By Shaina Joy Machlus
One of the most sought-after drummers on the planet is 25-year-old Houston native Michel’Le Baptiste. The person smashing the drums that made America’s hearts race during Beyoncé’s historic Super Bowl 50, Black Panther–themed performance? That was the talented Baptiste. The bombastic beats and seamless percussion that carry the live sound of all-female pop/R&B group that rose to fame thanks to The X Factor, Fifth Harmony? Also Baptiste. Besides these roles, the drummer has worked with Harry Belafonte, Ashley Rodriguez, Harvey Mason, Dorinda Clark-Cole, Lisa McClendon, and other lauded stars. If you aren’t already searching for a video to nab a taste of Baptiste’s power, you should be. Consider this a literary intermission. Go ahead, wrap yourself up in this tornado of a musician.
Back yet? Captivating, isn’t she? Baptiste has an undeniable ability to take people on a journey through her drumming. During solos, it’s easy to forget she is the only person playing, because her fills and way of simultaneously being in eight places at once envelope the entire song. It would be simple to completely credit her 23 years of drumming experience, but the talent that flows from the entire body of Baptiste springs from a much deeper well.
Drumming as extraordinary as Baptiste’s comes with an equally unique personal story. She has been drumming basically since birth, draws strength from her faith, and has worked hard to make it in L.A. Tom Tom had the opportunity to hear what makes Baptiste pick up those sticks every day, told in her own enthusiastic words.
Tom Tom: What is your first real memory of playing drums?
Michel’Le Baptiste: Honestly, playing at church when I was nine years old. That was the first time people actually saw me playing. My dad gave me an opportunity to play a song. It was this reggae song that the choir was singing that night, and I heard it. They were playing it through the system, and I was like, “Oh, that is how the song goes.” And I learned it, and when I played it, everybody was shocked. They all said, “OMG, she played this song!” I could never forget it because I felt like, “Wow, I can really do this, and it sounds good.” I could never forget them, because I was like, “Wow I can really do this, and it sounds good.” So that was my first real memory of playing. That moment was so amazing to me, for my mom. To hear your mom saying, “Girl, you’re tearing those drums up!” That’s the thing she loves to say, “You’re tearing those drums up, girl!”
I read that you started playing drums when you were two years old. Is that true? How did that come about?
Well, my father, Carver Baptiste, he’s a drummer, so I was going with him for his rehearsals, if it was at church, or if it was for another gig. He’s from Antigua—that’s an island—and he played for a lot of steelpan bands back in the day. So I would see videos that people sent him, and I saw the energy that they had playing the drums. And I took sticks, beat on the pans when they were playing or my dad was listening to music, and I went along with it. God gave me that gift, honestly, to play drums, and I really feel he wanted me to play drums, to try to kill it.
Can you tell us more about how your father influenced your musical aspirations?
I didn’t get my first drum set till I was in high school, and my dad would get gospel videos and tapes, or his friends would give him old cassette tapes from the Yellow Jackets, Tony Williams, Owen Jones, Buddy Rich, Max Roach, all these different drummers. And he would play them, and I would sit there and watch all these drummers in their zones, and it was crazy. They all had their different styles, their own definition of how to play. They can all play gospel, but they all have their definition of how they play gospel music; same style, same genre, but everybody played it differently. My dad influenced me in that way because even though he couldn’t read music, and he wasn’t into playing all those different styles, he made sure he got all the information. Whatever his friends gave him, he brought it back to the house, and he was like, “Michel’Le, come, come, come.” And I would listen to jazz, Latin, reggaeton, gospel, rock, and all these different people, Sugarfoot for Michael Jackson, Ricky Mine, Sheila E. playing for Prince.
My dad was like, “Hey, you can do this. Learning rhythms, learning this, learning that . . . This is how you build up your foot, and this is how you speed up your hands. Do this and do that.” Where I’m at now is really because of my dad, and I thank God for letting my dad not just sit there and be like, “She can teach herself.” He really took the time out to show me.
What other people or artists influenced your early musical growth?
I have many. I’m a ’90s baby, okay? So growing up in the ’90s, you have the heavy R&B, you know? But I also love ’80s music. I’m old school. But honestly, what helped was my mom loved Whitney Houston and Sharna Day. Listening to them took me to a whole other level—the excitement and how they were performing. Sheila E., oh, my God she’s my favorite drummer. Sheila E. really changed the game for me, because she would be dancing, she was so into it. When she had solos, she was so dramatic with her playing. She was, “Oh yes, I’ll make you feel this.” I always wanted to play with that passion. She had so much passion for whatever she did—the way she talked and the way she played.
Brandy, being my favorite singer, listening to India Arie. Earth, Wind & Fire is my favorite band. They always told a story, and so the way I play, I tell a story; even when I do my solos, I’m not with all the heavy chops. No one put in a comma, no one put a period, no one asked a question—I take people on a journey.
What are the most important factors in helping you feel driven and comfortable enough to pursue music?
I really have a good support team. I have a family that prays for me and encourages me the whole way. Because being in the music industry, it can be risky. We can easily give up, you know? Having people praying for you and having people being positive in your life and going day by day. If that is your passion, if that is what you’re supposed to be doing, I really truly believe that God will make a way, will give you the tools, and he will open doors for you to accomplish whatever you need to do in pursuit of music or any career.
Speaking of God, what role has religion and spirituality played in your musical world?
I’m a Christian, and it really helped me to step out in faith and trust God. Being a musician is tough. I’m originally from Houston, Texas. I went to school in Boston, went there because of music, and I graduated from there, and I moved straight to L.A. The first couple months were rough, but I didn’t give up on God. I really trusted him, because I knew he was going to make a way. And the first month was rough; I didn’t have a job. Next scene—I was here for almost six months, and my first gig was Beyoncé for the 50th Super Bowl.
From that, I didn’t do too many gigs. I went back to playing at church again. The next Sunday, I left church, and said, “OK, Lord, where are we going?” Monday came around, and I played for Fifth Harmony. So, I really have faith and trust in him. I know sometimes it can make you anxious, and we are like, “Okay, what is going on?” And that time is the best time to really, really trust in God’s timing. Being the light in some dark, you know? Really being the light.
Was there a particular moment when you felt confident in calling yourself a drummer or a professional drummer?
I think once I started playing for Fifth Harmony. And I started traveling more and getting more endorsements. I was like, “Oh, damn.” Wait, let’s go back. I think when I graduated from Berklee College of Music—because I hated school [laughs], I really did, I really hated the school—but once I went through all that, and I got my bachelor’s, it was like, “Wow, I am a professional musician.” My major was professional music, but I majored in performance from scoring in music therapy. I wanted to tour to different schools, or the YMCA or Boys and Girls Club, and speak to them and have fun with them, teach them music and give back to the community. I always wanted to do that, and that’s what I’m doing. And I always wanted to be in a studio and arrange music and stuff like that, and now that’s coming, as well. So, it’s when all this started to happen . . . man, I am actually a professional drummer. And doing everything that I dreamed about, and it has come to pass. Thank you, Lord!
Was there a noticeable change in your drum world when you starting studying drums at Berklee?
Yes, there was. The more that I started to go to classes every day, I started to hear the flats or the sharps or hear the different notes, “Oh, that’s F, or that’s E.” Everything started to come to life, because I got so used to being around it so much, it started to come naturally.
What was the audition like? Did you feel prepared?
The audition was crazy. That was the first time I wasn’t nervous for an audition. I was in there; I did my piece. Once I did my piece, it was, “OK, can you do this? Can you play back this for me again? Can you do this?”And I did it in the interview process, and that was amazing. Before I got there, I made it my mission to be prepared. I listened to the different styles and made sure to have them down pat. I didn’t want to go in there and be fake, be a different person. I wanted them to see who I am, how I play, my style.
Did you enjoy studying?
I did. There were times when it was a lot, especially sight-reading. Oh, my! But I really loved learning. If you had the right teacher, and you had the right friends to help you, to encourage you and to make you want to study more.
Were there many women drummers studying beside you? If yes or no, did this make you feel any particular way?
Yes, there were. I was actually excited, because where I was, I didn’t really know a lot of female drummers. The only ones I knew at the time were Sheila E. and Cora who played for Prince. So when I started at Berklee, I was shocked, very shocked and excited, because I was like, “Man, there are other women playing drums, from different countries, different styles, different upbringings.”
Have you ever felt yourself an outsider from the drumming world? How did you overcome this?
Yes, I did. Sometimes you feel you’re in a box, and nobody wants to see you, because you’re not doing what other drummers are doing. I remembered having a teacher, who passed away, and I couldn’t play for him. He was like, “Why are you not opening up?” And I was like, “Man, because I feel like people don’t want to listen to what I’ve got to say.” And he was like, “But people need to hear your story; your story is unique. It’s different; it’s you, how you play. Nobody plays that way.” That’s how I overcame it, by my teacher. He loved the way I played.
What do you hope your music gives to the world?
Life, peace, love. There’s so much music out there that has hatred and evil. Listening to my music, you really feel love, really feel that peace, joy. Be able to dance and express yourself and be like, “Man, I feel good. I feel beautiful. I am awesome. I am wonderfully made. I’ve been created to do amazing things in this world.”
Do you think music can impact change?
Yes, it can. I really do feel that music can make that impact; it makes people unite in life and come together as one.
Why do you think music is so essential in today’s world? Why is your music in particular so essential?
Because there’re so many things going on right now, and people need music that helps them get through the day. If we didn’t have music, I really feel this world would be too big to me. But with my music, I feel there is hope. Hope is believing that there’s a change coming.
What has been your greatest accomplishment as a human? How did you accomplish this?
Traveling around the world and playing with these different bands at arenas. This is really nothing but God opening his doors and giving me an opportunity to be able to play for these different artists and be in the moment.
I would love to do it all: scoring a film, and I would love to do a worldwide tour with Beyoncé or Madonna, Janet Jackson, M.I.A.
What is your favorite style of music to play?
Gospel pop. I love pop and R&B and then Latin.
What is your practice routine?
I wake up in the morning, and I say my prayers. And what I do—I start off with singles. I do paradiddles, and once I do paradiddles, I do doubles, I do triplets, anything that helps my speed. I practice on the pillow at first, and then I go to the drum set. I do things for my feet. I go on my left, and then I do it on my right, and I do doubles: one, two, one, two, one, two, one, two. Whatever rhythm is on my mind that day, I transfer it to my drum set. And then I practice being more direct when I’m playing, because when you do pop, it is very structured; you can’t change too much.
Drumming essentials that you can’t live without?
That’s a big question. I think a good stack cymbal and a good pedal, too, because not all pedals are amazing. It can be a China with a splash on it to make it a stack.
And to finish, what is your best advice for people who want to begin playing drums, at any age?
Do it! Best advice, do it! Don’t let nobody stop you. I learned that, traveling in a lot of different countries, a lot of families don’t believe in musicians, or think of it as a job; going out and touring, being a professional musician. And what I can tell you right now, don’t let nobody stop you. If that’s what God has given you to do, I promise you, it is going to work out for you. Don’t let nobody get in the way of that. Don’t let nobody force you to do things that are not for you, and if you continue to keep pushing and keep getting to where you need to be—and not just in drums, could be anything, if you want to play bass, guitar, trumpet, saxophone, whatever—it’s not going to be easy, but continue to hold on. Stay strong and know that there are people out there who’ve been through it all, you know, and we’re rooting for you, right there. So yeah, peace!
This article was featured in the Outlaw issue of Tom Tom. Purchase it online.