UpBeat Academy teaches teens to make beats


Photo by Milena Martinovic

Amahl Abdul mentors the beat sequence of student Louis Hubbard.

Milena Martinovic, Reporter

Matt Zarba is trying to organize “meet and greets” between his students and the electronic and hip hop performers at the upcoming BUKU music and arts festival.

“Wanna meet Kevin Gates?”

“Nuh, I already met him,” replies Louis Hubbard, age 17.

Upbeat Academy is a unique nonprofit organization providing local underprivileged teens with resources, mentoring and classes in producing and creating electronic and hip hop music. It started in 2013 as a memorial fund for two deceased members of the local electronic music community and grew to become a large organization offering classes at a variety of outreach programs, community centers, a youth homeless shelter and even Orleans Parish Prison for its incarcerated juveniles.

In New Orleans, playing music is a way of life. Because of this, there is an array of rich resources for young people, like after-school programs and marching bands. However, more modern genres of music, including those made on the computer, are neglected and underdeveloped. The majority of the kids in the program were originally rappers or singers who didn’t have their own beats and instrumental tracks to rap and sing over. So instead of just downloading someone else’s instrumentals from YouTube, they came to Upbeat Academy to learn how to do it themselves. They started “making beats out of necessity,” says Zarba.

Amahl Abdul, a prominent local beat-making musician known as “AF The Naysayer” is one of the main instructors. He likes to give students a challenge beyond just making music. “I like to see what they can do: mixing, mastering, arranging. I really want them to have their own voice,” he said.

Upbeat Academy’s new location at the Jazz and Heritage Center certainly “adds an arts conservatory feel to it,” says Zarba, the organization’s director. The kids who come to the classes are exposed to other music classes like audio engineering, which is provided by the Heritage School of Music. “There is definitely a crossover,” Zarba says.

Zarba taught high school English before becoming the director, which helped him bring experience to his youth mentoring. His role at Upbeat Academy is both more involved and more rewarding than teaching, because it allows him a closer relationship and an opportunity to be a positive influence on students who need mentorship the most.

“Would you rather hang out with a teacher who makes hip-hop beats or with the one who expects you to have a five-page paper written?” Zarba asks.

There is something very fulfilling, expressive and fun in this classroom, even if at first glance it seems like students just sit in front of the computer for hours wearing large headphones, doing mundane tweaks and tasks. When Hubbard was asked whether he gets tired of the tedious process and its long hours, he responded,  “I just like it. It don’t feel like work.”

Hubbard is about to complete his GED. Abdul says he has had “an interesting life,” implying that it was rough. His passion is evidenced by the hours he spent calmly in front of the computer and his dedication to the program. His mom and Zarba made a deal that he’d be able to go to Upbeat Academy if he earned his GED. His mom gives him a ride to and from the academy, but it is not unusual for Zarba to give students rides.

I ask what happened to Troy Shelton, a UNO film sophomore who stayed for about an hour. “I couldn’t bring him home tonight,” says Zarba, “so he had to leave early.” Some kids take two buses to get here. Zarba is aware of this fact and tries to help whenever he can. “I like seeing how much they want it,” he adds.

This is the fourth year that the Upbeat Academy is doing a 45-minute showcase at BUKU. Ten songs will be presented by 10 students, and each had to audition for the privilege.  For many students, this is their first time playing in front of an audience. “[They might] catch a performance bug,” says Zarba.

See the students of Upbeat Academy at its showcase this Saturday, March 23 at 4:45 p.m. at the Switchyard Stage at the BUKU festival.