Members of the Atlanta Drum Academy

At a rainy Sunday rehearsal in early January, about two dozen members of Lil’ Rascalz drumline grouped by drum were hard at work with a joy and pride in their efforts. 

Parents, siblings, and caregivers of the 3 to 12-year-olds watched from the hall or seated on matts inside a metro karate dojo, where the Atlanta Drum Academy (ADA) meets since it outgrew its space. 

“New students, I’m gonna put you on the drum that fits your skill set,’ said James Riles III, ADA Executive Director, arranging students on the snare, bass, tenor, duo, and other kits. “You are here to be part of a family.” 

All eyes were on Riles as he taught skills, crescendo and footwork “with swag” in a manner that was inspiring, strict and fun. Riles’ teenage sons, Sadarien and Darius, moved through the drumline to provide personalized instruction.  An hour later, The Squad drumline, ages 13 to 18, started to arrive for their rehearsal.

“Listen to each other,” Riles instructed the drummers. “Many drums should sound like one.”

Atlanta Drum Academy performs on Little Big Shots.

The drumlines are preparing for competitions. The Squad traveled to the Clash of the Drumlines in Dallas, Texas in late January. Lil’ Rascalz have two coming up in Georgia:  Millennium Live ATL on Feb. 20 and Georgia Has Talent, a cancer research fundraiser on March 12. And ADA is working on a reality show pitch for Netflix. 

“We’ve already filmed a lot of the performances and now we are filming the kids’ and parents’ testimonials,” Riles said. He was also a performer and composer for the movies “Drumline” and “Drumline 2: A New Beat.”

Sparked by his love of playing and teaching drums, Riles started ADA in 2011 to offer lessons and prepare drumlines to perform and compete. 

“I’ve been playing drums all of my life,” Riles said. “My parents purchased my first real drum set when I was 5 – a drum set they had to take out a loan to purchase.”  

Growing up, Riles performed for family, at church and in school concerts, marching and jazz bands – which earned him a scholarship to Morris Brown College. 

“In 1999, I had my first chance to teach at a summer camp, Camp New Beginnings,” Riles said. “I just fell in love with teaching and that’s what I’ve been doing since.” 

Riles taught in Clayton County Public Schools for 10 years, starting a drum program while at Lake Ridge Elementary. Today, ADA drummers come from all over metro Atlanta – Clayton, DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett counties and more – drawn in by social media, word of mouth and ADA performances. 

ADA’s big break came in 2018, when a dozen kids ages 5 to 13 performed on “NBC’s Little Big Shots” with Steve Harvey.

“It was a big hit on social media. We got a lot of exposure from it. It was hard because I could only take like 12 students and I have 50-60 students at a time, so I had to make choices.”  

James Riles III with sons and ADA co-owners Sedarien and Darius.

He also made the choice to leave teaching in 2018 to pursue ADA full-time. His drummers have continued to capture attention. 

Former ADA Section Leader Jasmine Bowens earned a scholarship to Hampton University and appeared in friendly snare drum battle on YouTube at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Bowens joined ADA as a 5th grader.

“ADA is not just an organization to me, but a family that encourages respect, sacrifices, heart and selflessness, and this is why I play,” Bowens said. 

Destiny Boyd, who joined ADA in high school, played Mika in Nick Cannon’s recent VH-I holiday movie, “Miracles Across 125th Street.”

“She has the same work ethic as Jasmine,” Riles said. “Playing drums is usually dominated by males so when a female comes in, I guess they feel they have to work two times as hard to prove themselves. 

Riles is ready to take ADA to the next level by purchasing a building easily accessible by MARTA, offering more classes, and serving more kids in a safe space. 

“We want it to have a game room, a family life center where our parents can come and use computers, a gym and classrooms so kids can learn how to produce, take pictures – anything dealing with the arts,” Riles said. 

All this is done with the motto of “Pray and Play.”

“We believe that the gift of drumming comes from God and we dedicate our gifts back to God,” Riles said. “We’ve been to so many places and done so many things that if it wasn’t for God blessing us with ADA, we would have never done it.” 

Learn more on Facebook or atldrumacademy.com.

Clare S. Richie

Clare S. Richie is a freelance writer and public policy specialist based in Atlanta.