Sade Alvarez-Gibson, 15, raps into a studio microphone in a makeshift booth made of blankets, while Oladele Kiambu, 17, records:
“Keeping my mind focused / I’m controlling my reality / My grind’s an everyday thing / It’s something that I do casually,” she raps.
Just feet away, Kamal Muhammad — wearing headphones and a face full of determination — sits in front of a computer monitor, rhythmically tapping on a keyboard, eliciting sounds of a synth and a drum kick.
“This is my first time making a beat,” the 12-year-old said proudly.
All three are hoping to break into the music business, and the music program Beats Not Bullets is a step in that direction.
Held at the Creative Alliance, the six-week summer internship program hosts around 10 students from the city and Baltimore County, teaching them the fundamentals of beat-making, music production and the ins and outs of the music business.
Damond Blue, the East Baltimore singer-songwriter and rapper who founded the program last year, said Beats Not Bullets gives children the chance to embark on a successful music career and to have a voice in their city.
Rapping since the age of 13, Blue, now 27, was inspired to launch the program after he lost a friend to gun violence nearly a decade ago, he said. His hope was to “keep kids out of trouble” and create a refuge for young creatives.
“I just wanted to create something that will create a resource that’s missing in our community today. … Everybody don’t get a chance or get a shot of being in the studio,” said Blue, who piloted the program with the help of music producer Kariz Marcel, born Marcel Martin. Beats Not Bullets, which was co-funded through the record company Dream Bigger Media Group — making it free for students — also offers participants lessons on recording engineering, marketing, team building, royalties and beyond.
“We don’t have a lot of professional guidance when it comes to the art of the city. I’ve been here since 1994 or 1995, and artistically, the city is way above average compared to the rest of the country, but this city lacks business, and we didn’t get [guidance] early on in our careers,” said Marcel, 35.
Marcel, the program director and founder of youth organization Kariz Kids Youth Enrichment Services, created the Beats Not Bullets curriculum and oversaw the recruitment of students for the program. Applicants were required to fill out an online application on the Kariz Kids website and post a video on social media explaining why they wanted to be a part of the program.
Each day for four hours, Beats Not Bullets students get lessons in three units: creative development, a “personal code of ethics” and “hard-lining,” which focuses on the business of the industry — from marketing and promotions to merchandising and live show assistance.
“A lot of these programs will teach you how to paint, but not how to sell the painting. We teach you how to sell the painting,” he said.
But, of course, a large portion of the day is dedicated to creating music with the assistance of Marcel and other music professionals, including music producer Brandon “B.J.R.” Randolph, 28, and Brandon Lackey, 35, the founder of hip-hop incubator Bmore BeatClub and creative director of downtown recording studio Lineup Room.
Students divide into production groups of three to four people and create songs and mixes using original beats, samples of instruments and their own voices, while the professional producers help them master new music-editing software, create strong song structures and polish their finished products, Marcel said.
Thus far, the producer said he’s been impressed with their work; many students came with experience.
There’s beat-making brother-duo Oladele, 17, and Ifalade Kiambu, 15, who have been making music beats for at least five years — graduating from playing music games on Wii to using software on their laptops to produce R&B, hip-hop and trap beats that they sell online. There’s Angelina Reynoso, 16, a songwriter who belts original lyrics over dreamy tunes with a style reminiscent of R&B songstress SZA. And then there’s Sade, a musical standout who sings, raps and plays guitar.
“This is my passion. I don’t think I’d be happy doing anything else,” said Sade. “I feel like I’m being used at my best potential in this program. I think everyone is. It’s good.”
Marcel added: “The kind of music they’re creating is incredible. … We’re just kind of helping them with what they already have. We’re meeting them where they’re at.”
Kamal, 12, the youngest student in the group, said he’s been working hard to take all of it in. Working in a group with other people has been the best part, he said.
“I’m still learning, but if I work with them, it’s easier for me to learn,” he said.
Sade, who has been performing since she can remember, said the group dynamic and networking with others in the music industry has helped her step out of her comfort zone.
“I’m learning how to make beats,” she said. “I usually just perform, sing and play the guitar.”
Blue and Marcel said their goal is to expand Beats Not Bullets, offering these same opportunities to other youth in Baltimore, and eventually, to other cities in the country, like Atlanta, a place known for ushering in new musical talent and having a strong impact on the industry. Already, Lackey and Randolph are aligning to create in-studio internships for interested participants.
“It’s just a seed for the city,” Marcel said.
For Blue, it’s the heartbeat.
Music “dictates the temperature of the neighborhood,” he said. “And I want to give the kids something to latch onto and remember.”
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