Set back off of Highway 301 in Halifax along the rutted dirt path of Holly Road, the small brick home offers little to distinguish it from the surrounding houses in this quiet rural community.
But spend a little time with the home’s residents, Mary Powell and her son, Devonta, and it soon becomes clear that behind the neatly maintained lawn and dark green shutters, a raw, ambitious young talent is quietly gaining strength and preparing to make itself felt in the world beyond Halifax and the Roanoke Valley.
The humble facade of the Powell’s residence mirrors the attitude of 14-year-old Devonta when he speaks about his overriding passion. The rising sophomore at KIPP Pride High School has been creating music for himself, his mother and anyone else who would listen since he was big enough to open a kitchen cabinet.
“I would just bang on my mom’s pots and pans. I was born loving music,” he says with a typically modest grin.
His mother, while working hard to contain her obvious pride, is a bit more expansive when describing the first flowering of her son’s talent.
“He would make the most awful racket you ever heard in your life. It would give you a headache. But he had such a good beat I set him up with a keyboard. I put it in the window and he would play it while he waited for the school bus.”
Devonta first remembers hearing music in church, a source of spiritual and artistic inspiration that would provide the aspiring musician with his first opportunity to play before an audience.
“He started hanging around some of the musicians in church. I think it had a big part in molding him. I asked God to bless his hand and I just turned him loose,” says Mary, who besides being Devonta’s biggest supporter, is the pastor and founder of Faith Temple in Seaboard.
As he grew older and more sure of his abilities, she let her son perform before the congregation of her own church, where the crowds would often be mesmerized by the small boy with the big grin dwarfed behind the keyboards.
“He would get more attention than the pastor got,” she says, rocking with laughter.
Yet, unlike many precocious youngsters who show signs of talent in the arts only to be lured away by other interests, Devonta’s passion and commitment have grown as he’s entered his early teens.
At KIPP, he quickly became an integral part of the school’s music program. Having advanced to the position of drum line section-leader and performing with the school’s rock band during a recent performance at The Centre, the soft-spoken teen says he’s looking forward to another year of new challenges.
“Mr. Turner, the band director, works us hard,” he stated, with a knowing look towards his mother, who added, “It’s long hours. He requires a lot of them, but he has to.”
Though the jump to a new school hasn’t been without its trials, one thing the devoted musician and his mother both agree on is the importance of maintaining academic excellence.
“When he went to Gaston Prep it was a whole different ballgame,” said Ms. Powell, “He had to apply himself more. We had that lecture every week. I want him to be a great music person, but you have to balance that with education.”
While the academic pressures may have increased, Devonta, a typical teenager in at least a few respects, says his favorite things about the new school are “the girls and the music” and seems more than prepared to meet the challenge.
In fact, he plans to add to his workload by joining the school’s gospel group next year.
All the hard work seems to have paid off.
Able to hold his own on seven instruments, including keyboards, drums, saxophone and xylophone, Devonta has begun acting as a mentor to younger musicians in the same way that band members at his mother’s church guided him in his early years.
To truly appreciate the young man’s creative dedication and unique approach to music, one need only watch him at work in his crowded, semi-organized bedroom/studio. Packed with drums, keyboards, a saxophone, computer software and posters of his favorite NBA stars, the room resembles a cross between an average teenage hideout and a mad scientist’s lab.
It’s in this tightly packed nerve center that one senses Devonta’s true ambition for the future taking shape — beyond the concert stage and rehearsal rooms, he plans to create a niche for himself as a producer.
Using a computer music editing program called Reason 40, the keyboard becomes a virtual symphony beneath his hands: After searching for the correct sound he sets the tempo, then uses the keyboard to make loops of his own music which he samples and cuts and pastes into any form he chooses, sometimes layering as many as six instrument on top of one another.
Most recently, Devonta’s creative experiments have taken the form of what he calls “meditation music,” tranquil beats mixed with jungle sounds and flowing ambient melodies. He estimates he’s completed about eight such pieces with the new software.
Practicing 50 to 60 hours a week, Mary Powell says her son often becomes a virtual ghost around the house.
“He just stays in his room. Most of the time I don’t even hear him because he works with the headphones on.”
But she’s quick to add her son’s dedication is a positive influence, steering him away from the negative forces all too prevalent in today’s society.
“It’s kept him out of trouble. A lot of times when other kids want him to go out, he’ll just stay in and play,” she said.
Word of Devonta’s skills have spread throughout the community. While plans to open his own studio may be well in the future, he’s already gotten a head start on an impressive resume, having recently completed music for a promotional ad for radio station 99.5 and currently working on music to accompany sermons at his mother’s church.
Drawing inspiration from the films of producer Steven Spielberg, he also plans to try his hand at movie soundtracks after completing his education at a music producing school and a four-year college.
Though normally a man of few words who chooses to let his music speak for him, Devonta ‘s enthusiasm is obvious as he talks about his life-long passion and the future he’s envisioned.
“Music is a very positive thing, one of the things where you can be as creative as you want,” he said, his modest grin growing a little wider.
“It’s not like you have to do one certain thing — I even want to do commercial jingles and ring tones.”
While he says his main objective is to be “as creative as possible without putting a limit on it,” it’s clear that, with the loving support of his mother and the devotion he’s displayed to his growing talent, Devonta Powell is poised to carry his musical dreams well into the future.
“It makes you feel free,” he says, as his gaze runs across the keyboards, past the drum set and out the bedroom window, into the world beyond the small house on Holly Road.