Luke Bryan saved Dimitrius Graham from elimination on American Idol last week, but on Sunday, the Baltimore native’s time on the show came to an end. On what was “Disney Week” on the Disney-owned ABC show, he performed “You’ll Be in My Heart” from Tarzan. The 27-year-old broke down after singing the song, dedicating it to his mother, who has been battling illness during his run on the show.
Graham first auditioned for American Idol when he was 18, making this a nearly decade-long journey to the Top 10. He got consistently high marks for his theatrics and ability to sing the roof off of any song he covered. Currently living in Los Angeles and working in the service industry, Graham is Baltimore-bred, the second connection Charm City has to the show this season (Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon advanced to Idol’s Top 8 on Sunday).
A Milford Mill Academy and Morgan State alum, the Northwest Baltimore native frequented Shake & Bake and XS Sushi and grew up singing in church, taking after his mother, who he calls his “best friend.” “I am Baltimore raised,” he says. “The type of love that I get in Baltimore is like no other.”
Baltimore spoke with Graham last week ahead of his Sunday performance about how he chose his style, grew out of his shell, and stayed in touch with his Baltimore upbringing.
What have you taken from growing up in Baltimore?
I’ve lived in three different places: Baltimore, Philly, and LA now. Baltimore people, we’ve been through a lot. We stick together. We’ve just been through a lot of stuff. The way that we just stay together and take care of ourselves, look after each other, it’s unbelievable. It’s a love that I can’t find anywhere else.
You’ve been open about your upbringing and some of the struggles you’ve faced. What were some of the things you overcame to get to where you are?
I definitely grew up in the streets. I definitely have seen different things. I have friends that have taken different routes, whether it was selling drugs or hustling or gang violence and things like that. I definitely grew up with ADHD. I grew up with a learning disability. I’ve experienced all of that. All of those struggles that Baltimore kids grow up with—I’ve definitely been there. I grew up in a single-parent home. I didn’t have a father in my house. I grew up watching my mom having to work three to four jobs and still make it to Sunday morning church. I know about Section 8. I know about food stamps. I’m just happy that my mom kind of guided me in the right direction.
You’re candid on Idol how close you and your mother are.
My mom, she’s my best friend. I’ve witnessed her go through a lot. I didn’t have a lot of male figures in my life. I grew up watching her be my father and my mother. She was at all of my games–football, basketball. She tried her best to make all of my concerts. I love her and am really appreciative for everything and all of the sacrifices that she made for me. She’s my best friend.
When your mom was set to have surgery while you were competing in Hollywood, it was a moment people responded to. You FaceTimed her during your performance. What was that moment like?
I moved to LA and I’ve been here for a year now, but I really miss my mom because she’s been going through a lot of sickness and illnesses. I want to come back home, but my siblings won’t let me. They want me to continue to stay out here and strive and grind. I talk to [my mom] every day. [At that time] she was just telling me how she’s trying to prepare herself for open-heart surgery, and I felt bad that I couldn’t be there for her. I just thought, “If only I could share this moment with her, I would be super grateful.” A lot of people have been writing me just telling me how they were very much touched by it. I definitely have been called a mama’s boy, but I’m fine with that.
Do you ever think about your experience compared to some of the people you grew up with?
I actually have at least four friends right now who didn’t have fathers in their lives and are the male figure in their family, so they had to put their basketball dreams on hold and their music dreams on hold because they had to take care of their parents. It just means a lot that my siblings are willing to step up and take care of my mom.
You have a background in classical music—how does that translate to what you do on Idol? Are there certain advantages?
I majored in classical music and I definitely love opera—shout out to Pavarotti! When I got to college, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it my entire life. So I kind of abandoned it, but everybody kept telling me not to. After I graduated, I tried to build my brand. I went and got the tattoos I wanted and I kind of went through a rebellious stage, because I really didn’t want to do opera and I felt like my mother really wanted me to. I started doing it and I just started getting booked and people started booking me more because people were so infatuated with the fact that I was this guy who has these tattoos and he can sing opera so crazy and other genres as well.
How do your tattoos contribute to your individuality?
I feel like I do what I want. I do what makes me happy, and I’m grateful Idol allows me to have that freedom. Every single tattoo I have on my body has a deep meaning. The tattoo on my face, that’s my sister’s birthday who passed. My mom is on the side of my face. I have the Virgin Mary. Every tattoo means something. [Idol] just lets me be myself. They kind of know exactly what we like. They know our styles and bring a bunch of clothes to us and we just get to pick what we want.
Does the fact that you have experience producing your own music help you figure out arranging and putting a spin on the songs you sang on Idol?
Definitely. A lot of kids, they get up on the stage and they’ve never been around these type of environments. I always like working with producers and first-class singers and musicians. I think that it definitely has been comfortable for me because I experience these things.
How do you choose your songs? Your voice is dynamic to the point where you can kind of fit it in to a lot of different genres.
To me, it’s not really about what I can or cannot do. I just try to pick songs that I can feel and songs that I can relate to. That’s the only thing that makes me comfortable and that makes me not that much more nervous—especially being from Baltimore.
I feel like kids in Baltimore are so hurt, when they get out of Baltimore, they’re so mad and so angry. And I think that’s kind of a struggle I’ve had. Being from Baltimore, it’s so tough and so much goes on, so I’ve always had a guard. That’s kind of been my journey on Idol is just being able to be vulnerable and express myself and show that it’s ok to be emotional because, of course in Baltimore, if you’re emotional, it’s a sign of weakness. I’ve been trying to break that habit.
Every single kid that I run into that’s from Baltimore, I just let them know that, like, “Hey, you don’t always have to be so tough and so hard and have such a hard exterior. You can be vulnerable and express yourself.”