It started as an experiment: what happens when you equip a vibrant youth community with the resources to express themselves through hip hop and electronic music? Last summer I traveled to Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo to find out and the results were more beautiful than I could have imagined.
In the heart of what National Geographic last year called "the world's most dangerous city," I spent two weeks crafting beats and songs with an amazing group of kids. Their lyrics ranged from frustrations with unpaved roads and access to water, to love songs, to stories of resiliency in the face of natural disaster.
I recall one instance when, in the middle of a beat making session, the lights dimmed, then shut off completely. The electricity never stayed on for more than a few hours in Goma, but we didn't let it stop the flow of creativity. All of the sudden an acappella beat box replaced the electronic drums, and mixed with hand claps, snaps, and groans to create a full-blown cypher.
Freestyling emcees, including myself, improvised lyrics in Swahili, French, and English, while my colleague Apple Juice Kid played on a broken djembe. Eventually the air became scented with the perfume of gasoline. Someone had grabbed the generator and we returned to our beat making session invigorated—ready to infuse the improvised ideas we had just come up with into newly inspired electronic music.
This is a new model for building musicians and community called Beat Making Lab, which will be documented every Wednesday on YouTube, in a new PBS Digital Studios web series. I will travel the world donating laptops and microphones to cultural centers and co-teach songwriting, sampling, and entrepreneurship.
I am an emcee in the hip hop and jazz band The Beast and a professor of music and African Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I co-teach Beat Making Lab with world-renowned hip hop and electronic music producer Stephen Levitin (aka Apple Juice Kid). Stephen founded the class at UNC with the chair of our music department, Dr. Mark Katz in 2011. I joined Levitin to co-teach the class in 2012 and together we crowd-sourced funds to launch the first community Beat Making Lab in Democratic Republic of Congo that summer.
By September, we posted a video from our Congo Beat Making Lab on GOOD and caught the attention of a producer from PBS. Within a few months, we decided to launch Beat Making Lab as a new web-series on the PBS Digital Studios platform and the rest is history.
In February Apple Juice Kid and I traveled to Portobelo, Panama to build a studio at La Escuelita Del Ritmo. We collaborated with a local community percussion ensemble and our students wrote songs inspired by the Festival de los Diablos y Congos. We also made a beat with some inmates at the same prison that houses Manuel Noriega, in Gamboa. In two weeks I am flying to Senegal to build a Beat Making Lab in collaboration with a dozen young women rappers and beat makers in Dakar with support from non-profit partners Speak Up Africa and Intrahealth.
In each location we will produce several short episodes, which will include music videos, documentaries, beat making tutorials, and feature our students and non-profit partners.
We are at the beginning of an inspiring journey. As a musician and professor I feel humbled by the opportunity to share some of my knowledge, and to learn from and collaborate with youth from around the world. I am also thrilled that PBS has provided us with a platform to share our stories with you. Please join us Wednesdays by subscribing to our YouTube channel and get ready for some hot beats!