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Citizen DJ and Collaborative Programming at American Folklife Center, Part 1

This guest post is the first in a series about collaborative programming the American Folklife Center has recently supported involving the Library’s Citizen DJ platform. The post comes to us from Solidarity Studios, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago, IL but working worldwide to connect youth with music making skills, empowering narratives, and each other. Authored primarily by Ibrahim Maali, with input from Cesar Almeida and several members of the team, the Solidarity Studios reflection starts after a short intro from AFC.

Toward the end of April 2020, the Library’s LC Labs team launched a beta version of a platform designed by one of the Library’s Innovators in Residence at the time, Brian Foo. The platform, Citizen DJ, offers users simultaneous opportunities to create beats using rights-free samples while exploring Library of Congress audio collections. It’s a production tool but also a portal to dynamic archival recordings—all available for free on the Library’s website. For background on the design orientation and goals that Brian brought to the project, check out this post on another Library of Congress blog, The Signal.

Brian involved The American Folklife Center early in the development of Citizen DJ, visiting us as he worked to find audio collections across the Library. Ultimately, he incorporated two AFC collections into the platform: The Dyann Arthur and Rick Arthur collection of MusicBox Project materials (AFC2010/029), and American English Dialect Recordings: The Center for Applied Linguistics Collection (AFC1986/022) . The beta launch in April 2020 generated a lot of interest for the tool, and several great opportunities presented themselves to the Center. Alongside LC Labs, we were able to collaborate with three nonprofit organizations working at the intersection of youth empowerment, hip hop history, and music creation. Headquartered in three different cities (Miami, Detroit, and Chicago), these organizations had reached out to Brian independently after learning about Citizen DJ. He and the LC Labs team then approached AFC to brainstorm ideas for public programs. Since each organization was planning to use Citizen DJ in their summer educational efforts—all of which needed to be online given the COVID-19 pandemic—we decided to work with them in order to support virtual events that aligned with their missions while also giving AFC and LC Labs an opportunity to talk about the connection between Citizen DJ and the Library’s amazing collections. One of these organizations is Solidarity Studios, based in Chicago but working worldwide (as you’ll read). What follows is a post from staff at that organization reflecting on the role that Citizen DJ (and, by extension the Library) played in their summer programming—ultimately leading up to the panel discussion and DJ set by Kid Koala found in the video above or at this link. Posts from the other organizations will follow as part of this series.  Let’s hear what the Solidarity Studios team has to say…


2020 began for us as a year full of promise and musical creation. By the end of January, we had just completed the final recording sessions for our producer-led album in Chicago and our team was on the ground in Ghana working with the University of Ghana to digitize Kpanlogo music.

But of course, the COVID-19 pandemic would arrive and change everything.

The mission of Solidarity Studios has always been to bring young people together for communal sessions of musical and self-discovery. Our in-person sessions were crafted to help young people learn more about each other and collaborate artistically across neighborhoods of the same city, or across borders. Community building was the goal of our workshops, and usually we got to make some pretty cool music along the way

Typically Solidarity Studios achieves this by working directly with grassroots community organizations in Chicago, Palestine, South Africa, and Ghana to design workshops and engage with youth in that neighborhood. Suddenly we and our partners were struggling with how to engage young people, especially artistically, while we were isolated and socially distant.

We missed seeing each other’s smiles, greeting each other with warmth and affection, breaking bread together, and sitting around the same instruments or record player. Then out of the blue, a colleague of mine sent me a link to the Citizen DJ tool after reading about it on a music tech blog.

It was a revelation.

I immediately dug into the tool and tracked down Brian Foo, the Library of Congress Innovator in Residence, to learn more. Graciously, he agreed to a call so I could learn more about how Citizen DJ might be leveraged to make beats within the vast universe of the Library of Congress archives. The archives were so diverse and rich, and the tool was so universally accessible, I knew this could be a method for us to create–together–with the same collaboration and cultural exploration Solidarity Studios had always enjoyed.

Prior to 2020, we had always sought ways for our artists and the young people we worked with to broaden their experiences with travel. If we could not travel physically, I wanted to help our network of creators, aspiring and experienced, travel through music. Thus our program, The Beat Passport, was born.

Our team worked quickly to set up an easy to follow, and easily replicated, curriculum that we could use to teach the fundamentals of different musical genres from around the world. Our lead teaching artist, Cesar Almeida, drew on his experiences as a musician, curriculum designer, and aspiring graphic artist to make easy to follow curriculum worksheets (our “passport pages”).

In short time, we used the Citizen DJ tool, and worksheets (like the ones below) to introduce styles from all over the map. These ranged from Chicago House Music and Detroit Techno to Ghanian Afrobeats and Atlanta Trap Music.

Group of two images depicting templates for creating beats affiliated with the musical genres House and Trap.

Two examples of Beat Passport worksheets, demonstrating where to place drum kit sounds in the Citizen DJ tool in order to create elemental beats for different musical styles. Courtesy of Solidarity Studios.

Initially we were apprehensive about the virtual setting for workshops, without the ability to work with individual students directly and in person. But, we were amazed at the results. In the past sometimes students have been unable to join because of the distance or commute times, or we have been limited with the number of students we could work with because of the needs for physical equipment. While the virtual environment presented challenges, it also brought opportunities. Citizen DJ gave us a common and accessible platform for sequencing the rhythms while digging into the sounds form the Library’s collections in order to layer melodic samples on top.

Young people from across Chicago, across the country, and even overseas, were able to join us in our virtual sessions! The diversity of perspectives and experiences was incredible, and attendees included young people who sought a new artistic skill (and a distraction from distance learning), to public school educators that wanted to use beat making to connect with their students. We also got the opportunity to meet and collaborate with new teaching artists, including many introduced by the Library, since we were no longer tied to a physical location. Not only that, but the Library staff who visited a session also educated us on the richness of the different archival collections and how we might begin to explore the sounds there–a hip hop sampling dream come true!

We are so thankful for the support of fellow Citizen DJs, the guidance from the Library of Congress staff, and the flexibility and positivity of the teaching artists we work with. The conversations were so rich, and the music made was so lush, that our team cannot wait for the next Beat Passport chapter, and to carry Citizen DJ into more aspects of our work!

The Green Book and African American Travel with Candacy Taylor on the Folklife Today Podcast

Season 3, Episode 4 of the Folklife Today Podcast is ready for listening! In this episode, John Fenn and I interview Candacy Taylor, whose latest project is documenting sites associated with the Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide for African Americans during the Jim Crow era. Taylor discusses the dangers inherent in travel for Black people during an era where racial discrimination was legal and open racism was common. She fills us in on the origins of the Green Book. We discuss sites such as Dooky Chase’s restaurant in New Orleans, where owner Leah Chase slapped the hand of President Barack Obama for adding hot sauce to her famous gumbo, and where she fed a young Michael Jackson her signature sweet potato pie. We also discuss the historic Hampton House, a Jewish-owned hotel in Miami, where a young boxer named Cassius Clay met Malcolm X and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and where Martin Luther King, Jr. practiced his most famous speech.

Freedom Summer 1964 – SNCC remembers

At the conclusion of his 2014 keynote address on guarantees enshrined in the Constitution but historically denied to African Americans, Bob Moses – freedom rights activist, educator, and MacArthur Genius award winner – summarized the state of the nation thus: “And we are a country that lurches. We lurch forward and backward, forward and backward. […]

What Was the Green Man?

This is our second post about the Green Man, a figure from traditional folk culture. It traces the meaning of the phrase “Green Man” from the 16th to the 20th centuries, providing a wealth of historical references to “green men,” which were wild men covered in leaves, often armed with clubs. The post is richly illustrated with appearances of the Green Man in paintings, sculptures, engravings, and other artworks.

New Collection Online: the Italian Americans in the West Project

Italians in the United States are commonly associated with communities in cities in the east. But during the course of research on ranching culture in Nevada between 1978 and 1982, American Folklife Center researchers met Italian American ranchers and found architectural evidence of Italian settlement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Italians, like […]

Katherine Dunham’s Ethnographic Research in the Caribbean

Katherine Dunham is perhaps most famous for her influence on modern American dance with the introduction of African and Caribbean dance movement. That work began with ethnographic work in the Caribbean in 1936. Films made during her research have been put online by the Music Division of the Library of Congress in Selections from the […]

Jennifer Lopez, Plus Pete Seeger, Bernie Sanders, Sea Shanties, and More at No Depression

Over at No Depression, read my musings about the 2021 inauguration, including Jennifer Lopez’s rendition of “This Land is Your Land” and the song’s journey from its author Woody Guthrie to its performances at the Obama and Biden inaugurations. You’ll read about the song’s appearance at the 2009 inauguration, where it was led by Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger. We’ll also revisit a classic rendition of “This Land” by Senator Bernie Sanders. Embedded throughout the piece you’ll find some video treasures from the AFC archive: three versions of “This Land is Your Land” sung entirely or partially in Spanish. We’ll also take a side trip into the January 2021 sea shanty craze on social media, and hear Springsteen’s version of the classic shanty “Pay Me My Money Down,” as well as the Alan Lomax field recording of the Georgia Sea Island Singers.

African American Art Dolls and Puppets for Identity and Healing

On February 18, 2020, the Library of Congress hosted an unusual event, a celebration of African American dolls and puppets sponsored by the American Folklife Center’s Benjamin Botkin Lecture Series. Folklorist Camila Bryce-Laporte and fellow artist, Dr. Deborah Grayson,  presented several artists from Maryland and the District of Columbia. The event also included a wonderful […]