April 5, 2020

The story behind Jxhlani: A genre-bending Columbus rap duo

It is no secret that the university is home to talented student musicians.

Many choose to follow their passions in more traditional forms of music with the Conservatory of Music, but others choose to embrace a more modern sound and create music that lives between genres.

For Ras Jahlani Ben-Levi, a junior music technology major, modern music from a medley of different genres has inspired him to create a sound that is uniquely his.

“Growing up, I listened to a lot of Kid Cudi,” Ben-Levi said. “I fell in love with his melodies and how he told his story.”

A Kid Named Cudi, released by fellow Ohio artist Kid Cudi in 2008, was a major influence on Jahlani Ben-Levi growing up. Ben-Levi credits Cudi and others as early teachers to him. Image: genius.com

Growing up, Ben-Levi would listen to A Kid Named Cudi on his iPod Nano all day at school, and then would come home to a house filled with reggae music, as his dad was involved in a reggae band in Columbus.

Reggae music involves a lot of riddims, a practice Ben-Levi most closely relates to remixes.

Jahlani Ben-Levi’s father, Baraka Ben-Levi, pictured with his band, would fill his home with reggae music throughout Jahlani’s childhood. This reggae music would be another influence on Jahlani as he created his own music later on in life. Image: courtesy of Jahlani Ben-Levi.

He said that sometimes you can get a reggae CD that features 80 variations of the same song. This aspect of reggae music changed the way Ben-Levi viewed music.

Ben-Levi started producing music when he was in the seventh grade. At around the same time, he started diving into the discography of artists signed to Kudi’s record label, GOOD music.

For most high schoolers, listening to music is a stress-reliever and a passive activity. Ben-Levi, though, consciously thinks about the sounds he exposes himself to.

“When I produce, I don’t like listening to other things,” Ben-Levi said. He listens to what consumers like, though, because he is trying to find a sound that will match listeners’ ears.

For Ben-Levi, producing was not enough. When he was in high school, Ben-Levi began recording lyrics to go along with his instrumentals.

He said that he was “fed up with people putting trash over my beats.” People who couldn’t rap, as Ben-Levi said, are what led him to start rapping himself.

Ben-Levi started rapping the summer before he started college. 

“I was terrible,” Ben-Levi said. He then described the plight of an artist, which is constantly thinking your work could be better, even after receiving praise from others.

Relatively early into his college career, Ben-Levi wasted no time in establishing a brand and name for his music. He named his brand Jxhlani and releases music under that name.

A big part of the Jxhlani sound, and a surprise to those unfamiliar with Ben-Levi’s story, is that a lot of music released under the Jxhlani name is made with a partner ― fellow Columbus-based producer Kaleb ‘K!’ Orr.

Kaleb Orr, a junior majoring in music business and operations management at Ohio State, met Jahlani Ben-Levi in high school at Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center. The two have been making music under the Jxhlani name ever since. Image: Nick Johnson

Orr, a junior majoring in music business and operations management at the Ohio State University, met Ben-Levi at Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center. Fort Hayes is a specialty high school in Columbus open for any student in Franklin County to attend. Ben-Levi said that attending this school was beneficial for his personal growth, as it opened his eyes up to new perspectives.

Under the producing partnership, Orr would produce the melodies, and Ben-Levi would add what he considers the most important aspect of an instrumental: drums and bass. Both would contribute to writing lyrics, with Ben-Levi using his vocal talents to add words to the songs.

One of Jahlani Ben-Levi’s first published works, The Evil, was released on music streaming platforms August 28th, 2018.
Image: amazon.com

One of the duo’s first public projects was a track titled “The Evil.” Ben-Levi said that Orr created the instrumental based on a previous work and Ben-Levi sampled that work and added drums to the beat.

“‘The Evil’ is one of those songs that shows all of our styles in one song besides the high energy, the lyricism. It’s a vibe that many people can relate to,” Ben-Levi said.

Building off of their work on “The Evil,” the duo got to work on their first major album, 0122. The album was released Jan. 22, Ben-Levi’s birthday, and has since racked up over 1,000 plays on Spotify.

“I had hundreds of tracks, but I wanted to condense it down to seven of my best songs,” Ben-Levi said.

“Each of those stories has something that I’ve battled with weaved into it,” he said.

The songs range from the lyrically-based “Spook to the more melodic and catchy tracks “Drop Down and “Bump.”
After 0122, Ben-Levi and Orr performed the album and other songs at a few local venues throughout Columbus, then their energy quickly moved onto their next project, SOUR.

Trapped out hit streaming services on July 26th, 2019. the video features the Jxhlani duo on a farm, which is a common stereotype outsiders use to describe artists from Ohio.
Image: YouTube / Ethan Grassel

The duo released “Trapped Out on streaming services July 26, 2019. 

The song’s parodic music video released that day as well. Similar in a way to Lil Nas X’s hit “Old Town Road,” the video depicts Ben-Levi and Orr on a farm, although the lyrics and instrumental follow the tropes of modern hip-hop.

The rest of the summer was relatively low key for Ben-Levi. He performed at a couple of shows and worked behind the scenes on his brand. 

Things picked up quickly as school came back into session, though, as he and others campaigned to get Jxhlani on stage with Playboi Carti as part of the CAMPVS FYG U showcase event in August. 

Jxhlani ended up getting third place in the competition which meant that he couldn’t perform on stage with Carti. He was still able to get a peek behind the scenes at the entire show though as a reward for the judges liking his work. Seeing Playboi Carti up close and personal was humbling for Ben-Levi.

“It really opened my eyes up to see what being a major artist looks like,” Ben-Levi said. The encounter allowed him to refocus on what he needs to do to eventually become a major artist himself.

What’s next for Jxhlani? Headlining a show, dropping an album, and producing a documentary.

“I feel like we have a decent amount of support this year. I wanted to use [my platform] to be the catalyst to show the city that it is possible to make something here, and to put other artists on.”

Ben-Levi said that he wants to show love to fellow Columbus artists and rise together, as no one necessarily did that for him as an artist.

To see the latest show dates, song releases, and everything else related to Ben-Levi and Jxhlani music, follow him on Instagram at @jxhlani.

  • Zach Ferenchak is a current Junior studying Emerging Media with an emphasis in PR. Along with managing social media for The Chimes, Zach serves as the Chapter President for Capital University's chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America. He is an avid communicator who hopes to one day elevate brands and causes through effective storytelling.

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