He wakes up early. He gets his mind, body and voice in tune. He drinks an ungodly amount of water. And for good reason: the whole world would see him perform.
For Garden City South’s Luke Islam, 13-year-old singing wunderkind and newly minted darling of America’s Got Talent (AGT), technique is vital. But it isn’t an austere process.
If you’ve ever seen Islam perform—his soulful renditions of several popular Broadway songs are all over YouTube—it’s readily apparent that his cherubic smile, vivid spirit and unabashed optimism are as integral in his path to The Great White Way as his mesmerizing singing voice.
And while it’s easy to marvel at Islam’s chops now, it took him two tries to make it past auditions. He was contacted by representatives at AGT after they viewed a clip of him singing karaoke to “She Used to Be Mine” from Sara Bareilles’ Waitress, which was posted on the Broadway show’s YouTube channel. And the third time was indeed the charm, as Islam’s next audition punched his ticket to the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in Los Angeles. There, he was launched into another stratosphere: reprising his singing of the popular Waitress song, Islam slayed it so thoroughly that judge Julianne Hough hammered the “Golden Buzzer,” sending the crowd into a frenzy and a euphoric and tearful Islam into the quarterfinals.
“In that moment, it felt like all that work paid off,” he said.
Another round, another standing ovation, this time for Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen’s “You Will Be Found.” A date with the national competition’s semifinals saw him weigh the prospect of singing “Never Enough”, a song from movie-musical The Greatest Showman. And despite his meteoric rise, Islam was feeling apprehensive about what he called his greatest challenge to date.
“I didn’t think that I could sing it,” Islam said. “But not only was my family there for me, the music team on America’s Got Talent is incredible. Everyone there is super nice, super talented, they know exactly what they’re doing. They pushed me and they helped me get to exactly where I needed to be in order to sing the song. I didn’t believe in myself, but with other people in my life, I could, so I am very thankful for them.”
Of course, he belted it out with aplomb in the semifinals, again to resounding applause and judges’ praise. The kid’s got a lot going for him, and Max Bialystock’s exclamation of
“That’s it, baby, when you’ve got it, flaunt it!” doesn’t suit him: Islam is perfectly content to wax grateful about his uber-supportive family and simply everyone who’s made a positive impact on his life. Knowing that success isn’t a zero-sum game, Islam is a performer humbly yet excitedly aware that he’s always in an ensemble.
“I know [on AGT] we’re all competing with each other, but it didn’t feel like that, it felt like one big show because of the family of AGT,” Islam insisted. “We all share our stories with each other and even in rehearsal before the live show, we all sang together one last time because the whole week we were getting to know each other, and I think that was probably my favorite part of the show—the people there.”
That kinship was evident when, after a live September announcement that the vocal quartet Voices of Service would be advancing to the finals at his expense, he walked to the group and embraced its female vocalist in a long hug.
“Obviously the show is amazing with the opportunities it gives you, but you also have to think of what life was like before then,” Islam said. “Seeing all these people so happy that they got on the show makes me happy and inspired, and all of us coming together is such a great thing.”
He was even one of 40 contestants in the second season of NBC’s “Champions” edition, but got eliminated in the second episode. The show, which kicked off on Jan. 6, is a coalescence of winners, finalists and semifinalists from iterations around the world. And because the world has noticed, Islam has been able to meet some of his idols, such as Bareilles and Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda. The former couldn’t hold back tears after hearing Islam sing “She Used to Be Mine.”
“It was so great to see one of your idols inspired, because you know that if they are happy and proud of your work, then eventually you can be like them and take their helpful advice,” Islam said, oscillating between cloud nine and ground level. “I could possibly be in their shoes one day, knowing to have confidence and not give up hope. It pushes me to try harder and be determined with everything that I do.”
And with Broadway on the horizon, Islam has gleaned inspiration from the actors who’ve blazed a trail and walked the walk.
“They had to go to auditions, they’re just like me, and when I go to an audition, it makes me happy to know that I can be [on Broadway] one day because I’m following in their steps.”
At the top of his audition wish list? Dear Evan Hansen’s titular character, a role he believes he’ll grow into as he matures.
“Evan is a teenager struggling with so many things, and [Dear Evan Hansen] tells a beautiful story that feels very important…to be able to sing those songs every night on a Broadway stage would be amazing.”
Until then, he’ll keep being himself.
“On Broadway, there’s these big names, but you want to be true to yourself because we already have [those stars],” Islam said. “I feel like that’s what [people] want to see—your personality and what you are actually like. Everybody has their own sparkle or shine or something that’s unique about them, and I think it’s very important that you keep it that way.”
Catch America’s Got Talent: The Champions on Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.