Jacob Latimore’s world just went full color. The 21-year-old musician/actor spent his early career picking roles he defined as colorless: a savvy, scrappy street magician in Sundance breakout Sleight; a post-apocalyptic survivalist in sci-fi epic Maze Runner; an ill-fated teen in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. It’s not that Latimore shied away from race, he just didn’t want to be limited by it, opting for characters far flung from the stereotypical confines too often imposed on actors of color.

But for his first TV lead, Latimore leaned purposefully and powerfully into the black urban community of The Chi, a coming of age series about Chicago’s South Side. It’s an area frequently found among national headlines—most often for its poverty and violence—but The Chi digs deeper, realizing a neighborhood that isn’t defined by its crime rate, but the people who forge rich, complex lives in spite of it.

“I feel like sometimes when we watch the news we just get used to seeing that a kid got shot,” Latimore tells PopCrush. “It's becoming too numb and too emotionless and there's no sympathy behind those kind of killings. But that kid had a mother. That kid had a father. It’s not all about this violence. We wanted to focus on the human beings in these communities.”

Latimore plays Emmett, an entrepreneurial playboy suddenly thrust into the tumult of teen fatherhood when his son’s mother, Tiffany, drops off their toddler and disappears in Episode 1. It’s not something he’s equipped—or prepared—for, but as the show goes on, Latimore says, Emmett will have to face responsibility, fight the temptation of easy (and illegal) money, and find a way to provide for his fledgling family.

For Latimore, it’s a story that rings somewhat true to life. Like Emmett, he’s a little bit of a ladies’ man—just look to his latest album, 2016’s Connection, a sultry, slick confessional filled with ruminations on love and lust—and while he isn’t a father himself, he can relate to the idea of young parenthood. “My mom had me when she was 18, and that's kind of around the age that Emmett is, so it made me think back to my parents’ perspective and how they had to just hustle and make sacrifices,” he says. “But I almost liked the idea that I just didn't know what to do, in real life and in the role. I wanted people to see me sweat and be nervous about holding a baby. I wanted them to see my fight and my struggle.”

In reality, though, he’s paved a more disparate path. He was born and bred in the entertainment business: His father and uncle founded the gospel quartet The Latimore Brothers; his mother worked at a record company; and his cousin is R&B singer Kenny Lattimore (who spells his last name differently).

By the time Latimore was six, he had given his first on-stage performance, by nine, he’d recorded his first song, and at 13, he signed with Jive Records—the same year he landed his first film role in 2010 thriller Vanishing on 7th Street. “I feel like I've always jumped into some sort of character, even in my music,” Latimore says. “It’s sort of like Michael Jackson. He was so humble as a person, but when he hit the stage, he had so much confidence and so much flair. He was acting. He was being himself times 10. And that’s how I sort of looked at my music career.”

In the eight years since, Latimore’s music has taken a backseat to acting, but he still regularly releases work. And while it seems he’ll be sticking around The Chi for a while longer (the Showtime series was recently renewed for a second season), he’ll continue to challenge both himself, as a performer, and people’s perceptions of what he can do. Already, he has two movies lined up that mark new roles for him: Candy Jar, in which he plays an overachieving high schooler, and Krystal, in which he portrays a young boy who is handicapped.

“I’m 21,” Latimore says. “I gotta do it all.”

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