Access to clean water, education, peace and stability. If you talk to most Westerners about how to solve global health issues, these might be solutions that come to mind. Teaching young people to beat box or produce music, however, probably doesn't come high on the list. 

But maybe it should. 

When musicians Pierce Freelon and Stephen Levitin (aka Apple Juice Kid) started collaborating in 2012 on Beat Making Labs, a course on entrepreneurship and music at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, they immediately started developing it for use in a community outreach setting. The concept — centered around a simple, portable recording studio which fits in a backpack — was uniquely positioned to work not just in the U.S., but around the world too.

Partnering with global health nonprofit IntraHealth — which provided logistical, financial and networking support — Beat Making Labs have since been held in Democratic Republic of Congo, Panama, Senegal, Fiji and Ethiopia, and short documentaries based on these labs have been screening on PBS. 

Laura Hoemeke, director of communications and advocacy at IntraHealth, explains why the concept has the power to change lives: 

Young people — in the U.S. and the around the world — don’t respond to being preached at when it comes to planning their lives and making decisions. They do respond to music, beats, and fellowship in making music. The Beat Making Lab experience creates an environment in which young people are empowered — and powerful.
For Freelon, the real heart of this power lies in music — and perhaps specifically in hip-hop culture — as a means to bridge cultural, economic and linguistic divides. Through music and beat boxing, says Freelon, he's found himself able to communicate with students, even if they don't share a common language:
The ultimate cliche "music is the universal language" comes to mind. In our latest episode, "Unify" [shown below] we take that truth to an extreme and begin communicating with students by beat boxing in an improvised language. We're clearly able to connect with our students through an aspect of hip-hop culture even though we don't speak the same language. I think on a macro-scale, the same is true for hip-hop. Kids are emceeing all over the world. They are DJing, breakdancing and making graffiti all over the world. These are elements that started in the Bronx but have resonated with youth in every corner of the globe.  

Even though the notion of teaching public health through hip-hop may in itself seem revolutionary, the real power of concepts like Beat Making Labs lies in the paradigm shift they represent. Rather than preaching a top-down approach to education, they instead seek to empower, to listen to, and to start a conversation with the people whose lives they are trying to improve. 

When working with young people, for example, talking about "family planning" may be the right answer, but to the wrong question. Many young people aren't yet ready to start planning a family — they're just planning for their future. Here's how Hoemeke expressed this shift in perspective in a recent post about Beat Making Labs:

The young Ethiopians I met back in June during the Beat Making Lab workshop were more excited about music and art than “contraception.” Several of them, in addition to Gelila, were university students and held jobs. All of them were thinking about their future selves, and how they could best contribute to the future of their communities and countries. Maybe you can’t connect with young people by “talking shop” about implants and delaying pregnancy. Maybe we need to refocus our communications on what matters to them.
For Freelon, this is where the power of a program like Beat Making Labs really comes into its own. Shifting beyond the usual trappings of lectures, workshops and seminars, music allows participants to free themselves up, imagine new possibilities, and then share those possibilities with a wider group:
Public health issues can be complex, so we approach them by discussing, engaging, brainstorming and creating with community members. The artistic lens allows people to speak in a voice that they might not bring to a panel discussion or in response to a survey. Art is about improvisation, critical thinking, and most important — expression. We have found that nurturing these things leads to fruitful discussion and engagement around solutions. 
At the time of writing, Freelon, Levitin and Hoemeke were all heading back to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia for an International Conference on Family Planning. Among the keynote presentations and panel discussions was a special entry in the program. Gelila, along with her fellow graduates of the Beat Making Labs, will be performing as part of a special panel on beat making and family planning.  

Here's their story: 

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