In Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, fences as far as the eye could see were topped with barbed wire. Glass bottle shards protruded from concrete walls so that no one could scale them. Some buildings were even corralled by electric barriers. They resembled fortresses—all but one. "At Yole!Africa, the walls were completely bare. Students were sitting on them," recalls Pierce Freelon, one of the founders of Beat Making Lab.
Beat Making Lab, a project that began in 2011 as a music production and entrepreneurship class at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, had morphed into an international expedition to teach kids how to make beats and set up makeshift studios for around the world. Yole!Africa, a Congolese Center for Art and Cultural Exchange, was their first stop. "When you came in, there were two concrete slabs where artists are dancing," Freelon adds. "You don't need a dance studio with hardwood floors, with windows and a ballet bar, to put in work and do dance. You can do it in the dirt."
They had come to lend that DIY mentality to an art-form not yet represented at Yole!Africa. With just a backpack full of gear—USB microphone, keyboard, laptop, MIDI controllers, headphones, and software—Freelon and BML cofounder, the producer/DJ Stephen Levitin (who has worked with the likes of Azealia Banks, Camp Lo, Mos Def, and Wale) set up shop in a storage room and launched their first two-week workshop. "In terms of where [art] can happen?" Freelon says, "the answer is anywhere and everywhere."
In 2013, the duo helped produce songs from a prison in Panama. They brought beat-making tools to the beaches of Fiji. They held sessions on the streets of Senegal and Ethiopia. Along the way, they documented their experiences and created videos for the songs their students created. Here's one from Ethiopia:
Before long, the project caught the attention of PBS, which signed on to help produce a web series. Season 2, which launches today, kicks off in Nairobi with the video at the top of this post. The beatmakers have taken a more political turn this time around. In Kenya, they partner with /The Rules (a "global movement to bring power back to people, and change the rules that create inequality and poverty around the world"), interweaving recording sessions with spoken word workshops led by Jamaican poet Staceyann Chin, and digital power-mapping workshops led by Ann Daramola (a.k.a. Afrolicious). The goal: to encourage participants to deploy art in the cause of activism.
“It was the ill-est thing ever," Freelon says. "Those same students who have been thinking about tax havens and queerness and patriarchy are now coming into our Beat Making Lab and making beats."
Freelon and Levitin hope to keep expanding into new territory. Up next on their wish list are Palestine, Israel, India, and China. "We left Kenya saying we need not ever go back to what we were doing in 2013," Freelon says. "From this time forward we are going to have a deeper, more intentional process."
Subscribe to BML's YouTube channel to see the story unfold.