August 15, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Marlon Johnson and Anne Flatté
Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Louisville, Kentucky, the documentary “River City Drumbeat” features an all-African American group of people discussing River City Drum Corp (RCDC), a musical band for children who are primarily from the underprivileged area of West Louisville.
Culture Clash: Many of the members of RCDC come from crime-ridden neighborhoods and/or troubled families, and the band has helped them lead positive and productive lives.
Culture Audience: “River City Drumbeat” will appeal primarily to people who like documentaries about adults who inspire and mentor young people to believe in themselves and pursue their dreams.
Whenever there’s a movie that takes place in financially deprived, predominantly African American area of a big city, too often the narrative is about crime or hopelessness. However, the documentary “River City Drumbeat” is an excellent example of how people in this type of community can help the community’s youth without expecting pity or the government to be in charge of a program that’s aimed at solutions. This inspiring film (directed by Marlon Johnson and Anne Flatté) shines a deserving spotlight on the Louisville-based youth group River City Drum Corp (RCDC) Cultural Arts Institute, as it goes through a leadership transition.
RCDC is no fluke. Founded in 1991 by Louisville residents Ed “Nardie” White and his wife Zambia Nkrumah (who tragically died of breast cancer in 2010), RCDC began as a way for young people in the community to have an after-school activity as a positive alternative to criminal activities plaguing the city, specifically in the lower-income west side of Louisville. The age range for RCDC members are 2 to 18. Although RCDC is open to people of all races, the membership is predominantly African American, and the group places an emphasis on drumming and culture rooted in African traditions.
In other words, the group is about more than just teaching musical skills. As White says in the documentary: “We developed River City Drum Corp to connect children to arts and culture. Our culture is going to be our savior.”
The documentary chronicles White’s decision to retire as leader of RCDC and pass on the leadership position to his protégé Albert Shumake, who is an alum of RCDC. Shumake (who was 34 when most of this documentary was filmed) is just like a son to White, and he credits White and Nkrumah for leading him in the right direction, because his life could have turned out very differently.
Shumake was 8 or 9 years old when he met White, who says in the documentary that Shumake’s parents both had heavy substance-abuse issues at the time. White knew that Shumake was not an athletic kid, in a community that placed a high value on sports (especially basketball or football) as a way to get out of the “ghetto” and get rich. White and Nkrumah became surrogate parents and got Shumake to join RCDC because they could see that he had musical talent.
Shumake ended up getting a vocal scholarship at the University of Kentucky. After graduation, he became an artist and a DJ. However, Shumake says that his priorities changed after became a father (he’s shown with his adorable daughter Ella and Ella’s mother) and after Shumake’s mother became sick and he had to help take care of her. Shumake says that he wanted a job in music that would be more stable and give back to the community, and so the time was right for him to work with RCDC. He became White’s right-hand person until White announced his retirement and that Shumake would be his successor.
In the documentary, Shumake gets teary-eyed and emotional when he reads a letter that he wrote in the year 2000, when he was a teenager in high school. In the letter, he describes his hopes and dreams to Nkrumah. Shumake says reading the letter also brings back a painful memory of a teacher who told him that he wouldn’t amount to anything, However, Nkrumah and White believed in him. It’s that type of mentoring and inspiration that RCDC offers to the children in the program, because sometimes they don’t have that type of encouragement at home or at school.
White says that he certainly wasn’t encouraged to be artistic when he was growing up, because he came from a neighborhood where African American males were expected to excel at one of three things: basketball, football or criminal activities. He grew up poor, in a household where there were 15 to 20 people living in close quarters at the time. White credits Nkrumah for introducing him to African arts.
After years as a photojournalist, White took the plunge to launch RCDC with Nkrumah. It was venture that was inspired after he taught drumming at a Boys and Girls Club in Louisville, and he saw that the youth in the community didn’t have many artistic outlets where adults took the time to teach them music and life skills. Not only do the children in the non-profit RCDC program learn how to drum (they start off with pipe drums and then can graduate to the drum line), but they also learn how to make their own drums. White and Shumake say that the kids being able to put their own drums together gives them a certain self-confidence and positive pride that they wouldn’t get if the drums were donated to them.
Shumake also demonstrates in the movie’s opening scene how drumming can be relatable to everyone if they think of it in terms of a heartbeat. He speaks to a group of RCDC students and tells them to put their hands on their hearts so that they can feel their heartbeats. He says that everyone can understand rhythm because the first sounds that everyone hears in the womb is a mother’s heartbeat.
RCDC is funded through performances that it gives and through donations, but the documentary doesn’t get too much into the details of fundraising for the RCDC. The fact that the group has been able to survive for all these years speaks for itself. And it’s very obvious from what’s seen in the film that RCDC has the full support of the community.
“When your kid joins Drum Corp, you join Drum Corp,” says the mother of Imani V. Keith, one of the RCDC students featured in the documentary. At the time this documentary was filmed, Keith was a senior in high school, so it was also her last year for her to be a member of RCDC. In a documentary interview, Keith says that before she joined RCDC, she had a “rocky” and “unstable” year in sixth grade. “I was in the principal’s office all the time.”
She adds that she found stability and purpose in RCDC. She comments: “Mr. White instilled in me leadership: Who are are going to be? Will you step up?” Keith also mentions some of the sexism she’s experienced because she’s in a drumming band, which is usually male-dominated. She says that when people don’t believe that she can drum because she’s a girl, she likes to prove them wrong.
Two other RCDC students are featured in the documentary: Jailen Leavell (who was also a senior in high school at the time this documentary was filmed) and Emily Carey, who was still an underclassman at the time. Leavell talks about how he was doing sports and RCDC, but White told him he had to choose one over the other in order to excel. Leavell chose RCDC, but he gripes that he felt that he could’ve handled his sports and drumming activities at the same time. Leavell and Keith both have college plans, and they say that RCDC helped them achieve those goals.
The documentary also takes a little bit of detour by showing White with his longtime friend Ed Hamilton, a Louisville sculptor. White then gives a tour of some of Hamilton’s art that is on display in the area. It becomes clear in the documentary’s epilogue why this “sculpture tour” segment gets this amount of screen time in the film.
Losing his wife to breast cancer isn’t the only family tragedy that White has experienced. He also opens up about what losing a granddaughter to gun violence. It adds greater poignancy and urgency to his work with RCDC and the legacy that is expected to be passed on through generations of children. At one RCDC event, White marvels at how many RCDC alumni are there who have brought their children and whose children are now in RCDC.
“River City Drumbeat” also includes footage of the group performing and traveling by bus to do concerts outside of the Louisville area. Keith’s and Leavell’s graduation from high school is included in the movie, as well as their graduation from RCDC. And it’s easy to see that White transitioning out of the leadership position is bittersweet for him, but he knows it’s the right thing to do and that he’s given the reigns to the right person.
As Shumake says at the end of the documentary: “The things that I feel are my strengths or my superpowers, I won’t let circumstances stop that. That’s the battle of everyday life. People who give up and don’t know how to fight the battle end up unhappy. I don’t plan on doing that. I’m going to keep fighting.”
Although “River City Drumbeat,” which is made in a very straightforward and traditional manner, is ostensibly a music documentary, the movie doesn’t focus very much on the technical aspects of learning how to play music in the RCDC program. And there’s no big championship competition driving the story, as there are in most movies about young students in a musical group. The real story is about the emotions and the lives affected by RCDC and how the group has changed them for the better.
Owsley Brown Presents released “River City Drumbeat” in select U.S. cinemas on August 7, 2020.