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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!

2 Comments

  1. Mike Rivers
    February 27, 2021 at 9:57 am

    Great Googly-Moogly!!!!!

    As an old time guitar and banjo player and recording engineer who only records live-performed music, while I’m certainly aware of genres of music that are based on assembling sound clips from various sources, I’ve never thought to create music that way. It’s always been someone else’s music, and something that I’ve never clearly understood the tools and sources, and the patience as well as musical knowledge or sense required to build a finished project.

    The whole Citizen DJ project is just so cool, both in making sound sources available and searchable in a convenient way, and assembling and manipulating them in creative ways. I don’t think I’m going to be the next Grandmaster Flash, but from the ten minute explanation I think I finally “got it.”

    Thanks so much, John, for your article leading me down the rabbit hole. I’m going to pass it on to friends and associates who might enjoy experimenting with sounds from the Library’s collection. I’m looking forward to hearing a mashup of church choirs, amusement park crowds, and an old time fiddle tune.

    • John Fenn
      February 27, 2021 at 11:47 am

      Mike- Glad you enjoyed the piece, but even more excited that AFC has turned you on to other musical traditions and ways of creating! We are always excited to hear how people engage with our collections and resources, so please do share when you produce some beats. As always, thanks for reading.

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