A call from his best friend woke Jordan Williams.
“Dude, check your phone right now!”
After hanging up, Jordan scrolled through the dozens of text messages that littered his phone’s home screen. “This better be good,” he thought. Jordan, a notorious night owl, stayed up into the morning hours to work on his music the previous night. He unlocked his phone, opened his messages and his heart jumped. He stood up straight from his bed, heart pounding against his chest like a drum.
There, Jordan saw his stage name, Sonny Miles, sandwiched between J. Cole and Migos on former President Barack Obama’s “Favorite Music of 2019” playlist posted on Twitter that morning.
Jordan was stunned. The song, “Raleighwood Hills” by lesthegenius and featuring Miles and Jaxson Free, only had a few hundred streams on Spotify. He was just a kid from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was on a list with some of his idols. He could not fathom how Obama had found the song.
“It was very much insane because I was like, ‘I’m the only person on this list I don’t know,’” Jordan says.
The day was filled with phone calls, congratulatory texts and delighted screams. It felt like recognition that was well-overdue. It felt like an affirmation of his dream to be a musician.
Planting his roots
Normally, elementary-aged kids in church on a Sunday morning would be zoning out, or even trying to sneak a quick nap. Not Jordan. He couldn’t help but stare at the church’s drummer—it mesmerized him.
Jordan’s dad, Stephen, sang for the choir at the Christ Cathedral Church of Deliverance in Winston-Salem, which meant Jordan was expected to be present every Wednesday and Sunday, and sometimes days in between. While Jordan appreciated the choir’s performances each week, it was the rhythms and the syncopation of the drummer that made the boy sit up a little straighter in the pew.
Music was always around for him. As a 5-year-old, Jordan would grab his father’s Walkman, pop in Fred Hammond’s “Purpose By Design” and ride his bike to the tune of the gospel track for hours around his garage. He’d listen to the rhythms of the drum on the tape and then analyze the choir drummer the next day at church. “I always studied music before I even practiced it,” Jordan says.
One day, he approached the church’s drummer after the sermon, hoping to get his hands on the wooden drum sticks and a tutorial. Usually, he was told no, but sometimes he wasn’t. It didn’t matter because Jordan was already hooked on drums.
“That was the root,” Jordan says. “I would be nothing without religion or at least without the faction of church.”
Sophomore year of high school, those roots grew. Jordan’s mom, Calya, would go to bed early for her job as a teacher. With the house silent, Jordan would grab his mom’s laptop and his newly acquired iPod Classic and download music until 2 or 3 a.m.
Night after night Jordan would research his favorite musicians and their favorite musicians, and study old Rolling Stone magazine articles to learn more about the retro artists who soundtracked his youth.
As a student of music, his next assignment was a live performance. It was in the auditorium of Mount Tabor High School during a live performance of the musical “Godspell” when his fate was sealed.
“I just felt like I could do it,” Jordan says. So, he headed to a pawn shop to buy a guitar and learned to sing.
Stepping from stone to stone
Years later in 2016, when critically acclaimed rapper and singer T.I. dapped him up after a performance, Jordan knew he was onto something.
After performing a 30-minute set for PackHOWL, N.C. State University’s annual homecoming concert, Jordan didn’t expect the three-time Grammy Award winner to approach him backstage at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh. He especially didn’t expect T.I. to say he enjoyed Jordan’s performance.
“He really tore the stage up that night,” Daniel Maxwell, longtime friend and bassist, says. “I was in awe of how he handled the situation. This was probably one of the biggest performances we had done in that time in our lives.
“The shock and nervousness was there, but once we got on stage, I could see he was right at home.”
T.I.’s compliment is still what stands out for Jordan. It stands out as the moment the college junior realized his music could get noticed by charting artists.
“It was definitely the stepping stone,” Jordan says.
Jordan was practicing twice a week for three hours and performing three times a week with his a cappella group, The Grains of Time.
As an undergraduate student, communications was his major, but music was his love and his devotion. In between class and practice, he was producing his own music, gaining attention across campus from the student body, booking slots at shows and honing his craft — despite being a self-taught music producer.
Kai McNeil, a close friend of Jordan’s, says he was always walking around N.C. State’s campus with a guitar—music, he says, is always present when Jordan is around.
In those days, Jordan was just becoming who he is now: Sonny Miles.
He knew he wanted to be soulful like the jazz records his grandfather, Cleave, played. He knew he wanted to have a timeless sound like artists Sonny Stitt and Miles Davis, who inspired his stage name. He was developing his distinct sound and working to become Sonny Miles.
“‘It’s about damn time’”
Shakilya Lawrence almost dropped her phone when Jordan says he had been recognized by former President Obama.
Jordan’s longtime partner always knew the song — a collaboration with LesTheGenius and Jaxson Free — was good, but for the independent, N.C.-based artists to get presidential recognition was what she called an “unexpected blessing.”
“I was over the moon for them,” Lawrence says. “I knew Jordan’s recognition would come at some point and I’m just glad it came from that level.”
After begging to be taught drums; dedicating a summer to learning guitar; spending hours learning to mix music; studying music instead of sleeping and dreaming of recognition like this since childhood: this was the break Jordan needed.
Jordan’s closest supporters believe the recognition was not just needed, but earned.
“I felt a combination of giddiness and ‘it’s about damn time,’” Maxwell says.
And they know it’s only the beginning for him.
“Jordan is very ahead of his time and the music industry has to catch up to him,” Lawrence says. “I know he’s always had a very progressive sound, a very forward-thinking, dynamic sound.”
“I’ve been telling him this since I met him that it’ll happen soon. I know it will,” she added.
There is a strangeness to being around someone right on the brink of greatness and knowing deep down that person could one day walk the red carpet at the Grammy Awards, but that’s how the people around Sonny Miles feel.
“That was just the beginning cusp of what he’s able to do and will do as an artist,” says McNeil. “If you want to be ahead of the curve, know him now.”
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