Ever since Jabari Exum’s first year on this Earth, he’s been trying to play the drums. At least, that’s what his mom says. She likes to tell the story of him running onstage of a Les Ballets Africains drumming performance in diapers when he was a year old. “She says I’ve been trying to play since I could sit up,” he says, laughing.
He bought his first djembe—a skin-covered West African drum played with bare hands—when he was 7. He’s been playing it ever since.
Now 35, the Southeast D.C. native is a prolific musician, and a huge player in an underrepresented part of the city’s art and music scenes. He specializes in playing West African and Latin drums, and has managed to become an expert on the djembe.
It would be hard to predict that growing up specializing in West African drumming could lead to being involved in a billion dollar movie and a cultural phenomenon and touchstone in film. But for him, that’s exactly what happened.
When Exum found out that Marvel was filming a Black Panther movie in Atlanta, he says, he called up his friend: the Black Panther himself, Chadwick Boseman.
The pair go way back, back to when they were in school. When Boseman was attending Howard University, Exum was a teenager at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and the two befriended each other while moving in the same circles in the local theater and arts scenes.
Exum knew this movie could have a huge impact on mainstream culture and he wanted to be a part of it, to bring on board his unique African expertise. So, he asked Boseman if he could stay with him in Atlanta and find a job on set. Boseman obliged and he booked a flight.
“If you’re representing Africa, I’ve got to make sure you’re representing it well because that’s what I do,” he says. “That’s what I know best, African drumming, spirituality, and dancing. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole life.”
He and Boseman lived together while shooting the film, he says, and he went through a variety of jobs before he got to the one that he would be credited with. At first, he was a production assistant for Boseman, then a production assistant for the other actors. He began to help coordinate the drummers for the film. Then finally, he was bestowed the title of tribal dance and movement coach. While the Wakanda team of actors (Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Dania Gurira, and Daniel Kaluuya, among others) did fight training, he says he drummed for them. He also helped out with African-themed choreography in actors’ movements. It was intense work for him, and he was only a volunteer at first. He found himself banging his djembe for two to four hours a day at a minimum. But he’d happily do it again.
As for the success of the film, Exum is not surprised: “If you put $250 million behind anything that’s really black, it’s really going to work,” he says. “It’s been the story of the hunter telling the story of the hunted for so long. That’s got to change.”
Luckily for D.C., Exum has returned from his trip to Wakanda. Tomorrow night he’ll be playing the djembe at The Black Love Experience, a big bash for the Anacostia Arts Center boutique Nubian Hueman. He hasn’t performed at the event in past years, but he’s looking forward to it. “It’s my neighborhood. I grew up on that block,” he says. “Good Hope Road is where I grew up.”
Now that he’s been a part of a billion dollar blockbuster, the sky is his limit. He’ll soon be launching a website called Jabari Land, a play on the Jabari tribe from the film. The website, he says, will reflect the themes of Wakanda and the values of indigenous traditions and people.
“I’ll always want to continue to give energy back to the movie because it gave me this launching pad,” he says. “I always want to say thank you in that way.”