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Artivists Pierce Freelon and Stephen Levitin take their Beat Making Lab to the DRC

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On the first day of July 2012, Pierce Freelon, of Durham jazz-rap group The Beast, and Stephen Levitin, a DJ and producer called Apple Juice Kid, touched down in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, their baggage full of laptops, speakers and microphones. Had they been scheduled to fly in one day later, it wouldn't have happened.

Their destination in DRC was the eastern city of Goma, which Professor Dario Tedesco called "the most dangerous city in the world" in a National Geographic article last year. Tedesco, a volcanologist, was concerned about Nyiragongo, a two-mile-high volcano looming over Goma that disastrously erupted in 2002, destroying many thousands of homes. The city's population continues to grow as people arrive, having fled ongoing clashes between rebel and government forces and between ethnic groups in the countryside. In a hotspot where non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are ubiquitous and the United Nations maintains a precarious stability, the volcano is a constant reminder of the uncertainty of everyday life.

Freelon and Levitin had come to Goma to set up an outpost of the University of North Carolina's Beat Making Lab, a workshop in which students learn the craft and commerce of making electronic music. But when they arrived, the rebel forces of the M23 Movement were closing in. "The way it was explained to us," Freelon says, "was that as this well-equipped militia advanced, the military would just evacuate their bases. When we first got there, we heard, 'Oh, the rebels are 120 kilometers outside of Goma; there's no way they're going to get within a stone's throw of this place.'" But M23 forces were reportedly within 60 kilometers of Goma on the following day; 20 the next. The offensive was making international news of the sort that Levitin and Freelon usually saw in remote American comfort.

The rebels didn't penetrate the city, but signs of conflict were plentiful. On the first morning and every one afterward, Freelon and Levitin climbed into the back of a truck, bouncing over roads still strewn with volcano rubble on the ride from the home where they were staying to the Yole!Africa community center. Near large houses, reliable generators powered electric fences and security cameras; meanwhile, lanterns burned in shacks. Tanks squatted at many intersections, seeming to Freelon to multiply as the days passed and the rebels drew nearer. Without the clay brick walls topped by broken bottles that guarded many buildings, Yole!Africa presented a more welcoming façade.

Upon arriving, Freelon and Levitin had about 30 minutes to try to check their email while their new students took a workshop in social media—both chancy processes in a place where Wi-Fi is spotty and the power grid falters frequently. At 11 a.m., they began the Beat Making Lab, working with 20 aspiring young producers and rappers who were already involved with Yole!Africa, a center that offers free year-round training in digital arts, film, music and dance. Their youngest student was only 10 years old; the oldest, an engineering prodigy called T.D. Jack who could fix anything with wires, "had to be almost 30," Freelon remembers, laughing.

Levitin speaks French and Freelon worked hard on Swahili. The students spoke a smattering of English and they had a few translators. But perhaps most useful was, as the platitude goes, the universal language of music. "Within 20 minutes of first being there with the kids," Freelon recalls, "we started a cypher"—a spontaneous group session of improvised rapping and beat-boxing—"with everybody in a circle. Stephen grabs this dinky djembe with a hole in it; kids are rapping in Swahili, French, Arabic; I'm spitting in English. Nobody understands each other but at the same time we understand completely. It was a bonding thing out the gate, so it became something we did every day."

All 20 students got a crash course in using the electronic music production program Reason, installed on the laptops Levitin and Freelon were donating. The pair quickly chose six especially promising students, and for the remainder of the two-week session, Levitin worked intensively with them on the art, science and business of crafting beats. As a recognized producer who has placed tracks with Wale, Camp Lo and Mad Decent artists, Levitin was both a source of knowledge and a potential conduit into the industry for the most serious and adept students.

Meanwhile, Freelon worked with the other 14 to develop lyrics, vocals and song concepts for the music coming out of Levitin's camp. The six producers were then equipped to train their peers and other musicians in their community—effectively, they would establish the first Beat Making Lab franchise.

The instruction and festivities were meant to last until 2 p.m. each day, with a lunch break for bread and perhaps some water, a scarce commodity. As it happened, they always rolled on at least until sundown. In the early evenings, there were student film screenings. And then there were the massive, high-stakes dance competitions that Levitin and Freelon were unexpectedly enlisted to judge on a nightly basis.

"The thrift-store fashion in Congo is crazy, even the little kids," Levitin says with admiration. "You'll see a kid walking around with a Care Bears backpack with the handle stretched all the way up, and he's rocking it super-hard, like out of Complex magazine."

Seemingly hundreds of elaborately dressed crews danced athletic routines, the music changing from rap to techno at 10-second intervals, culminating in a showdown, before thousands of spectators, among 10 finalists. At such joyous moments, the tanks and the rebels and the shards of bottles glittering on the walls must have seemed a bit farther away.

If you obtain a letter from a professor and write a persuasive essay, you can earn three hours of course credit while learning to make electronic beats at UNC, the origin of the Lab. From the beginning, the project sought a balance between creativity, social impact and entrepreneurship, concepts that now undergird a larger endeavor that Freelon and Levitin couch in slightly mysterious terms.

As the Beat Making Lab website has it, "It's an ambitious project we're calling PAMOJA, which means oneness, or solidarity." But PAMOJA did not come up in our conversations, which focused rather on the neologism "artivism," where artists and activists cooperate in an entrepreneurial crucible.

The seed was planted when Levitin became friends with Professor Mark Katz. Via email, Katz explained that he had come up with a theoretical business plan for the Carolina Beat Academy, a school for producers and DJs, while co-teaching a class on arts entrepreneurship. He wanted to make it real, so he obtained a grant to teach "beat-based" music at UNC. He realized Levitin had compatible ideas about bringing the popular music business into the jazz and classical-based UNC music department, and he hired him to co-teach the class.

With Katz and Levitin at the helm, students in the Beat Making Lab learned the Reason software, beat-making history and contemporary entrepreneurship, with guest lecturers such as famed hip-hop producer Ski Beatz. Katz and Levitin taught their pupils how to make a "hit song" and an "experimental song" and lectured about the difficult process of placing beats with major artists.

There were no musical prerequisites to enter the class, and while hip-hop and EDM producers were most plentiful, jazz heads and prog-rockers could also be found. Levitin, an accomplished drummer, comes from a jazz background; he encourages his students to "learn everything, any genre where you can program a kick and a snare."

When Katz became chairman of the music department and started to develop a new DJing class, which debuts at UNC this spring, he no longer had time for the Beat Making Lab, which he had never intended to teach for more than a couple of semesters. According to university policy, Levitin, who has a bachelor of arts degree, couldn't be the teacher of record without a master's or doctorate. Katz knew Pierce Freelon, who already taught at UNC, and asked him to step in. "We talked about possibilities," Freelon remembers. "With Apple Juice, everything happens very quickly." The pair had crossed paths before, notably when Freelon had once cold-called Levitin and asked him for constructive criticism on a Beast album, which Levitin happily gave.

Freelon was excited by the idea of campus-community partnerships, but he didn't see it happening yet. Sure, the Lab brought students from other departments into the music department, but it didn't involve the community except for Levitin. "Two things I did first off," Freelon says. "One, I added a live local music report to the syllabus: Go to the Cradle or Pinhook or wherever and write about what you saw. A lot of them couldn't name a single local musician when we started, but by the end of the semester, everybody was totally into the local scene."

The second was a final project in which the students sampled and remixed N.C. bands, resulting in the compilation album Tar Heel Tracks. "You can't talk about entrepreneurship without talking about what's happening around you," Freelon explains. "It's not just going to New York and knocking on Bad Boy's door." The immediacy of local opportunities was made evident when a star pupil named Ryan Levin, who goes by Sup Doodle, found his I Was Totally Destroying It remix embraced by the band. Now, having graduated, he is creating a full album of remixes for IWTDI as well as working as an assistant in the Beat Making Lab at UNC.

Freelon and Levitin began to discuss doing a community Lab, probably in Durham or Chapel Hill. That logical next step expanded into a giant leap when Yole!Africa, co-directed by Chérie Rivers Ndaliko and Petna Ndaliko Katondolo, came into the picture. By phone, Ndaliko explained that Yole!Africa was founded as a refuge from prolonged violent conflicts over eastern DRC's vast mineral resources. Those fights have caused many educational and cultural institutions to shut down.

When Ndaliko joined the UNC music department, she was interested in bringing a musical component to SKIFF, the student film festival that is the center's biggest annual event. Yole!Africa was especially interested in collaborating with international artists. In addition to providing education and alternatives to violence, the group strives to highlight the cultural vibrancy of DRC, which can get overlooked in the Western media's focus on the bloodshed. Like SKIFF, the Beat Making Lab was a way for people to tell their own stories. The involvement of American creators might help ensure the world listened.

Katz connected Yole!Africa with Levitin and Freelon, who saw a golden opportunity to practice the idea of "artivism" that they had been developing during all the time they were spending together. They successfully pitched their idea to replicate the UNC Beat Making Lab in Goma, with Yole!Africa to provide facilities and lodging. They only had to figure out how to buy the gear and get there. An Indiegogo campaign raised more than $5,000. Freelon and Levitin put their students to work, and the entrepreneurial goal of the semester was to "make Congo happen." They threw a huge concert featuring the Ghanaian-American hip-hop artist Blitz the Ambassador, who was in town to perform at Shakori Hills, and solicited donations for downloads of the Tar Heel Tracks compilation.

"Beat Making Lab," Freelon reckons, "is a perfect example of an 'artivism' project. You have an artist and a social-impact institution. The artist has creative ideas and wants different venues and demographics to reach out to. But it's also an internal thing, a desire to be engaged in society." To Freelon, the success of the DRC expedition proved that "this art-activism model we dreamed up had some legs. The juxtaposition breeds innovation in a way I didn't anticipate."

The idea of artivism led Freelon and Levitin to co-found a new company, ARTVSM. Its second big project stems directly from the Beat Making Lab and scales up the ideas at its core. Wondering why Whole Foods' CD section seemed less socially targeted than most of its products, Levitin approached the company about stocking it with forthcoming ARTVSM recordings, created either by him and Freelon or, eventually, by other artists working with activist institutions. ARTVSM has approval to start distributing CDs in North Carolina Whole Foods stores, beginning with the first Beat Making Lab CD.

The first satellite Beat Making Lab has already produced two finished tracks, one of them with popular Congolese guitarist Flamme Kapaya, and Levitin and Freelon have committed to travel to four countries in the first four months of 2013 to replicate the model used in DRC. Brazil, South Africa, Panama and India are all on the table. And this time, they're going to share the process: Matthew Graham, director of Content Development at PBS, confirms that the network plans to film the future Labs and distribute the content via PBS's website and YouTube channel, with broadcast television being "a longer range goal." Finally, ARTVSM is partnering with OpenSource.com to create a piece of free, open-source beat-making software. That should make it easier to find "the triple bottom line of profit, people and planet," as Freelon puts it.

All these endeavors are united around the idea that art and business—not always the easiest of bedfellows—can work together to create empowering models that others can use when the crucial third element of activism comes into the picture. "Ninety percent of my life now is Beat Making Lab," Levitin says happily, "and it's an exciting space to put the majority of my energy into, encompassing my musical and social activism interests. I put out an intention a couple years ago that I was sick of making music for whatever's sake. Beat Making Lab and ARTVSM is the space where that's really taking off."

This article appeared in print with the headline "World beat."

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