Music

Becoming Jhameel

Jhameel came to UC Berkeley on a military scholarship. Now he's an androgynous indie singer.

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Jhameel is a perfect example of what a university education is supposed to do for people — shake them up, change the way they see themselves and the world, and expose them to radical life-changing new people and ideas.

This young purveyor of gorgeous, dreamy classical-tinged pop songs grew up in Minnesota, a child of Korean, Japanese and Mongolian ancestry in an overwhelmingly white town. Like many kids from poor families, he found a way out in the form of a military recruiter. With good grades and a natural knack for languages (he speaks Arabic, Korean, Spanish and a little Chinese and Russian, in addition to reading Latin), he entered the US Army's Reserve Officer Training Corps program while in high school. The program pays for recruits to go to college, with the stipulation that after graduating, they'll commit at least four years to the military.

Jhameel gamely tried to put aside his lifelong interest in music and make it work. He endured the early morning physical training, and the field training courses. But then he got to UC Berkeley and moved into Casa Zimbabwe, a "very exchange-student oriented co-op where I met a lot of people from all over the world"

It was an eye-opening experience for a kid from a conservative Christian family. So was studying Arabic. Jhameel notes that Islam is so embedded in the language that it's impossible to learn the language without being exposed to the religion. "There are so many different dialects, your knowledge is incomplete if you don't learn about the culture as well," he said.

The decidedly liberal environment at UC Berkeley and his gradual exposure to Arab culture clashed with Jhameel's conservative background and his ongoing military training. That led to serious cognitive dissonance and a decision to drop out of ROTC and focus instead on music.

"I had a point in my life where I was just thinking through what I really wanted ... my major was Arabic and I was learning so much about the culture and getting so many friends who were telling me so many conflicting things, it was just this mass of information going into my head and I was so confused. I started getting panic attacks because I knew that I didn't want to do it, but I was also in denial about not wanting to do it, because there were so many forces pushing me toward it."

Things came to a head one summer during his leadership training. He renamed himself Jhameel — he declines to reveal his birth name, and says the new name was given to him by a Lebanese friend "to remind me that everything can be beautiful" — and began embracing his long-time interest in androgyny. "I always liked looking girly. I like women, but I also want to look like a woman."

A casual glance at some of the pictures on Jhameel's site might leave the viewer wondering if he is looking at a man or a woman. This ambiguity isn't accidental. "I think I'm more masculine, but I'm feminine in comparison to the overcompensation," Jhameel said. "I'm more masculine than I'd like to be, but I can't help that because it's just how I am. I don't feel a need to overcompensate — why be extreme when you can be comfortable?"

That whole process of questioning informed his music, as well. Jhameel's new self-titled album contains some pretty heavy lyrical themes — domestic violence, homophobia, prostitution — and yet the actual sound isn't depressing or negative at all. The album itself is remarkably pretty, with an open airy feel and some lovely pop hooks.

That seems to be Jhameel's ultimate goal: to draw people in and alter their way of seeing things in a subtle way. It's provocative stuff, and deliberately so, but not in a confrontational, punk sort of way.

The music he makes has a definite pop sensibility, but at the same time also an experimental edge. Incorporating both classical instruments like violin and trumpet along with random objects, it's instinctive rather than intellectual, the product of a very clearly left-brained individual. "A lot of experimental or indie artists will sacrifice pop value for being new and original, and a lot of pop artists will try to make something very accessible and easy to listen to. I think neither side has to be compromised."

In a move very indicative of the way things are going in the world of music, Jhameel is hoping to eke out a living on the money he makes playing shows and hawking merchandise. A few local record companies have shown an interest, but so far he's elected to go the DIY route.

He has a desire to provoke people to think by coaxing them rather than by battering them over the head with his message — what he refers to as being "challengingly moderate." He's an unusual sort of artist — provocative but gentle, political but nonpartisan, ambitious without being arrogant, challenging American ideas about masculinity simply by being true to himself.

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