Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Spark MHK, a non-profit, community-based hub of programming and networks designed to connect entrepreneurs, startups and small business owners to each other and the larger ecosystem in the Greater Manhattan area.
Click here to read the original story.
The day JahVelle Rhone learned he’d been accepted to TikTok’s 100 Black Creators Program was the same he and his wife shaved their heads in solidarity with their young daughter, who was starting to lose her hair from chemotherapy, the Manhattan-based influencer and musician said.
“It was a crazy, absolutely bittersweet moment, where it was like ‘Wow, I am super excited about this [opportunity], but at the same time, it is met with such gravity with what’s happening in my personal life,’” said Rhone, a Kansas City, Kansas, native with more than one million followers on social media as JRSaxophonic.
Taking notes from his father, Rhone had always played music around his own home, creating a joyful environment for his family, his first audience. In hard times and good, music provided the family a solace and joy that brought them together.
Click here to follow Rhone on TikTok.
JahVelle Rhone in a still from one of his TikTok performances.
With the acceptance into the TikTok program for Black creators, Rhone’s career was poised for upward momentum. His daughter Layla’s diagnosis with a Stage III Wilm’s tumor brought the family back to reality.
They commuted between Manhattan and Kansas City for her treatments. Rhone looked for ways to adapt to his situation, and he hunkered down in a hotel conference room to make content and tried to keep going.
Ongoing content creation and program workload became difficult to manage, he said, and Rhone began to wonder if he should quit the program and direct his full attention to his family.
Layla had other plans, insisting he keep playing.
“When I told my daughter that I was probably going to stop, she told me, ‘No, because it makes me feel better when you play,’” Rhone said. “And this was coming from a 5-year-old at the time, and I was like, ‘What?’ … She said it was the one thing that made her feel like things weren’t changing. How could I stop?”
With his daughter’s encouragement and a renewed commitment to the opportunities in front of him, Rhone embraced all the knowledge and introductions the TikTok Black Creatives Program offered. He and the other participants received perks to complete program assignments.
“Some of those incentives were getting coached by [artists like] Gabrielle Union and Common, and also by several incredible people who are making headway in today’s society,” Rhone said.
The program also provided him with practical tools to run a business, manage himself as a brand, foster industry partnerships, and more. These business and brand foundations started to shift Rhone’s view of himself and his work beyond influencer and musician.
“That’s where I really started thinking, ‘OK, it’s more than just content creation. I can create sustainability and legacy by doing this,’” he said.
It wasn’t long before he was securing brand deals with confidence. With the help of TikTok’s program, Rhone signed his first deal with Rockstar, a Pepsi entity.
“That was my first big contract. They [TikTok Black Creative instructors] taught us how to negotiate our contracts, read through them, hire lawyers, agencies, and managers to help us through our contracts, along with things to avoid, which is something we never think about,” he said. “With all of that, you really have to protect yourself as a brand, an artist, and a creative because people will try to take advantage of you.”
JahVelle Rhone, also known as JRSaxophonic, joined by Khaby Lame, international TikTok sensation and influencer, one of many connections he made in TikTok’s 100 Black Creators Program; Photo courtesy of JahVelle Rhone
The long road to overnight success
Rhone first discovered his love of music at home with family in Kansas City, Kansas.
“It all started in the basement of my childhood home, where my dad used to play the guitar after church, and my brothers and I would dance for hours upon hours to his music,” he said. “I knew that I would love nothing more than to be a musician because that day, the joy we felt in that basement and listening to the sounds of the soulful music had to be supernatural.”
As JRSaxophonic on social media, the intersection of Rhone’s talent as a saxophone player and digital media creator has taken him across the country and through doors he only dreamed were possible a few short years ago, he said.
Recognized for his soulful, smooth sounds across multiple social media platforms, he said, “My staple would be to inspire, to bring joy and cultivate a soulful wave in music through love, positively, and empowerment.”
“And my only rule is to keep it smooth.”
Grounded by his deep Kansas City roots, Rhone made his way to Manhattan, his current home, where he attended Kansas State University and finished his undergraduate degree. Not only did the K-State campus provide him with a degree, but he found his partner and future wife. Today, he is happily married to an author and elementary school teacher, Teandra, and together they have four children: three daughters and one son.
Rhone’s day job keeps him close to innovation and media creation at the Sunderland Foundation Innovation Lab, located at the Hale library, where he currently serves as the media director and worked with Associate Director Jeff Sheldon to bring many of the concepts in the lab to life.
Like most “overnight success” stories before him, Rhone put in thousands of hours perfecting the crafts of both music and technology long before he became a TikTok influencer. Playing in a number of venues across the region, he built a unique brand image, personalized to what he loved most, which gave him an exclusive position.
When Rhone got his start, social media was only in its infancy, and TikTok didn’t exist yet, but he used his media and technology knowledge to weave in audiovisual content into his concerts.
“I loved incorporating media into what I did as a musician,” Rhone said. “That really allowed me to stand out from other musicians, because I had the production value along with a concert experience, and I knew how to bring those two together.”
To incorporate these two backgrounds during a show, he created a short movie clip, ranging from two to three minutes, based on various experiences and places from his present day life. The clips were inspired by one of his favorite entertainers, Michael Jackson, who also incorporated media into his performances.
“He used to make people have an experience when they went to his concerts,” said Rhone, noting he wanted to have the same effect on his audiences.
So Rhone began to think of ways in which content could bring people into a richer musical experience.
“I figured out how to get a projector into the concert venues and how to stream original films that I created for my audience to make them feel more immersed into the experience,” he said. “And it worked like a charm to be honest.”
When in doubt, reach out
Rhone’s innovative styles and ability to fuse multiple forms of media was not only a crowd pleaser, but formed the foundation for what would attract and inspire millions on social media only a few years later.
He started to recognize that his work was more than music in 2020, just as the world entered a lockdown. But he ran into some setbacks at first.
Photo courtesy of JahVelle Rhone, JRSaxophonic
“I was at a point in my life where I was wondering, ‘Do I want to continue to be a musician?’ because things were not manifesting in the way that I thought it would,” Rhone recalled.
As he considered putting his music on hold to refocus elsewhere, he noticed trending videos on TikTok and how the growth of the platform began to have a significant influence on society.
During 2020, Rhone downloaded TikTok so he and his family could participate in a trending TikTok dance. After joining the app, he began to wonder if he could do his music on TikTok and possibly get an audience.
“I started creating videos, and I would get like one, two likes, and sometimes zero views,” he said.
With the unsuccessful start on social media, Rhone reached out to his friends at Kansas City comedy clubs, where he had previously performed. His friends had also joined TikTok, and he noticed they experienced account growth and success faster than him, making him feel doubtful of his efforts.
Fortunately, they offered advice.
“They were like, ‘You got to post three times a day – just stay consistent’. And I started to do that, and at the end of December, I started seeing gradual growth. I joined in August, and started posting consistently in September, and from September to November I gained close to 1,000 followers,” he detailed.
Encouraged by the gradual growth, Rhone searched for ways to expand and reach a diverse audience. “I wanted to live stream as a musician because I knew that it would help grow my account. At the time, nobody was doing that. TikTok counts me as one of the first instrumentalists to live stream and do performances on their app,” he said.
Incorporating live streaming into his content plan led a niche community of TikTok, known as TikTok Live, to notice his work and offered him a partnership with them.
At the start of 2021, one of Rhone’s friends from the comedy group told him that TikTok was offering a new program, an incubator for Black content creators called TikTok Black Creatives Program. The program was sponsored by Stay Macro, which is the largest Black-owned media company.
Inspired to support influencers in his industry, film producer and Stay Macro founder, Charles D. King, collaborated with TikTok to create the Black Creative program.
“King chose 100 of the top TikTok creators on the app at the time, and there were literally thousands and thousands of people worldwide, and they chose two instrumentalists. They chose me and this guy, John the Violinist from Ohio,” Rhone said.
A resource for influencers
Since his first brand deal with Rockstar, Rhone has partnered with a number of household names and major brands who have helped him grow as a content creator, entrepreneur, and musician, including a partnership with Meta, YouTube Shorts, and Goorin Brothers (a hat company). He is also a Sony Music Influencer, and recorded his first major recording with Universal Music Group, among other opportunities.
Locally, Rhone accessed entrepreneur resources to support him and his growing brand and business.
“My wife and I started an LLC with support from the Black Entrepreneurs of the Flint Hills,” he said. “We had help from Sheila Ellis-Glasper and Jermane Glasper, who are some of our best friends. They walked us through starting our first LLC back in early 2021, and to this day we’re still in good standing. We’re learning what that means, keeping track of our numbers, we’re tracking our books, and it’s been a great experience.”
Now that his business and brand are set on solid foundations for growth and legacy, Rhone saw the opportunity to pass on what he learned about building a business for influencers. With the career of “influencer” being new and somewhat undefined, he discovered that most creators don’t have tools and resources to build a business from their identity and work.
After a conversation with Kudzi Chikumbu, global head of creator marketing at TikTok, Rhone decided to write a book.
“Even though I didn’t see anyone else develop a book [on this topic] yet, I immediately started making my bullet points and how I was going to organize it because I knew people want to learn how to do this,” he said. “I’m creating a book about my life as an influencer and the journey. It will have supplemental materials for people who want to become influencers.”
While JahVelle and his family’s story is far from over, this moment is something of a happy ending to his daughter’s cancer journey.
Layla is two months in remission, cancer-free,” Rhone said. “We are super excited about that. We are very grateful. She had some incredible opportunities.”
‘More famous than I am’
Now-7-year-old Layla’s courage facing cancer opened influencer doors for her as well, and Rhone’s knowledge of business and brand positioned him to guide her through that process and help her make the most of it.
“She got to partner with TikTok For Good, as well as the American Cancer Society, to help raise money for them. She also did a partnership with Sporting KC, and she will partner with the Kansas City Chiefs at their first playoff game,” he said. “The Chiefs just called us last week to talk to my daughter and see if she would be at the first playoff game with them.”
“She reminds me daily that she is more famous than I am,” Rhone said, laughing. “She is in second grade, and she’s already done some really cool stuff.”
As Rhone’s influence and brand expands, and his daughter’s as well, new doors continue to open for the family. No matter what he experiences, however, he remains committed to the people and practices that ground him most, he said: faith, family and the joy of music, just like his father taught him, always led by his guiding motto: “Keep it smooth.”
Click here to follow Rhone on YouTube.