Beat-makin’ from Chapel Hill to Africa

What happens when you provide creative young Africans with the tools to make their own music? University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill) hip-hop professors and artists Stephen Levitin (aka Apple Juice Kid) and Pierce Freelon traveled to Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo to find out.

The Beat Making Lab, a project that builds youth-oriented music studios in cultural centers around the world, started as a college course at UNC-Chapel Hill in North Carolina. In the class, undergrads earn three credit hours and are taught the practical, historical and entrepreneurial aspects of beat making. Stephen and Pierce soon realized that their project could have a more profound impact if applied to some of the world’s poorest places, so quickly mobilized.

With the ultimate goal of empowering young musicians, the professors came up with a model to raise money for equipment, provide their expertise in a two-week program, then leave the studios behind for sustainable community use. Since that moment of realization, they’ve set up beat labs in some pretty interesting places: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal and Panama, and soon Fiji (PBS has filmed their progress in these online episodes).

I got the chance to ask Pierce Freelon some questions about their Africa projects specifically, and learn more about how they’ve created a global do-it-yourself digital music community.

Hannah Elansary:  How does providing studio space and the tools and training to make beats and songs create a social impact?

Pierce Freelon: When youth are engaged in something positive and productive, it has residual influence on the community. They are collaborating, growing and building something which strengthens solidarity, self-esteem and “pamoja“, a Kiswahili word that means “oneness”. They are also learning a new skillset. Our students are becoming fluent in software and technologies that will allow them to work as producers, engineers, mixers or technicians in recording studios or live settings. All of this creates positive social impact.

beatlab7Pierce Freelon, musical innovator and co-professor of Chapel Hill’s Beat Making Lab. Photo credit: www.flickr.com

beatlab3Apple Juice Kid, co-professor and producer of Beat Making Lab. Photo credit: www.good.is

Why do you think it is important for African youth to learn how to make beats?

I think it’s important for all youth, everywhere, to have creative outlets to express themselves. That’s why we partner with vibrant cultural institutions around the world – they already get this fundamental point. Kids that have creative and constructive outlets are better off than those that don’t. It doesn’t have to be beat making. It could be painting, choir, break dancing, skateboarding, soccer, etc. As long as they’re passionate about it, something good will come out of them investing in it.

How did you guys come up with the idea of taking your Beat Making Lab to Africa? What was your inspiration for this new initiative?

When I was asked to co-teach the class, I was intrigued by the prospects of building a community music studio and taking the resources of the university to a place where the entrepreneurship and skills could serve a larger purpose than giving college undergrads three credit hours.

beatlab6Young African producers hard at work. Photo credit: https://www.facebook.com/beatmakinglab

Are Africans using music as a way to promote social change? What kinds of issues and emotions are they trying to communicate?

The same kinds of issues and emotions that youth everywhere try to communicate. Our students write about festivals, war, love, health, their families, friends, favorite dances. Some of our Congolese students rapped about conflict, politics and change in their verses, because many of them are living in situations where those topics are a daily issue. Meanwhile our Senegalese students, tended to focus more on friends, family and health, because that was a part of their daily experience.

They are producing all kinds of music: dancehall, reggae, hip hop, EDM, R&B, etc.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced with taking your Beat Making Lab from the States to Africa?

Electricity was a big issue in Goma. The power grid fluctuated and was not reliably consistent. We also struggled with providing enough resources to all of the students who wanted to participate. We were only able to work with about 16 to 20 students, but there were more than 100 who applied.

In Senegal, our biggest challenge was providing transportation for our students from their homes to the studio and back. We want our kids to have easy access to the resources we provide but sometimes it’s hard when the youth are so spread out.

How do you pick who takes your class in Africa? Is it a first-come, first-served sign up? Are there any prerequisites?

There are no prerequisites. That’s one of the beautiful things about our program. All you need is a willingness to work hard. We rely on our partnering institutions to select the students. We ask them to select six to 12 diverse and creative youth. No previous musical experience is required, only the desire to learn.

beatlab4African students continue to share their songs and stories. Photo credit:  generationbass.com

How do your African students share their songs and continue to create an impact after you leave?

Internet is notoriously slow in Congo. I’m talking slower than your grandmother’s dial-up. So, sharing songs over the internet has been challenging with our students there. We’re working on moving to a cloud-based data transfer system, so tracks can be uploaded pieces at a time, without having to start over if the lights go out.

We’ve also considered a snail mail system, where they can ship hard drives full of their beats and sessions to a place with better bandwidth for upload. Email and Facebook, which require less bandwidth, have been more usable. Several of the students have continued to publish blogs, and other writings, leading to fairly substantial opportunities for them to share their stories.

As far as continuing to create impact, our studios and equipment remain in Dakar and Goma and the kids have continued to write songs and collaborate with local musicians in the community. It’s been great.

beatlab5The Beat Making Lab filming a music video in Senegal. Photo credit: https://www.facebook.com/beatmakinglab

Can you tell us a little bit about your own musical backgrounds?

Apple Juice Kid is a drummer, DJ and music producer who has produced for Wale, Azealia Banks, Camp Lo and Mos Def. I am the frontman of a hip hop and jazz quartet called The Beast.

What’s next for you guys?

Our Fijian Beat Making Lab starts in May and we’re excited about working with a group of students at the Oceania Centre there. After that, we hope to get the funding to continue our work. If you’re interesting in learning more, want to bring a beat making lab you your community or want to contribute to the cause, hit us up here.

What is the biggest lesson you hope your students take away from your beat making class/workshop?

Follow your passions and work hard. Only you can tell your story.

Learn more about Beat Making Lab by checking out their YouTube Videos, their Facebook updates and follow them on Twitter. And watch their journey on PBS here

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