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Citizen DJ and Collaborative Programming at American Folklife Center, Part 2

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This guest post is the second in a series about collaborative programming the American Folklife Center supported last year that involved the Library’s Citizen DJ platform. The post comes to us from the staff at Class Act Detroit, a nonprofit organization based in Detroit, MI focused on providing equitable out-of-school programming that serves the metro area’s young scholars. The Class Act reflection starts after a short intro from AFC.

A previous post in this series offered context for collaborative programming that the Center did with the Library’s LC Labs team drawing on the Citizen DJ platform created by the Library’s 2019-2020 Innovator in Residence, Brian Foo.  Citizen DJ is 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.

The April 2020 beta launch of Citizen DJ generated a lot of interest and led to rich opportunities for the Center. Alongside LC Labs, we collaborated with three nonprofit organizations working at the intersection of youth empowerment, hip hop history, and music creation—all of which had reached out to Brian about Citizen DJ. Since each organization intended to use Citizen DJ in their summer educational efforts—moved 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 collections. One of these organizations is Class Act Detroit. 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 at the end of this post or at this link.  We now turn the mic over to Class Act Detroit…

Class Act Detroit is about amplifying youth voices with project and game-based learning facilitated through high-quality out-of-school programming for young scholars in metro-Detroit. Or, as we like to say, we are on a mission to ensure that Michigan youth are exposed to music education and artistic opportunities for finding their voices and participating in the creative economy without changing their stripes.

Many of our students have shared that they gravitate to our program because they feel safe, can be themselves, and have fun! Typically, these outcomes are spurred by culturally relevant in-person opportunities we run throughout the city. However, due to challenges presented by COVID our in-person jam sessions became a thing of the past. As a result, 2020 challenged us to become more creative and ensure that students and their families were supported remotely.

Although the pandemic challenged us, not once did we consider hitting pause on our goals, which include dismantling discrimination and inequalities in education and well- being, and increasing economic opportunity using hip-hop music and culture. Echoing the prominent emcee and educator, KRS-ONE, we believe that hip-hop is a revolutionary tool for changing  social structure. For this reason, we create youth-driven spaces that promote cultural heritage, community, and self-actualization.

Despite challenges 2020 brought, one of our first online initiatives was Books + Beats, a program designed to combat summer slide, boost reading fluency, and spur positive social interactions among K-12 scholars. Each scholar received a hand-delivered pack of manga, graphic novels, and comic books courtesy of local bookstores, as well as instruments and self-paced music production tutorials to keep them busy and connected at home. Shortly after the launch of Books + Beats our CEO and co- founder at Class Act Detroit, Rashard Dobbins, came across an early announcement about Citizen DJ while searching for resources to assist music students in virtual spaces. He recalls:

I immediately saw Citizen DJ as a tool to inspire, reach, and teach scholars while providing access to the sacred art of digging and sampling, which due to copyright infringement has seemed to slowly but surely disappear. Citizen DJ had a lot of synergy with what we do as a hip-hop-based community organization.

After creating a track in under 30 minutes, Rashard reached out to Citizen DJ developer Brian Foo and offered to spread awareness and explore collaborations. However, before we could share the resource with our scholars, some of them had already begun using it! Rightfully so, as Citizen DJ’s royalty-free collections allow previously hidden source material to come to life while allowing scholars to create original compositions and publish their work, which is enormous. At Class Act, we found Citizen DJ to have a align directly with what we do as a hip-hop-based community organization bringing both tools and skills into the mix. The environment that spurred hip hop back in the day featured public school systems offering traditional instruments and music courses, from which young creators drew both inspiration and skill. Between the late 1970s and today, such resources have disappeared from public schools, and a technological divide has emerged such that youth have diminishing access to that combo of training, tools, and source material that characterized previous generations. However, organizations like Class Act Detroit and resources like Citizen DJ provide opportunities to ensure that diverse scholars can amplify their voices, dig for sounds, and self-actualize early and virtually.

Nothing could have prepared us for the pandemic. However, amid the crisis and with help from Citizen DJ, we at Class Act found the silver lining, and this has changed everything. Within months of the summer programming we produced using Citizen DJ, our scholars were invited to share original beats produced on the platform at the 2020 National Book Festival. These young creators also provided original artwork to accompany their beats (see examples in the gallery at the top of this post), and a few even joined Brian Foo for a discussion about creating original music. Jump to minute 46 in the video below to catch their segment!

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