “Trig is trying to redefine himself in some ways, [to] be a vessel for change by any means necessary.” 

During the Black Summer 2020 uprisings, the calls to defund the police went mainstream as activists and organizers nationwide demanded money be reallocated from the police budget to community services following the police murder of George Floyd.

(L-R): Luke James as Trig and Jeremy Anderson as a Chicago Police Officer in THE CHI, "Soul Food". Photo credit: Elizabeth Sisson/SHOWTIME.
Luke James as Trig in THE CHI, "The Girl From Chicago". Photo credit: Elizabeth Sisson/SHOWTIME.

This season, “The Chi” is using its storytelling to explore how a community would operate without the presence of police. The mayor on the show, played by Curtiss Cook, is Black — just like city’s real-life first openly lesbian Black mayor, Lori Lightfoot. However, after Jake’s run-in with police on the show, the mayor fires the officer and says that he will defund the police. In real life, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has advocated for reform instead of defunding the police.

In ep. 3, titled “Native Son” after the famous Richard Wright novel, South Side rapper Vic Mensa depicts a domestic situation where — instead of police intervention — Trig and Tracy, a character that operates a community center, successfully diffuse the situation without harming anyone involved. 

In Chicago, youth organizers at GoodKids MadCity created the “Peace Book Ordinance,” which centers restorative justice similar to what played out in “The Chi.” GKMC’s ordinance would reallocate two percent (about $35 million) of the Chicago Police Department’s budget to community-run services such as violence interruption, education, mental health programs and more.

James said this is the type of journey that his character Trig is on to find his place in the world this season, similar to his own personal journey for his 37th year. He, too, is longing for experiences that will shake him out of his comfort zone and help him grow. 

“The beauty of the writing is Trig gets to play the part of what the audience would want to do [and what] most wouldn’t, and I get to portray that,” James said. “For me, it’s not a far stretch to feel what anyone would feel in a real situation. I don’t have to go far to channel my anger, my fears, or my heartache.”

James began his music career singing backup for R&B singer Tyrese. Soon, he was an opening act on Beyoncé’s “The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour” in 2013. Photo by Ben Abarbanel

Although James’ acting career keeps him pretty busy these days, he still finds the time to create music. Last year, he dropped what he calls his most poetic and vulnerable piece to date, his independent album, to feel love/d. BJ the Chicago Kid and Ro James are featured on the album. Rumor has it that the trio might drop another collaboration sometime soon, James said. 

In the meantime, don’t be surprised if you see James riding his bike along Chicago’s lakefront or outside enjoying the Summertime Chi vibes at a party or something. The city’s foodie, music, and jazz scenes are other areas that James is ready to immerse himself in too. He’s already found some restaurants to satisfy his vegan appetite in Chicago Diner and Hyde Park’s Can’t Believe It’s Not Meat. He’s been ordering takeout from both places. 

Chicago is very much like New Orleans to me. Very soulful, very rhythmic. I can feel the music,” James said. “I’m looking forward to continuing this journey of learning more about Chicago and being more connected to this place in some ways I can call home.”

is a multimedia producer for The TRiiBE.