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Gabriels’ Jacob Lusk: An American Idol survivor making his own stage

The lead singer of the Elton John-approved, gospel-soul trio Gabriels talks to Emmanuel Onapa about growing up in Compton, competing on American Idol and the band’s debut album, Angels & Queens – Part 1

Gospel-soul trio Gabriels’ first introduction to the music industry came via Prada’s 2018 vignette series, The Delivery Man. “I didn’t realise it was going to be a life-transforming experience working with these guys,” reflects one of the group’s members, Jacob Lusk. As satisfying to the ears as Prada’s clothes were to the eyes, their performance caught the attention of record labels and established their status as ones to watch.

Motivated by this attention that they received, the group released a slew of rough cuts and signed their first record deal with Elektra Records, with whom they would drop two critically acclaimed EPs – one of which, Love and Hate in a Different Time, was described by Elton John as “one of the most seminal records I’ve heard in the last ten years”.

However, for Lusk, who sings in the group, life wasn’t always so glamorous. He grew up in Compton, Los Angeles; an experience which can be likened to trying to sprint through a hurricane. Although it’s a hotbed for Black cultural contribution – producing legendary figures such as Kendrick Lamar, YG, The Game and rap group NWA – the neighbourhood has a reputation for violence and gang warfare. “I was sheltered when I was young,” he says from his current home in southern California. “I felt like the hood kind of protected me. It knew I was a little different, so I wasn’t exposed to many elements as a child until I got older.”

He credits his Christian upbringing with shielding him from the world, which ultimately relegated him to the sidelines when it came to his social life as a youth. “I grew up in a religious household. I didn’t go to the movies or sleepovers; I didn’t even listen to the radio. I was in church three or four days a week. It was a very different type of upbringing.”

That said, it wasn’t until high school that Lusk began to realise his talent for singing. “Interestingly, I didn’t sing at church when I was younger,” he remembers. “I grew up in a church where many musicians were famous. If I went to a smaller church, I would have been in the cat’s pyjamas... I sang in school, and there I was exceptional.”

When it comes to developing his music career, Lusk worked hard – he could tell the same cliched story of “grinding” and “never giving up” – but he didn’t always feel so determined. “When it comes to pursuing music I haven’t always kept going. I just tried to keep one toe in the water, you know? Because the struggle of it is real. That’s how Gabriels happened, because I slowed down on my other [solo] music, and was like, well, I have Gabriels over here; at least I’m still making music in some capacity.”

While Lusk can look back at his childhood and see moments of joy, the death of his father when he was 12 left him traumatised. “It was very unexpected,” he recalls. “No one talked to me about it; some may think that’s bad. But in my case, it allowed me to figure it out on my own… I quickly realised that it was just a part of life. Many times I feel like people think death is attacking them like ‘they took this from me!’ but no, it’s just a part of life.”

Lusk went on to compete in American Idol in 2011 – and while it’s clear that the show has had an impact on his trajectory, the experience wasn’t all positive. “They said I was over-singing, and then when I wasn’t doing it, they would say I wasn’t singing enough,” he says. “I was the only Black person on the show, which is a whole story itself. Many people were ripping me apart on the blogs, about my skin complexion, my tone, how I looked, how I sounded like it was evil.”

Discouraged, Lusk was on the verge of giving up, until someone on his team told him how important he was in terms of pushing the culture forward. “He was like, ‘I want you to know that you are the only Black person on a major network at this hour,’” he says. “It made me understand why things were the way they were, and I realised the importance of representation.”

Despite these blows, Lusk finished the show strong, coming in fifth place. Fast forward to now, he is putting his powerful voice to good use as part of Gabriels, walking hand in hand with his partners in crime, producers Ari Balouzian and Ryan Hope. “We respect each other, and really trust each other.” 

The group is now preparing to release the first track from their debut album Angels & Queens – Part 1, after releasing a single of the same name. The album is a rare exploration of love and loss through their collective but different perspectives, melding a range of styles from classic R&B, jazz, soul and gospel filled with hope and euphoria. If the sound of the album is anything to go by, it’s clear that the trio is heading for greatness.

Gabriels release the first instalment of their debut album, Angels & Queens – Part 1, on Friday, September 30 via Atlas Artists/Parlophone Records