Teen entrepeneur from Elgin takes on music industry
Breje Whitt was only 15 years old when he began performing onstage with a nationally renowned Christian rock band.
Two years later, the Elgin teen is running his own DJ, sound and lighting company.
Where he goes next is anyone's guess, but one thing is for sure -- music is going to be his life.
"Music is what I want to do, but I don't know where it's going to go," said Breje, 17, a senior at Westminster Christian School in Elgin.
"I might be doing sound stuff full time or on the side. I have had other possibilities with other bands. Once I graduate, we'll see how that goes."
Breje -- whose name is a combination of his four grandparents' initials -- played drums and bass for BarlowGirl, whose members are Alyssa, Lauren and Rebecca Barlow, all Elgin natives.
Thanks to the work he did with them in 2011 and 2012, along with other work on the side, he said, he saved up $25,000 to start Diamond Cut Productions about three months ago. He bought a van, lights and sound equipment, hired an attorney and purchased insurance.
"I went big," he said. "I'm not going to get two speakers and be satisfied with that. I really knew what I needed and wanted, and spent the money."
His gigs in 2013 included a church party on New Year's Eve in St. Charles and a couple of school events. This year, he's already lined up two summer weddings and the annual Cal's Angels 5K Run in the suburbs, he said.
There are still some work-related things Breje can't do legally, at least until he turns 18 in April.
"I'm not old enough to be the president of my business," he said. "I am the owner, but my dad is the president."
Robert Whitt, pastor at Family Life Church in Elgin, said the business is all Breje's -- conceptually and financially.
"Because he's 17, the only thing we did is, we had to sign bank stuff," he said.
Rick Palmer, athletic director at Westminster School, said Breje gave up a promising athletic career to pursue music and sound. But Palmer saw Breje's talent firsthand when his son hired him to be in charge of sound at his wedding ceremony. The results were outstanding, Palmer said.
"If I would have known Breje was going into DJing, I would have reached to him sooner to do the reception, too," Palmer said. "He has just a pure heart of wanting to serve people."
Breje first met the Barlow sisters as a kid at his father's church. The band played from 2002 to 2012, and its 2007 album "How Can We Be Silent" debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Christian chart, and No. 40 on Billboard's top 200.
"We always knew (Breje) had talent, and as he was growing older, we were blown away by his talent," Alyssa Barlow said.
One weekend in 2011, when the band needed a last-minute tech, they decided to fly in Breje for the occasion.
"He was just a great fit," Alyssa Barlow said. "He's very intelligent, and on the technical side of it, he really understands it."
Breje ended up becoming a regular part of the band's crew, flying in for weekend shows or tagging along on the tour bus.
"He'd be with our team running stuff at festivals, and people always thought he was in college," Alyssa Barlow said. "They were shocked when they found out he was 15."
Then came another turning point, when the sisters asked him to fill in on the drums.
"We were doing sound check at the Staples Center (in Los Angeles), and they asked me to play," Breje said. "They knew I could do it. Just being with them (on the road), I heard it so many times."
Eventually, he switched to bass until the band went on hiatus in late 2012.
"It was really fun. It's the base of where my life is really going now," Breje said.
Breje will always have a spot in the band, Alyssa said.
"I just told him the other day, 'Just so you know, if us girls decide to do music again, you're getting a phone call,'" she said.
Buying a $150 bass for his 3-year-old son was some of the best money he ever spent, Robert Whitt says today. Breje tried his hand at drums in church around age 5.
Whitt said his son is taking a different path than the one he chose as a teen.
"I was that kid that should have been dead, that kid that was in gangs," he said, adding his life started to shift when he found Christianity around age 20.
It's especially important for young African-American men to have an "I can" mentality, Robert Whitt said.
"It's rare in many cases for a young African-American man to be in a place where he can be successful, where he can give something back to the community. We keep losing these young men to drugs, to violence."
Breje first learned about sound and lighting in high school by volunteering to help TSA Productions, which does school productions at Westminster. Brian Mitchell, owner of the Elk Grove Village company, later employed Breje as an intern and freelancer.
Breje is a quick study and always eager to learn, Mitchell said.
"When I first started teaching him how to program intelligent lighting, it only took a half-hour for him to pick up on the controls," Mitchell said.
Because he's learned so much from others, Breje tries to gives back whenever he can.
"I'm all about others learning, too, and sharing my knowledge."
As for college, that's not in the cards.
"Now that I'm doing what I want to do, I just think about, 'Why not keep doing it and learn in the real sense?'" Breje said.
Robert Whitt and his wife, Stacy, are supportive of the decision to focus on the business at a time when many of Breje's peers will be heading off to college.
"I think we can miss -- with the school system thinking that every kid is supposed to advance to college -- we miss looking at, 'What gift does that kid have that we can build up?'" he said. "If it's education, great, but if it's something else, how can we tap into building it?"
Julie Chapman, Westminster's fine arts director, agrees.
"In all my years of teaching, Breje's definitely the most exceptional young man I've met on very different levels," she said.
Besides his great musical talent, Breje is respectful and humble, which makes him a natural leader among his peers, she said.
"People recognize his talent, but he's not arrogant," she said.
As for Breje not going to college, Chapman, too, is OK with it.
"This is an unusual case because of the extensive experience that he's had and because it lines up with his gifts," she said. "I think he's ready. He's mature enough to handle his own business, and he's extremely responsible. He handles stressful situations -- and even adversarial ones that adults bring on -- with such grace, maturity and integrity."
When his age comes up in a business setting, reactions can be mixed, Breje acknowledged.
"People do look down (on me) because of my age," he said.
"I don't have the time to say, 'I've done this and this.' I'm trusting that once I get older, things start coming. A lot of people do know what I can do and a lot of people are impressed. It's up to them if they want to use me or not."
Breje WhittAge: 17
School: Westminster Christian School
Who inspires you? BarlowGirl. Working for them, I learned a lot, and it was easy to learn.
What's on your iPod? Pop, hip hop, dance. Pretty much the top 40 hits in each of those genres.
What book are you reading? I'm not reading anything.
The three words that best describe you? Loving. Passionate. Persevering.