Beat Making Lab visits McKinney, makes some beats
Here’s the mix: An electronic music studio small enough to fit in a backpack, two musicians and one filmmaker who are passionate about using creativity as an agent for change, and two-week stints with groups of young people. It’s called the Beat Making Lab.
Beat Making Lab started as an innovative course taught through UNC’s Music Department by producer/DJ Stephen Levitin (aka Apple Juice Kid) and professor/emcee Pierce Freelon. Then Saleem Reshamwala (aka Kid Ethnic), who runs his own film production company, joined the team and a UNC colleague connected them to Yole!Africa, which is how the three ended up in Eastern Congo for 10 days earlier this year. They trained more than 20 young people in DIY music production and entrepreneurship, and thousands more were reached through their public performances and international media coverage as part of Yole!Africa’s annual SKIFF Festival. Saleem filmed and produced a series of short videos about their work and the music that came from it.
It went well. Really well: Their first project culminated in a collaboration with PBS Digital Studios, which now airs Beat Making Lab episodes each Wednesday at beatmakinglab.com. Pierce, Apple Juice Kid and Kid Ethnic continue to find nonprofits to partner with, funds to crowdsource and kids all over the world — Goma, Senegalese and Panama, so far — to train.
A collaboration closer to home is also in the making: Pierce reached out to McKinney in December 2012 for help with the Beat Making Lab logo, website skin and a stop-motion clip now used at the beginning of each episode.
“We’ve humbly asked you to sprinkle some mojo on Beat Making Lab,” said Pierce on Tuesday, April 15, when he, Apple Juice Kid and Kid Ethnic spent an hour at McKinney telling their stories, showing their videos and, of course, making some beats. “Creativity can be an agent of change,” said Apple Juice Kid. “ARTVSM, art + activism, is the name of our company, and we work with others who desire to have social good be a part of their art. Through Beat Making Lab, we bring art out of the classroom and into communities.” He called it the TOMS Shoes of the art world and said it is the most successful thing they’ve done as musicians — “more than the albums we’ve made.” And by albums he means other albums: you can buy CDs of the kids’ Beat Making Lab music in any Whole Foods stores in the country.
Pierce explained that they leave the lab behind and teach young people how to use it. “The beats can continue because we build a sustainable model by training trainers,” he said. “We ask the kids to sign contracts to teach others in their community for one year.”
But the team leaves behind more than music production equipment. While in Goma, Kid Ethnic taught a class on blogging, focusing on using smartphone apps to share their stories since many students don’t have regular electricity or access to the Internet. “Just the basics,” said Kid Ethnic, who told the story of a student who asked him if it’s always good to tell the truth on your blog. “He was afraid that someone would hurt him or his family if they read what he wrote about how they are treated in Goma. I was blown away. It’s not something I have to think about when I blog, and here’s this kid whose safety may be jeopardized by what he chooses to post.” Kid Ethnic suggested possible techniques less direct than truth telling, like short stories and sarcasm. “I’ve been shocked by how the kids make good out of the tools we collaborate on,” he said.
McKinney Account Planner Kelly Mertesdorf, who initially met Pierce while he was attending Durham Convention and Visitors’ Bureau meeting at McKinney, says she looks forward to working with the Beat Making Lab for months to come. “Eventually they want to develop an open-source software so that kids around the world can collaborate on the beats they’re making,” she said. “And we will want to help with that.”