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Abraham Alexander Is Ready for His Star Turn

Abraham Alexander is ready to follow his friends Leon Bridges and Charley Crockett onto the national stage.
| |Photography by Elizabeth Lavin
Abraham Alexander
"Just 10 years ago I was learning how to play the guitar, and eight years ago I was doing my first open mic. Now I get to release my debut record. It’s surreal." Elizabeth Lavin

Abraham Alexander cuts quite the figure as he moves through the iHeartRadio offices on a Friday afternoon in early March. 

The 32-year-old singer-songwriter from Fort Worth (by way of Arlington and Athens—Greece, not East Texas) is built like a box-to-box midfielder rather than the forward and defender he played on soccer pitches through college, sturdy and compact. He’s model handsome and stylish, even in a maroon sweatshirt and cuffed olive pants, the kind of guy who wears his clothes instead of letting them wear him. (His zip-up Gucci ankle boots, the signature horse bit glinting under the overhead fluorescents, don’t hurt.) He has a smile that lights up his surroundings like a Fresnel lens, sweeping in front of him so it lands on everyone along the way. He carries himself like a six-time Grammy winner on his way to one of the coasts instead of an artist a month away from releasing his debut album, SEA/SONS.

Alexander showed up a few minutes ago for his midday appearance on 97.1 The Freak’s Ben and Skin Show, on time and alone, guitar in hand. You can easily imagine a scenario where, two months from now, maybe a year, he will have people. Someone to drive him here and there, another to lug his guitar around, perhaps one more to make excuses for why he has arrived late and why he must leave early, sorry. He will be firmly and forever behind one gate or another. It happens all the time.

But in Alexander’s case, you can just as easily imagine a scenario where it won’t. Shouldn’t it have already happened? Hasn’t he earned an ego trip or two? He may be only now releasing his debut, but one of his songs, the original recording of “Stay” (a new version of which appears on SEA/SONS, augmented by a guitar solo from Gary Clark Jr.), has amassed almost 8 million streams on Spotify, and several others have popped up on various TV shows. He has played high-profile gigs across the country and overseas and was chosen to perform at Dirk Nowitzki’s retirement party in 2019. Last fall, he was one of the faces of Southern luxury brand Billy Reid’s collaboration with guitar maker Gibson. Earlier this year, he stole the show at a pre-Grammy tribute to Lucinda Williams at L.A.’s fabled Troubadour that also featured the likes of Dwight Yoakam, Mumford & Sons, Molly Tuttle, and Madison Cunningham. In June, he will headline three shows at the Kessler Theater, two of which have sold out as of this writing. (Only one date was originally booked, but the others were added due to demand.) Alexander hasn’t quite caught up to his buddies Leon Bridges and Charley Crockett, but he’s not too far behind.

He’s about to get closer. SEA/SONS is a no-skips stunner, its folk-music foundation allowing Alexander to gently genre hop from the classic R&B of “Tears Run Dry” to the skittering electronic rhythms of “Dèjá Vu” (which features a stirring guest spot by the legendary Mavis Staples) and the haunting, hip-hop-indebted “Today.” “Heart of Gold,” to my ear, wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Radiohead’s more recent albums, and “Xavier” (as well as its album-ending reprise “Amen”) is gospel in form and content, layered vocals stacked to the heavens, lyrics that manage to uplift amid sadness. But Alexander’s soulful vocals make them all feel right at home under the same roof. He has a voice that is like finding a key in your pocket that fits into a door you didn’t realize was locked, satisfying a need you weren’t aware of until it had already been met. 

Today’s interview and performance on Ben and Skin is more or less the beginning of the promotional cycle for SEA/SONS, set to release on April 14 on Dualtone Records, the label behind the Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling Lumineers, among others. Next week, he will make the rounds at SXSW in Austin, a couple of official showcases among a full schedule of unofficial duties. After his trio of shows at the Kessler, he will play this year’s edition of Bonnaroo later in June and the storied Newport Folk Festival at the end of July. 

“You know, you dream about these things, and then you snap your fingers and now I’m getting to do it,” Alexander told me a few days earlier at Pax & Beneficia Coffee in downtown Fort Worth. “But it’s taken 10 years to get here. It’s taken me that long. Just 10 years ago I was learning how to play the guitar, and eight years ago I was doing my first open mic. Now I get to release my debut record. It’s surreal. They say if everything we do dies with us, then our vision was too small. And now I get to release something that will forever outlive me.”

The truth is, it’s taken a lot longer than 10 years. The first lines Alexander sings on SEA/SONS are “How many times I get carried away/Like a leaf in a sea on a wave.” That might sum up his entire life in one couplet. Because he’s been on one wave or another since he was 11 years old. 


Alexander didn’t see the first wave coming. How could he? It was 2001 and he was too young, just a kid splashing in the surf of the Aegean Sea with his brothers and their friends. They were all children of West African immigrants who had moved to Greece looking for something better and were still looking years later. Alexander and the others weren’t old enough yet to understand how difficult that had been or see how hard it continued to be. 

There was the incident at the grocery store, for example. While shopping with his family, Alexander bumped into a display, knocking off a bag of chips, which he dutifully picked up and returned to its place on the rack. But another customer loudly chastised him for touching the bag, saying now no one would want to buy it. Soon the entire store had turned against Alexander and his family—at least it felt that way—and they were forced to leave.

Alexander and his friends—a group that sometimes included future Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo and his brothers—could escape to the ocean, roam around the Acropolis in the shadow of the Parthenon, ride bikes, be kids. Their parents had fewer opportunities to shrug off the racism and xenophobia that had become part of their daily existence. Fewer opportunities in general.


So that first wave came, carrying him from Athens to Arlington, Texas, a place that not even the most generous civic booster would describe as remotely similar to anywhere in Greece. Worse if you don’t speak English and live in a small apartment with your parents and two brothers.

“It was just what was affordable at the time,” Alexander says, “and I had friends around that would just say Texas is the place to be.”

Even though the wave had carried him far away, it did not take him under, though it certainly came close a few times. The next wave almost did.

Months after Nikki and Toks Ademola brought their three sons to Texas, Nikki was killed by a drunken driver, and everything fell apart. The family was scattered. Toks had long been violent toward his children, continuing a cycle of abuse, so the boys were taken away. Alexander—he changed his name when he started performing—went to live with his ESL teacher and eventually landed with a foster family, Donnia and Jeff Olesko. (They formally adopted him in 2018.) He had been carried away again. 

Music wasn’t part of the picture yet, even though his mother had been a singer and his father was a guitarist who had played with Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti in Nigeria before leaving for Greece. 

“Our relationship wasn’t the best, and so I kind of wanted everything but that,” Alexander says. “He forced it on my eldest brother, and he was very pushy. I was like, ‘Man, I want nothing to do with that.’ And I felt like he was paying so much attention to him that I wanted my own thing. And so sports was that for me.”

Specifically, soccer. He made the all-district squad as a goal-scoring forward at Arlington Lamar High School while also playing for the Dallas Texans Soccer Club, a select team that has produced U.S. Men’s National Team members such as Clint Dempsey and Lee Nguyen. Soccer earned him a scholarship to Texas Wesleyan, where he started at right back. 

Then that wave crashed, too. While Alexander hadn’t been expecting that soccer would turn into a career, he did think he would have some say in how his playing days ended. But he wrecked his knee and that was that. 

A girlfriend gave him a guitar to pass the time, and he finally had enough distance from his father to pick it up. One of the first songs he learned was “Is This Love,” by Bob Marley and the Wailers. “Super easy chords,” he says. It took him a week to get it down, watching Marty Schwartz’s instructional video on YouTube. “I grew up with music around the house, so musical notes were always in my ear, and so I think that’s helped me kind of shorten that gap.”

Another unofficial teacher was Gary Clark Jr., the Grammy-winning guitarist and singer from Austin. Watching his videos, seeing another Black man with a guitar, Alexander saw a path he might walk, too. Which is why he calls it “insane” that Clark ended up on SEA/SONS. (As long as we are talking about full circle moments, it should be mentioned that another song Alexander learned early on was Extreme’s “More Than Words.” When he performed at Nowitzki’s retirement party, the big German picked up his guitar—“It looked like a ukulele in his arms”—and proceeded to play the 1990 ballad.)


And then, at long last, he began to catch better waves. A year after he started playing guitar, around 2014, a chance encounter at the bank teller job he was working brought him to the place where the producers Austin Jenkins and Josh Block were recording a young singer-songwriter named Leon Bridges. He saw them unloading amps and got out of his car to talk to them. That led to him humming on a track and forging a connection with Bridges that has led to everything else. Bridges encouraged him to start playing open mic nights (“I didn’t know open mic nights existed”) and invited him to perform at his birthday party (“I had one song written—barely written—and I played it”). Bridges introduced him to Charley Crockett, another fellow traveler who has opened doors for him, bringing him along on a West Coast tour. 

“I’m not lucky,” Alexander says. “I think I’m fortunate. I heard this recently that luck is someone who grows a farm but didn’t plant the seed. But fortunate is the fact that you planted a seed, but it rained and it shined.”


By May 2018, Alexander was, perhaps, as far away from that little Greek boy playing in the water as he had ever been, though he was now only separated by a relatively short flight. He was a man now, a musician, speaking (and singing) with no trace of a Greek or Nigerian accent. 

A wave finally brought him back across the ocean, not to Athens but to London—close enough, the same continent at least. It had been almost two decades. By then, “I’ve lived this whole life,” he says. 

At the time, he wasn’t sure if his career in the music business would last. He had done enough to know he had a present but not enough to guarantee a future. He was still learning to love his voice, and he had played his first real show only a little more than a year earlier, opening up for the R&B singer Ginuwine at House of Blues, working up to a full set by playing open mic nights at the Live Oak Music Hall in Fort Worth. 

A few months earlier, he had poured all of his money into recording a song he’d titled “America,” written in the wake of the police killings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota: “America/Land of the free/You tell me to run/But there’s shackles on me,” he sang on the chorus. Mahogany, a company based out of London, heard enough in “America” to bring him over to write a few songs and play some shows, see what might come of it. So he was in England to find out if there was a future or if this was another dream he would have to say goodbye to.

As Alexander got dressed in the greenroom backstage at London’s St. Pancras Old Church, preparing to open for the New Zealand soul singer Teeks, it all came rushing back. He heard a voice behind him, and when he turned around, there he was: his childhood best friend, Chris, separated all that time and grown up now, too, but instantly identifiable, unmistakable, the way brothers are. “It was like finding a lost part of yourself,” Alexander says.

Chris showed Alexander the photograph he had brought with him: five shirtless boys, their backs to the camera, wading in the clear Aegean water. Except for Chris, who has fallen onto his hands and knees. Little Abraham stands over him, looking down. 

It was overwhelming. Alexander was at a trough between waves, hearing British accents mixed with voices speaking in Greek and Yoruba, a Nigerian dialect, feeling at once very close and very far from home. He emptied all of those feelings into “Stay”: “Tell me if I go too far/Would I become the lonesome lone star?/Tell me if I go too far/Would I ever find my way back?”

“Stay” would become the centerpiece of SEA/SONS. The photo of Alexander and his brothers and friends in the sea would become a painting that would become the cover of the album. The wave had brought him all the way home. 


Back at the iHeartRadio offices, it’s clear that Abraham Alexander is not a star in the making but a star in the flesh, his mere presence gravitational, making every eye angle in his direction, every neck crane to see who is here. Walking behind him, the bees on his bootheels fluttering down the hallways, you see the effect he has on people. He has a charisma that presents itself almost like a magic trick, making everyone in the room feel as though he is talking directly—and only—to them. He gives them all a moment, an interaction, eye contact, genuine questions.

Once Alexander is seated in The Freak’s studio high above the Tollway, Michael Gruber, a board operator and producer for the station, comes over to adjust the microphone placement. Nothing too technical, just moving one of the mics in front of the Epiphone guitar resting on his knees, but Alexander lets Gruber know he appreciates it.

“That’s fire,” he says, as Gruber smiles bashfully.


With Ben and Skin, Alexander is in friendly territory: he worked with Jeff “Skin” Wade on the Truth to Power Project compilation in 2021, on which he memorably covered Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” (He made it his own, adding the call-and-response refrain “Don’t trouble the waters/Still waters run deep” near the end.) Skin and his co-host, Ben Rogers, play their parts well, setting him up like a pair of point guards. They both started in bands, so they know the drill. After Skin introduces him as “future royalty,” they guide Alexander from bullet point to bullet point without ever making it seem like they’re merely reciting his biography.

“First and foremost, I am a storyteller,” Alexander says, after talking about influences such as Bill Withers, Kanye West, Tom Petty, and Paul Simon. “I want to put words to music and have people feel the same way that I did when I first learned to strum an instrument.”

After a few minutes, Skin asks Alexander to play “Stay.” It’s breathtaking. Being a foot away from him while he sings makes a soundproof studio seem like a chapel. Apparently that feeling was transmitted through the microphones Gruber set up.

“And so I just got a text, and I’m going to read this on the air,” Skin says when Alexander finishes. It’s from Danny Balis, one of the hosts of The Freak’s afternoon show, The Downbeat, and a bass player. (He’s on Alexander’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” cover.) “He says, ‘Tell that MF’er I’m sitting in my car with tears running down my dumb face listening to this.’  ”

In the weeks to follow, the rollout of SEA/SONS will include a billboard erected by Spotify in downtown Nashville on its release date and an appearance on CBS Saturday Morning, during which he will play “Today,” “Tears Run Dry,” and “Eye Can See” as well as sit for an interview. Later that day, SEA/SONS will land atop Amazon’s Folk Album chart for digital releases, and the vinyl and CD versions will hit No. 8 on the company’s list of overall bestsellers. It will debut at No. 42 on Billboard’s Current Album Sales chart. Reality is starting to catch up with Alexander’s presence. 

He’s ready for where the wave is carrying him.     

This story originally appeared in the June issue of D Magazine with the headline, “Star Turn. Write to [email protected]. Models for the images included Malakhi Kugmeh and Jeremiah Henry. Styling was by J.D. Roeser-Daniels and grooming was by LB Rosser.


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