Congo Beats: A hip-hop mission from UNC sends musical marketing lessons to Africa

dmenconi@newsobserver.comDecember 1, 2012 

Once upon a time, “building a studio” meant constructing an actual physical structure – pouring a concrete foundation, erecting walls, covering the whole mess with a roof and filling the interior with recording gear. But that’s a last-century notion as antiquated as telephone landlines. One of the best examples of the new paradigm is the “Beat Making Lab,” an arts-entrepreneurship class at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. It’s a program that’s being taken far beyond campus, all the way to Africa.

This past summer, UNC professors Pierce Freelon (frontman for the hip-hop/jazz ensemble The Beast) and Stephen Levitin (known professionally as deejay/drummer/producer Apple Juice Kid) traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo on a mission. You could say they were playing Johnny Hip-HopSeed, spreading the means to record music across the ocean in a unique cultural-exchange program. They had 20 students in the Congo, most in their 20s but one as young as 10, all of them eager to be heard.

“The Beat Making Lab curriculum revolves around new technology that was just not possible 20 years ago,” Freelon said. “The basic tools are Mac laptop, beat-making software, microphone, Midi controller, and speakers or headphones. With those five things – which can all fit in a briefcase if you’re using headphones – you can create high-quality music.”

Beat Making Lab’s roots go back a few years, to UNC professor Mark Katz’s arts-entrepreneurship class. One class project was to concoct a business plan for a “Carolina Beat Academy” that would teach the craft of making beat-based electronic music. It was purely hypothetical, but the students’ enthusiasm for the idea got Katz to thinking.

Katz subsequently brought in Levitin as a guest lecturer after they met at a deejay workshop. They got talking and discovered a mutual interest in starting such a class. Levitin and Katz co-taught the first version of Beat Making Lab in fall 2011. The students picked up enough know-how to yield a fine album called “Tar Heel Tracks,” built on samples from all-North Carolina acts including Avett Brothers and Lost in the Trees (it’s available for free download at soundcloud.com/beat-making-lab).

After Katz went on leave the following spring, Freelon came onboard as co-teacher of Beat Making Lab. Freelon and Levitin wanted to broaden the program’s reach with partnerships between the campus and other communities, and they were kicking around the idea of teaching workshops in Durham when an opportunity presented itself.

UNC had recently hired a music professor, Cherie Rivers Ndaliko, whose work focuses on African culture – and who also runs a festival in the Congo. She asked Katz about going over to talk about deejaying as part of the festival.

“I told her, ‘I’ve got a better idea. How about sending some beat-makers?’” Katz said. “When I told Stephen and Pierce about it, Pierce got so excited that he grabbed my arm and said, ‘I love you, man!’ It was something he’d always wanted to do, to take the concept of Beat Making Lab into other parts of the world. There’s been a lot of serendipity involved in the whole venture.”

Going over to teach in the Congo, a country in the throes of ongoing revolutionary violence, was an adventure in which they worked in primitive conditions with a language barrier to overcome. Levitin knows French and Freelon some Swahili. Between that and the modicum of English their students knew, they were able to communicate.

Kids who can rap

“But music is an awesome way to transcend language barriers,” Levitin said. “Not every kid over there had a computer and there was no high-speed Internet. Most of their Internet usage was through phones rather than computers. But the musicality was incredible. Every kid we met could rap. Hip-hop, dance, lyricism and fashion are all very big in the Congo. Everyone was super-excited to have the ability to make beats and get ideas down.”

Before going, Levitin and Freelon raised a little over $5,000 through the crowd-sourcing site indiegogo.com. They also got some grants, and Yole!Africa (a nonprofit organization that UNC professor Ndaliko is involved with) helped set up lodging. All told, the trip cost less than $10,000 – “with the two of us losing money, of course,” Levitin said.

A big chunk of the money raised went toward buying computers outfitted with recording software. These were the mobile “studios” they left behind, to be used under the supervision of their most technically savvy students, who would also go on to teach others how to use the gear to make music.

Marketing lessons

But the training went behind making music, to how to sell it. Along with a crash course in recording technology, Freelon and Levitin tried to teach their students to think entrepreneurially in terms of marketing themselves, which, in the modern music business, one can do online without a huge upfront investment.

“We also taught social media and got them set up with tumblrs, Facebook, Twitter,” Levitin said. “We wanted to make it a holistic experience by showing what you do with music after you make it; not just, ‘Here’s a beat, good luck.’

“It’s a model we want to replicate in other countries. It won’t require us to visit every year to sustain itself.”

Making the work self-sustaining is important, because Levitin and Freelon are already focused on expanding their experiment.

Plans call for them to replicate last summer’s Congo excursion in as many as four other countries during the first half of 2013 (although one destination might be domestic, just up the road in Durham). Countries under consideration include Brazil, India, South Africa, Kenya, Senegal and Panama.

“We’re considering Panama because there’s a large Congolese population there, which goes back to the period of enslavement,” Freelon said. “A lot of African slaves ended up in Central and South America, so there’s a lot of Congolese culture there. We’re interested in that cultural dialogue.”

Art and activism

Fostering similar cross-cultural dialogues and bringing different peoples together through music is part of Freelon and Levitin’s concept of Beat Making Lab as an expression of “artivism,” a combination of art and activism (going up this month, an artivism website at artvsm.com). There’s an entrepreneurial aspect to it, but it’s as much about communication as commerce.

Still, it’s nice to be bought as well as heard. There are plans to release an album from the tracks their Congolese students recorded last year. That should be coming out in early 2013, with CDs to be sold through a partnership with Whole Foods stores, proceeds to be split between the students and the Beat Making Lab program. A partnership with PBS is also in the works, to film and broadcast future labs.

“We’re right at the beginning of an 18-month sprint,” Freelon said. “It will come to fruition in steps.”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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