by Mariah Thomas
Jahleel Hills' slim figure hunches over his snare drum. His hands move rhythmically to the music, drumming to the beat. The room is dark and the audience is silent. They watch him in earnest. I watch him in earnest, too, my feet instinctively tapping to his rhythm.
“Music has that power to tell those big and bold stories,” Hills said. “It’s such a powerful tool to have where you can take your mind on adventures you’ve never been before.”
Four dozen people crowd Whitson’s hall in The Stood. Hills is the only solo drummer performing tonight, and he grabs the audience’s attention as soon as his hands begin to move.
As the song comes to a close, Hills' right hand lifts into the air, his drumstick twirling above his head before catching it in his grasp. The audience bursts into applause, their shouts echoing through the small room.
With the room dark and the lights gleaming against Jahleel’s face, you couldn’t have missed his grin and the twinkle in his eyes as he bowed and exited the stage.
Artistry Plug, a student-organized event, was one of Jahleel’s performances last year. As a current sophomore film major at Purchase, Jahleel doesn’t find it difficult tackling his two interests, and incorporates his love of drumming and film editing into his everyday life.
“I was surprised,” said Dantae Duwhite, one of Jahleel’s close friends at Purchase. “I thought he only did film— but when I found out he played the drums, and how good he was, I was astonished.”
At the age of 11, Jahleel began to take up drumming as his hobby, though he’d been interested in the instrument since he was 3. His passion began after attending the Historic Berean Baptist Church in Brooklyn on Bergen Street, and watching his godmother and cousins play the drums during service.
“I just loved the beats,” he said enthusiastically, his hands tapping against his thighs.“I loved the sounds and the rhythm that went into it.”
When he was 10, Jahleel’s youth pastor, Byron Benton, let him join the church’s Berean Community Drumline. Though you generally have to be 12 to 13 to participate, Benton made an exception. Jahleel slowly progressed from playing cymbals to the tenor drums —a cylinder of long wood tensioned with ropes—then to snares, his go-to percussion instrument for every performance.
His inspirations include L.T., his godmother, whom he remembers as being the earliest person he saw drumming. His cousin Maroon, who plays 13 instruments, is another influence; Jahleel admires him for both his personality and knowing what it takes to be a performer.
“He always taught me to be humble,” Jahleel said. “No matter how good you think you are, there is always someone better.”
A Canarsie, Brooklyn native, Jahleel still considers himself a city kid. His younger days were scattered between going to school in Queens and participating in drumline activities in different parts of the area. His father, he explains, ‘implemented education and family-life.’
“He grew up less privileged than me so he knew the importance of being a black father in a household,” Jahleel said. “So, he knew how important it was for a father to be in his kids’ lives – especially when raising a black boy.”
He describes his mother as a “caring and loving” woman, who invests her time into his arts and creativity. As the youngest of four, with three sisters and a brother, family has always been an important aspect of his life.
Jahleel looks favorably upon his old band instructor from childhood, Ben Nadler, who he said not only taught him the “ropes of drumline, but business, how to hold yourself around certain people and how to read the room.
“All these guys just really showed me how to move around the drumline community and the drumming world,” he said.
Jahleel’s genre of drumming, “show style drumming,” influences his tricks, dance moves and performance style. He mentions Harvey Thompson, his drumming inspiration, who is a drummer, composer and choreographer in the world of marching percussion. As the percussion director at North Carolina A &T Athletics, Thompson has participated in over 50 live performances to this day.
“I’m just happy I’m part of a bigger community of drummers. We all build off each other and learn from one another,” he said with a smile.
When asked of a fond memory of one of his performances, he tells of when he was 12 and performed in his second drumline competition with the church. The competition took place at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, where they competed against local and out-of-state drumlines.
He was still playing cymbals at the time and remembers the only solo piece he had in the song — a piece that required him to use different tricks and drum flips to amp the crowd. He remembers going “crazy and wild” and how “ballistic” the crowd went when his segment was done.
“I finally saw what performing can really do for people,” he said. “It’s not all about me or what I can do, but what my talent and gift can bring to the world—and the joy that comes with it.”
One of the Baptist church members, Annette Green, a tall and lanky older woman with a strong and assertive voice, looks upon Jahleel favorably. Her voice instantly brightens at the mention of his name.
“He’s so motivated and such a strong and passionate young man,” she said. “I watched him grow up and I can honestly say he has a great ‘head on his shoulders.”
Jahleel is often asked why he isn’t a conservatory student but is majoring in film instead.
“I’m not only a drummer,” he said. “Drumming is in my heart but I also know there’s a filmmaker deep inside of me. I would be really ignorant and blatantly stupid if I ignored that part of my life.”
He became engrossed in the film industry in high school, though his obsession with the teenage sitcom, “iCarly,”, was his motivation. The show focused on three teenagers filming a web series that becomes an instant hit online. Jahleel’s favorite character was Freddie, the tech savvy camera man. After watching the show, Jahleel convinced his grandfather to buy him a camera, where he practiced filming in his backyard before deciding to study film in high school. He became obsessed with the editing process.
“I would feen to go to school in the morning to edit my project,” Jahleel said. “I have two loves in my life, though, so I just have to balance it out.”
When he first entered college, his main focus was film, where he later realized his unhappiness was due to his solo concentration on getting through his major. It wasn’t until his first Afrodisiac performance his freshman year, where he realized he had to add drumming to his college routine.
“I realize that when I’m just doing film, I’m not happy,” Jahleel said, running his hands through the scruff of his beard. “I just can’t ignore that drumming part of me.”