Preaching to the Unconverted

Martin Luther wants to save your soul -- music, that is

"Some of the kinds of thing I will address in my songs might rub some people the wrong way, and I have to do that," he states. "If I eclipse my superstardom because I am who I am, then that will be that."

Kowal believes Luther's biggest challenge will be going pop without removing the teeth from his music. "There really is no apparatus for taking an artist like him, who has a message, and making him national," Kowal observes. He points out that even with strong local media support, Luther's Funk Festival show only drew 250 people. "I think he will have to go through a record deal. Because his thing is so cool to look at, once he does a video he's going to be huge."

The amount of attention Luther has drummed up -- he's been on HBO's The Chris Rock Show, and been reviewed in Vibe and The Source-- is impressive given that he's from San Francisco, which is often considered soul music's no man's land. Luther attributes much of this early success to the partnerships he forged at Morehouse, with many of his friends going on to careers in the entertainment industry. When he plays in New York, an Atlanta homeboy does the promotion and an artist friend handles the set design; for shows in Brooklyn, he sometimes performs at a club owned by a woman from Spellman, Morehouse's sister school. His partner in Beyond Entertainment, the label that put out The Calling in 1999, was Lamar Davidson, also from Atlanta.

After graduating from college in 1992, Luther moved to L.A. for a few years to make his first bid at a creative career. He interned at record labels and assembled a funk band called Aloosanation, which he used as a case study for how the music business operated, "so that if I had a project that didn't make it, I would know why." He also forayed into acting, appearing in a malt liquor commercial. After the band dissolved in the mid-'90s, he moved back to San Francisco to focus on solo work, putting together a home studio.

Things have been quieter than Luther'd like so far, but he now has a record deal and a video in the bag. In August, he signed with Goodvibe Records, the indie powerhouse that propelled Oakland's Mystic to a Grammy nomination and a relationship with the major label DreamWorks, and this fall he finished a video for "Soul Assassinator," a rerecorded version of the lead single from his first album (which mostly likely will be rereleased as a B-side). By co-directing the video, Luther managed to cram as many contradictory lifestyle images into the five-minute short as possible. He rides a Harley, sports a leather jacket with glammed-out paintings on the back (including the Illuminati pyramid), digs for 12-inches in a record store, exchanges bedroom eyes with a female customer, rocks a dive bar in the bayou with his band, wears a pimp hat and a boa, and narrowly eludes a fight with the Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon while playing pool. If a member of a niche audience can't find something to nibble on, he isn't looking hard enough.

Luther and Goodvibe are planning a release of the video and Rebel Soul Musicin the first quarter of 2003, which should raise the singer's profile in the Bay Area. "San Francisco's a pretty programmed place," Luther says. "Just like it took Charlie Hunter getting big in New York for his shows to sell out at Yoshi's, large numbers of people won't come out to see me unless they see me on the television, or KMEL tells them it's official."

So for now, he's got a laser focus on those twin objectives: He plays in New York monthly (which, he explains, is meant to get him in front of taste-makers), and he's got a hard drive stuffed with potential radio jams. But he's quick to point out that these measures are merely intended to prime the pump for his much grander vision. After he gets his foot in the door, he's got his freak flag ready to be unfurled.

"When it comes to being an entertainer and a showman, I consider myself [an expert]," he says. "And if I'm going to ask for your time and attention, then I'm going to do whatever's in my God-given ability to entertain you. We might throw a party where we're naked onstage, and you gotta be naked to get in. Fuck it -- life gets mundane real quick."

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