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Creative cardio: How drummer Jahleel Hills uses fitness to stay energized

Staying creative and motivated during the pandemic can be stressful and challenging. For Jahleel Hills, a Brooklyn-born and raised filmmaker and drummer, good cardio and fitness is an important step in the artistic process. 

“Working out is really good for your mental health,” says the 22-year-old snare drummer. “When you work out, you feel accomplished for the rest of the day.” 

drummer cardio
Courtesy: @hypeman_hills

Hills is accustomed to performing for large audiences, one of his first major performances being at Citi Field when he was around 12-years-old. He later went on to perform at the 2016 VFiles Fashion Show and drummed behind Demi Lovato on Good Morning America in 2017. 

Some of his favorite performances include working with Spike Lee, having been featured on a Season 2 episode of Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It, and also performing at the third annual “Prince Born Day Purple People Party” in 2018. 

“I’m a huge fan of Spike Lee,” says Hills, who takes his film inspiration from the BlacKkKlansman director. Hills’ film, Black Fratsman, a comedy-drama about a Black college student joining a frat, was third place in this year’s New York Lift-Off Film Festival.

“I was not only able to showcase my craft during the performance, but I was able to see his [Spike Lee’s] dream come into fruition.”

Jahleel Hills

Staying active and good cardio are important for this drummer

Staying energized during his performances isn’t always an easy feat. The weight of a drum varies, with some weighing up to 22 pounds, while the carriers and equipment only add to the weight. When marching, drum at the waist, during a parade, the cardio-intensive performances can be long and exhausting.

“You have to stay fit and you have to stay active,” says Hills, who attends the gym regularly. “I always try to work out my upper body. You want to entertain the crowd and give 100 percent of yourself.” 

This is the same for working in film. The equipment carried isn’t always light and the hours it takes to shoot can be extensive. Hills’ film, Black Fratsman, was shot over two weekends in February.

As the director and producer, Hills was on set between seven to ten hours a day.

“It was a really different type of grind time,” Hills remembers. “We were still working on it in the midst of the pandemic and being quarantined in the house. I had to push myself.”

Drumming as an outlet

Hills started drumming at the age of 11 — first joining the drumline at The Berean Baptist Church in Brooklyn. He categorizes his drum style as “show-style snare drumming,” where a variety of tricks and dances are incorporated into his sets.

This includes bouncing his drum sticks off the drums, or throwing them into the air, and twisting them behind his back. These are variations that Hills says take time and practice to fully learn and develop. 

“It comes from a lot of drummers before and taking your own spin on it,” Hills says. “A lot of people in the community can learn from each other. We learn how to take a trick that’s already cool and make it even cooler.” 

Inspired by the drumming styles of Ralph Nader and Harvey Thompson, an innovative drumming duo collectively known as BYOS (Bring Your Own Style), Hills considers drumming to be his “canvas.”

He strives to bring his quirky and goofy personality to the stage. It’s this same energy that makes him stand out and provides him with opportunities to perform in front of thousands. 

“The crowd itself is a whole entity. As a performer, you have to go in and catch their attention from the jump,” Hills says. “That energy the crowd gives you helps to push you on.”

Driving an impact

Hills describes himself using three words: creative, ambitious, and visionary.

As a filmmaker, he yearns to tell personal stories based on the “young, black, city kid” experience.

During the pandemic, he faithfully works on creating drum videos, while collaborating with undiscovered artists on his college campus.

“I think it’s really important to work with different artists outside of your area,” Hills notes. “It’s exposure for you, but also gives people a platform to showcase themselves.”

The best piece of advice Hills can give to other artists is to “keep working on your craft.” For Hills, every day is an opportunity to work on your physical and mental health. Staying active, focusing on that cardio, and prioritizing time to expand his drum skills is a daily routine despite the limited circumstances. 

“I believe that this generation will become the next great artists,” Hills concludes. “I see myself and my team impacting the world and making a name for ourselves and those who look like us.”