The stars have aligned for this weekend’s release of the highly anticipated Marvel film “Black Panther” — in more ways than one for a certain southeast D.C. native.
“I’ve been working on this concept Jabari-Land — it’s a coincidence that my name is Jabari,” said Jabari Exum, who served as the project’s “Traditional Drumming and Dance Movement Coach.” “It’s a divine coincidence!”
“Jabari-Land” both is the title of a new musical project he is creating as well as a part of Wakanda, the mythical region at the center of the “Black Panther” film, which he worked on as a volunteer production assistant and even scored a cameo as an extra.
With Exum’s background in African drumming and dance, theater, poetry, hip-hop and stage production, he was equipped to handle a myriad of roles that very few people would have been.
Growing up, however, his interests in African art and culture weren’t always popular among his peers.
“This is something I’ve been doing my whole life and had faith in and had to be an oddball in a lot of circles,” he said. “[Playing] Djembe, [having] dreadlocks, your name is Jabari — in southeast D.C., it’s just not a popular thing.”
But with the release of “Black Panther,” he expects things to change.
“With this movie coming out, it’s going to be super, super OK to be [Afrocentric],” Exum said.
Aside from having a vast array of skills, Exum said his big opportunity was partly due to putting himself in the right place at the right time.
“Basically, I went to Marvel Studios and I volunteered where they we shooting in Atlanta,” Exum said.
Shortly after, he was hired to be a production assistant for Chadwick Boseman, the star of the film.
“Chad and I have been working together since I was 17 — we did a play together called ‘Rhyme Deferred’ with Kamilah Forbes in association with the Hip-Hop Theater Festival,” Exum said. “He and I have kept in touch and been comrades ever since.”
In 2016 Exum was reading the “Black Panther” comic and saw that one of regions in Wakanda was known as Jabari-Land. He knew instantly that he needed to work on the film.
“I know what me and Chad’s relationship is in terms of me being — not his African connection — but another root for him to pull on in terms of all the history that I have and my teachers,” Exum said. “I called him and said, ‘I don’t want you to do this without me there.’
“Not that that means a lot to Hollywood, but I know it means something to Chad,” he said. “He needed someone who was grounded in that culture to be next to him.”
After spending some time as a production assistant for Boseman, a choreographer’s absence became Exum’s opportunity. Ultimately, he was able to work on choreography, drumming sequence dramatization and other key tasks.
“I did my best to make it feel like they were really in a village or in some type of African environment,” he said.
Content creator Risikat Okedeyi, founder of Lil Soso productions, has appreciated Exum’s drive since a chance introduction in the late ’90s.
“Whenever I run into him, he’s working with Maimouna, he’s working on a play,” Okedeyi said of Exum. “I’ve seen him drum with Pete Muldoon, I’ve seen him as part of a jazz trio, I’ve seen him being onstage as part of an orchestra, acting in a particular play — it’s just he’s connected. No matter how far he goes his community goes with him. And because he’s always been so humble, you just want him to win, so I am excited for him.”