Music is something that inspires people from all cultures and may well be the one true universal language. Norman has many great local musicians and is a community that values the arts. Jahruba Lambeth is one uniquely inspiring Norman musician who goes beyond just following his passion of making music and also gives back through teaching.
“I learn from how I see the students interact with the drum. I watch the drum transform kids. I watch them grow and blossom because of the power of the drum.”
But what exactly is this “power of the drum”?
“You have a drum inside you. That drum is your heart and your mother’s heartbeat is the first sound you hear. Africans say God gave people the drum so they could communicate, so they could communicate with God. So the drum was everything—birth, marriage, visitors, war. Drums were in the African culture from the beginning. Then slavery came and the drums were taken away.”
Lambeth grew up in Oklahoma City during the 1950s and 1960s. When his father took a new job and moved the family across town, Lambeth, then in his late teens, wasn’t keen on changing schools. Fortunately, a teacher at the new school would change Lambeth’s
life for the better. The teacher was Clara Luper, a pioneering leader in the U.S. civil rights movement. Because of her, Lambeth joined the NAACP Youth Council and began to discover his heritage and understand the discrimination that existed at the time.
On Tuesday afternoon, August 19, 1958, Luper, along with her son, daughter and a group of Youth Council members that included Lambeth, entered the segregated Katz Drug Store during lunch time in downtown Oklahoma City for a ‘sit in’. They asked to be served and were refused. The police were called, but despite the threats and increasing hostility toward Luper and the Youth Council, they were not arrested.
Two days later, Katz corporate management in Kansas City desegregated its lunch counters in three states. Lambeth had begun his journey toward making a positive change in the world.
Great things often have small beginnings and from Oklahoma City Lambeth went on to attend Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in August 1963. At the time, he didn’t realize the importance of the event.
He’d never been out of Oklahoma and “I still didn’t grasp the problems of segregation even though I lived in a part of the country where it was definitely a problem. I was about 18 when I went on that trip. I had hardly been out of Oklahoma and then to be in the nation’s capital with all those people was overwhelming. There was so much going on. I remember the people at the march singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ and I remember the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. But at the time, it didn’t really hit home. But I was there with Clara Luper who really piqued my interest in learning about my culture—and about myself.”
Eventually, the desire to learn more about his culture that Luper had inspired took Lambeth to California and San Francisco State University, where he earned his degree in African American Studies. There, Lambeth quickly found a job helping teachers in the classrooms at a local elementary school while attending classes. He was a non-traditional student in every sense.
“I got a job as a paraprofessional working in a classroom. The first thing I learned there was that I didn’t know anything about the real world. That was my first experience working with kids. I was working in the Bayview-Hunter’s Point community near Candlestick Park where the Giants used to play, which was one of the worst sections of town. I fell in love with those kids.
They were just ghetto kids like me, but they didn’t have anyone to guide them; they didn’t have a Clara Luper like I did. It was just gangs and drugs and a high rate of teenage pregnancy.
I tried my best to be a good role model but seeing how they lived broke my heart.”
Shortly after graduating from San Francisco State in 1981, Lambeth traveled to Jamaica to follow his journey of self-discovery. While there, he studied and learned from the rich Jamaican heritage, including music and especially the drum. It was there that he received the name Jahruba from a special drumming ceremony and was told he was to be a teacher of God’s rhythms. At the time, Lambeth didn’t feel that he was qualified to be a teacher of anything, even after the positive experience of working with the children in San Francisco. The rhythms showed him his path and he fondly remembers the first exposure to music that spoke to him.
After leaving Jamaica, Lambeth traveled and learned more of the world and its music before bringing his drums and experience back home to Oklahoma.
“Shortly after I came back to Oklahoma a friend asked me to come to his kid’s school and describe for a class what I did in the music business. So I went and took some drums. I played and sang and told stories about the drums. The principal pulled me to his office and told me to contact the Oklahoma Arts Council.”
Lambeth was quickly signed as an Artist in Residence with the Oklahoma Arts Council (OAC) and began traveling to schools across the state to bring drumming to the students.
Unfortunately, Lambeth saw many schools in Oklahoma with no art or music classes at all. He urged principals to encourage local businesses to help underwrite the costs of the schools and explained how teachers and administrators needed to create a greater interest in painting, drawing, sculpting and music.
“I explained to them that everything they used was designed by an artist, from the clothing they wore to the books used in the classes, but it fell on mostly deaf ears.”
This lack of understanding of the value of artistic disciplines inspired Lambeth to reach more children outside of school visits, and he opened a music arts studio in Oklahoma City supported by the Kirkpatrick Foundation.
“In California I studied myself. Once I learned my history, I knew I wasn’t inferior and neither were the kids at the inner city schools or the poor country schools. They just needed someone to show them something bigger.”
Through Clara Luper, Lambeth had learned the importance of not only knowing your heritage but also for taking action to bring about needed changes. From that point on, he started a journey of lifelong learning that has reached thousands of children over his 20 years of traveling and teaching in schools. Through music, Lambeth continues to teach and work to improve the world around him.
His advice for others is to be active and effect change within their communities.
“Never stop learning or teaching. You never know who you’re influencing.”