When a project explodes into national prominence and obtains million-dollar grants, maintaining perspective can prove difficult—even if that project fits inside a backpack.
When Pierce Freelon, the emcee of Durham jazz-rap group The Beast, and producer Stephen Levitin, better know as the Apple Juice Kid, traveled to Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo in July 2012, they didn't know what to expect. They didn't have time to worry about the M23 rebel forces closing in on the city or to fear Nyiragongo, the still-active volcano looming over the landscape, either. The anchors of UNC-Chapel Hill's Beat Making Lab, they'd arrived at Goma's Yole!Africa cultural center to teach hip-hop and make beats. Distractions, context and expectations could wait.
"A year or two ago, we were so up in it that it was impossible to have a bird's-eye view," says Freelon. "It was just so in the moment, very intense. So much goes into creating these projects."
The tizzy hasn't stopped in the last two years: The name "Beat Making Lab" now applies to a UNC class, an international residency workshop program, a community youth center in Chapel Hill and a backpack-sized recording studio. Since that initial Congo trek, Freelon and Levitin have led workshops and residencies in Senegal, Panama, Fiji and Ethiopia. Mark Katz, the music professor who co-founded the initiative with Levitin, has since been promoted as the director of UNC's Institute for the Arts and Humanities. He also launched the Lab's first related expansion with the help of the U.S. Department of State. Dubbed "Next Level," it uses popular music and dance to foster diplomatic goodwill and model conflict resolution through collaboration.
Despite this intercontinental scope, the Beat Making Lab started out very small, very local—at a Chapel Hill coffee table, in fact. One fall afternoon in 2011, Levitin invited Katz to brainstorm about new connections between hip-hop and education.
"We drank tea and talked about ways we could collaborate," Katz recalls. "With him as a producer and DJ, and me as an academic interested in hip-hop and in pushing the boundaries of music education, we had both been thinking about instituting some kind of course that would teach the art of music-making, not just the history and culture."
Mutually inspired, they quickly shaped a curriculum while piecing together funding from UNC alumni donations and gifts. Katz hired Levitin, and the class's combination of history and practice proved to be a potent pedagogical approach. Where else could you engage in critical thinking about the cultural origins and development of the music itself while making beats with someone who has worked with Mos Def, Azealia Banks and MC Lyte?
The crucial next step came when Katz couldn't fit a spring class into his schedule. He asked Freelon to fill in, and the new duo connected with Chérie Rivers Ndaliko, one of Katz's new colleagues in the music department and a co-director of Yole!Africa in the Congo. She recognized the potential for this mix of theory and praxis for her summer festival there. She asked Katz if the Beat Making Lab might hit the road.
"Pierce grabbed my arm and said, 'I love you, man!'" Katz remembers of the moment that a lone music class morphed into an international, cross-cultural outreach program. "Both he and Stephen were immediately excited about taking what we had developed in the classroom to another country."
They crowdsourced the funding for that first journey, raising more than $5,000 through Indiegogo. Then PBS came calling. The network asked Levitin and Freelon to take a videographer along to shoot the whole experience. Katz found the money in his departmental budget.
"PBS was the engine that gave us the budget and space to launch this," Freelon says, "to be the truly international, intercontinental thing that it became."
In the opening sequence of the resulting series of short online features, a stop-motion backpack unzips as a portable studio—keyboard, microphone, laptop, headphones, notebook and pencil—spills onto a table. The footage drove home the substance of the program. The videos even afforded Freelon perspective within the whirlwind of the work.
"It's special to look back in awe when we have this rolling web series that covers every little nook and cranny of what we were doing," he says. "I'll think, 'Oh man, I really miss thiéboudienne [fish and rice] from Senegal.' And I can go back and watch it in amazing high def. I can listen to the music. It takes me right back to being in the car."
While the Lab's international residencies continue to expand, the project has also upped its local impact. The Chapel Hill Community Beat Making Lab opened in a former police department storage room in the basement of Franklin Street's post office last year. Look for turntables through a low window as you walk up Henderson Street toward campus. With a tutoring service, the community center is open every school-day afternoon and offers expansive programming during the summer, too.
"In August, we did a Black August program, remembering and honoring black freedom fighters and struggles," Freelon says. "During the second week, Michael Brown was slain in Ferguson. We were already reading excerpts from Malcolm X and Amiri Baraka. We held space in the studio for students to talk about these issues and how it related to their daily lives. It was life-changing for all of us."
Freelon has a 4-year-old daughter, Stella Pierce, and a 6-year-old son, Justice, so he limits his travel. Levitin, however, just returned from building musical communities in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Backed by a $1 million State Department grant, the Lab's first offshoot, Next Level, has already deployed Katz to India, Bosnia and Serbia. He plans to visit Bangladesh, Senegal and Zimbabwe soon.
"The story of hip-hop resonates with people around the world, especially in conflict areas," Katz says. "Young people created an art form on their own, and a culture and a business went from nothing to a multibillion-dollar industry. There's something powerful about that story, about young people taking power into their own hands."
It's a testament to the potential of a good idea—even one hatched over a coffee table in the course of one autumn afternoon.
"Musicians from the Bronx and kids from Sarajevo have something in common besides living in a place that's under fire," says Katz. "Hip-hop serves as a model to transcend conflict."