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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Singer-songwriter Martin Luther has crossed the genres of rap, pop and soul, traveled the world and built a small but loyal following. But his low profile could be changing.

Martin Luther recently scored a feature role in the new film, "Across the Universe." It's a movie musical set to Beatles song.

(Soundbite of song, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps")

Mr. MARTIN LUTHER (Singer): (Singing) I look at you all see the love there that's sleeping while my guitar gently weeps?

CHIDEYA: In the film, Martin Luther plays a Jimi Hendrix-type. That's given him a chance to show his stuff to the largest audience of his career.

(Soundbite of song, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps")

Mr. LUTHER: (Singing) I don't know why nobody told you.

CHIDEYA: I asked Martin Luther how he's handling all those new attention.

Mr. LUTHER: Wait, wait, wait.

CHIDEYA: Oh, you're not ready?

Mr. LUTHER: I have to prepare myself.

CHIDEYA: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LUTHER: This is my best side. Where's the camera? Where's the camera?

CHIDEYA: You're a mess. That's what happens when you become an actor.

Mr. LUTHER: Yeah. Indeed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LUTHER: And I enjoy acting because to a degree, being a musician and a singer involves a high level of acting and delivery of the song.

CHIDEYA: Right.

Mr. LUTHER: So if I deliver the song, then, that's, you know, me putting more of myself into it and becoming the song, which largely has an acting element to it because if I'm telling good or bad in a song, maybe the opposite of what I'm feeling I have to be 100 percent committed to that moment in order for it to completely come across to the audience.

So when they asked me to do this role in "Across The Universe," it was kind of like, okay, well, where's the work? But the work wasn't in the delivery of the moments in the words and the songs. My work came in.

Okay, the camera's over there. You have to give us this certain information. Here's your mood. You're - you have to do this, action and plug in your guitar and all this kind of stuff, and you got two and a half seconds to do it. So that's where I learned, you know, that's what the work was for me. But as far as performing and singing and delivering a song, I got that.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, yeah. So this character JoJo is worked into this whole montage musical using all the music of the Beetles. How do you relate your character JoJo? How does he fit in to all that?

CHIDEYA: JoJo was a character who comes from, you know, arduous circumstances. He's leaving the Detroit-riot environment 1967 after losing his little brother and he's making a decision, you know.

The Motown sound is big. He's a singer. He's got a voice; he hasn't already founded yet. He really gas a passion for the instrument of the guitar and he believes that going into the New York - The Village - into that environment is going to somehow help him to find himself and to further allow him to define himself because maybe the Motown slick-back hair dude, Smokey Robinson doo-wop thing is not him, but he hasn't seen or heard what will be him because there's more of a rock. It's more of a freedom. There's more of an expressiveness that is not caged.

Martin Luther's real life directly parallels that. I walk the streets of The Village and every other part of New York with my guitar on my back with a dream. I've walked - I used to live in Los Angeles. I've been down here in the mid-90s. I see a cab roll up in the gas station with a Mercedes Benz, looking like an executive, I started singing…

(Singing) Looking back on (unintelligible).

You know, trying to get somebody's attention. Didn't think that was got to land me a record deal. That was so hilarious.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LUTHER: And I found myself by allowing myself to simply be myself. And in doing that, no longer did I feel inhibited by, oh, is this going to work on BET?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LUTHER: (Singing) I send this love to you, coz I care about you, baby. Nothing left to do, no reason to doubt you, coz you're always on my mind.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Sugar of love.

Mr. LUTHER: (Singing) Sugar of love.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Honey dew(ph).

Mr. LUTHER: (Singing) Honey dew.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) I love you.

Mr. LUTHER: (Singing) I love you.

CHIDEYA: I want to talk a little bit about how you feel with the question of an audience. How do you try to reach outside of an audience that might be totally receptive to what you do and try to find other people to listen? And do you think this movie will help you break out?

Mr. LUTHER: Either we are desecrating the legacy or we're extending it and there are people who believe how hard had been that we are doing both. Some like, cool, so as long as that is good enough to go see it. I'm the only, you know, black person that's of significance in a lead fashion in this film so I'm going to stand out quite naturally.

And, you know, I'm singing with a different kind of soulful edge to my voice but you will get a strong representation of my talent and a little bit of who I am if you go and see that movie, which extends on my existing audience which was built over the last decade of me going out to New York, to Los Angeles and getting on stage to San Francisco where I'm from, begging my friends to come to a show. There would be 50 people at the most that would show up. And sometimes, they might still be a show where only 50 people show up. I think things are very - it's very appropriate. This is like a gift to me for all of my hard work because I have never let the business dictate what I do or my success level's not based on going platinum or not.

CHIDEYA: So how do you even get this role? You mention that you have a lot of parallels with JoJo. But how did you seek it or it seek you?

Mr. LUTHER: Laws of attraction. Some of my first gigs in entertainment were acting and I was a student at Morehouse College, cinematography and radio. Television and film were my concentration so I wanted to know what people knew and what people needed to know how to run a studio like this. I also wanted to be of interest to the camera but I couldn't figure out what I wanted to do more so then, yes, I just did it all.

Then when I got to Los Angeles and later on into the late '90s, acting option has started to come, commercials and what not. And I was like, ooh, I don't want this because I want people to respect my music. I have something to say. So I shut down on acting tip because I didn't want to have to go that, oh, yeah, we knew him from such and such but now, he's got some music oh, isn't that cute? He's got a little song. He wants (unintelligible), you know. It wasn't that kind - I fear that that would happen because I had seen it happen to other major stars.

What I didn't realize is that it wouldn't be upon someone else's dictating what my life was about but it's my decision first. So since I decided to give that power away, then my acting opportunities did shut down. And my music has gone its independent route and independently, you have to do it all on your own and I wanted to learn the business from the inside out so I definitely have and that information you can't take away from me.

So now, we're going to apply it and continue to apply it and generate a financial wherewithal from that. Then we are successful on our own two feet and that's our ultimate goal of me, of my and my company, Rebel Soul of Music.

How did this even happen? Because of a woman named Stephanie(ph) who remembered that I existed from coming to one of my shows and they had a hard time finding someone who could fit the character of JoJo. And I don't know where she just says, you know what? I know this guy. Y'all just check his Web site. They checked the Web site. And they sent an e-mail.

CHIDEYA: Right.

Mr. LUTHER: It could have easily not happen. But when God opens up a window for you, it pours out a blessing to you. You would not have arms big enough to receive it.

CHIDEYA: It sounds at this point that you have not only made peace with how you've led your life but you see it as full of great promise but was there ever a moment when the bills came due, you had other musicians to pay, you didn't have a major label backing you because you chose to go and do things the way you wanted to that you said, you know what? This is really not working out.

Mr. LUTHER: It's not working out now. It's not fine. It's not fun, you know. I've had to borrow money just to come take some of these flights out to Toronto and then back to L.A. to catch up with some of the stuff that the family is doing, you know. Things that I would assume would be taken care of but when they're not, either you step up or you miss out on the opportunity.

So I'm not at any way at peace with what's going on. But I'm excited and I'm giving more opportunities to create opportunity. If I'm - nothing else, you know, I am someone who is aggressive about his business. So it's on me to make sure I make it happen and I'm doing the best that I can, hard to find this audience. I'm an artist.

CHIDEYA: Well on that note, Martin Luther, thanks.

Mr. LUTHER: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Soul singer Martin Luther. You can see him in the new film "Across the Universe."

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: That's NEWS & NOTES.

CHIDEYA: Visit our Web site at nprnewsandnotes.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

Next week, our new monthlong series on civil rights.

I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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