When you talk to Keith London about his career, there is no way not to speak about his appearance on American Idol in 2014. That performance made him famous to fans and an inspiration to others wanting to piece together parts of their lives and express themselves without censor.
London will perform at Martinis Above Fourth on Sunday September 20, for The Gay Men’s Chorus Encore benefit starting at 4 pm. He told me he will perform some of his Idol songs from that night on season thirteen, plus another surprise favorite.
But there is much more to London than that one night in which he stood in front of Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. on Idol, feeling as though he had done something wrong. The judges were so overcome with confusion about London’s song choice, they missed his entire performance.
However, before all of that, London was traveling around the country. He wasn’t quite sure where he would end up, but that didn’t matter; he had come out to his disapproving parents and just wanted to get out and live.
I talked to London about his life and what brought him to where he is today. He makes no excuses and for being only 23-years-old, lives every day in the confines of his mind where thoughts play music and music moves him forward.
He moved from Pennsylvania to Boston, in pursuit of a love affair that ran from hot to cold. The confused singer was eager to make things work, but ultimately the whole thing fell apart after a year and-a-half. Eventually London moved out west.
“I was with him, not with him, living in L.A., trying to do it out there.” London said. “This was before Idol though. L.A.’s just rough. Then the show aired, then I just kinda found myself in Vegas somehow, and then down to San Diego.”
American Idol was a big influence on London’s life. He loved watching the show, but never figured he could be a successful singer. His dad wanted him to get a sports scholarship either in soccer or tennis, but the world had other plans.
“I was truly inspired by watching the show. Especially David Archuleta, I just kinda related. Got inspired, you know, this kid can do it? Well, so can I! And that’s truly where I got my start.”
One day, after giving it some thought, London realized that if he didn’t take the chance now, it might not come again.
“I was like, ‘screw this, I’m going to do it, and I’m going to be confident, and I’m gonna go for it,” he said. “Once I was eighteen, I was auditioning for stuff and going for it.”
London auditioned for American Idol season 13, and was so good that they gave him a Golden Ticket, a passport to Hollywood Week, the one time he could either impress the judges and move on, or fail to get their attention entirely and get sent home.
London might be the only contestant in history to do both. His song choice “If I Were a Boy,” is traditionally sung by a female artist. But London wanted to show more than just great vocal skills, he wanted to bring something emotional, something fresh to his performance so he chose to sing the Beyonce song without changing the pronouns.
“It was just so emotional, and just so powerful to me,” he told me. “I was like, this would be cool if I could do this. I wanted to sing something—you know the top two hundred singers in the country are there, and I didn’t want to sing a song, just to sing a song. I wanted to sing something that I had some power behind, and it was different. I knew no other guy would be doing it, so I wanted to be different.”
But the song choice actually did two things; it confirmed that London was brave enough to take chances in front of millions of people for his craft and inadvertently outed him at the same time, although he wasn’t purposefully trying to say he was gay, it may have played differently in his inner-most sensibilities.
“I wanted to come out—not really, but kind of--I don’t know. And I got off the stage and my friends are like, ‘uh you kinda just came out.’ I was like, oh no, really, did it look like that? I guess subconsciously, it just kinda happened. I’m happy. I’m happy it was aired and it went the way it did. But yeah, I wanted to be original.”
Judges Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick were beside themselves when London sang the Beyonce cover without changing the pronouns. During the airing, subtitles had to be shown as to what they were saying because London was in full performance as they desperately tried to wrap their head around what was happening.
“That don’t impress me,” Lopez said. While Connick was a little more critical, “It doesn’t impress me. It’s bizarre. Oh yeah, it’s a weird choice.” At which point the judges interrupted London and said they were distracted and if he could do another song.
London chose “Same Love,” by Macklemore, and sang it a capella. The song, another statement about his life, may have been just been enough to save him from elimination; he moved forward to the group round.
I asked London why he didn’t save the Beyonce song until later in the competition. He said that he needed some guidance.
“I needed advice, because the way I view the world is a little bit different sometimes, so I might not see things right,” he said. “I might make a bad choice, thinking it’s good, but it’s really bad. I have been trying out for the show for years, and I always promised myself that if I ever got to Hollywood Week I would try to do something that was more inspiring, motivational instead of just singing some random song.”
Unfortunately London was eliminated shortly after he moved on to the group round. He was living in Vegas by the time the show aired, living on couches and through the kindness of friends.
One night at the blackjack table he met a gay couple who recognized London’s talent and wanted to help him get back on his feet. They offered him a room in their home in San Diego, and the young singer took them up on their offer and settled in.
“They just believed in me. I was in a bad situation, they had an extra room,” London said. “They wanted to see my career do well.”
London’s career is taking off. He has been booked for gay events all over the country, and this Sunday he will be performing with special guest Jonathon Wiley and members of The San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus at Martinis Above Fourth.
From Pennsylvania to the stage of American Idol and finally to the alluring coast of San Diego, Keith London has made a voice for himself. He practices every day and constantly posts videos of his sessions on social media to his thousands of his followers.
Keith London may always be known as the contestant who stumped the judges by outing himself on stage, but he is also an inspiration to young gay singers everywhere who want to follow their dreams, and finally one day, change the world. His advice seems sound for other musicians who might be scared to sing or put themselves out there like he did for American Idol.
"Do what works for you. You're not going to be the only one to ever feel that way, so it will connect with people regardless."
You can see Keith London perform for The Gay Men's Choir Encore benefit at Martinis above Fourth on Sunday, September 20 at 4 pm.
Martinis Above Fourth is located at 3940 Fourth Avenue, Second Level in Hillcrest.
Timothy Rawles is Community Editor of SDGLN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @reporter66 on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.