Matt Zarba is the Director of Operations at Upbeat Academy. The Upbeat Academy Foundation is a Louisiana 501(c)3 non-profit organization formed in 2013 providing underprivileged, at-risk children with an opportunity to learn how to produce and perform the type of music they listen to and dream of creating with a focus on electronic dance music and hip-hop. Local DJs, producers and rappers/lyricists hold daily classes in the Upbeat studio where students have access to equipment like laptops, mixers, turntables, controllers, microphones, headphones, various instruments, and the latest music production software. Using its founders’ experience, Upbeat also seeks to introduce its students to the business side of the music industry, offering real-life experience, case studies, and opportunities for the kids to meet their favorite musicians.
Upbeat seeks to broaden the outreach started by similar non-profits focused on more “traditional” instruments by presenting kids with another option – an option that they might perceive as “cooler” than a violin or tuba, and still an option better than the streets. In just a short time since its inception, Upbeat has already sparked hope and excitement in its students while motivating them to be responsible, organized students and upstanding members of their often troubled communities.
How Music has Impacted Matt's Life
Where is home, and what type of music reminds you of home?
I was born and raised in New Orleans. Brass bands because you hear it in the streets or in the airport when you return home from a trip. Definitely the horns, hearing them practice or going through the neighborhoods reminds me of the city.
Who are your personal musical influences?
I’m an MC, a rapper, so this is an interesting question because my influences aren’t always rappers. Jack Kerouac as a rhythmic, lyrical poet of sorts. Miles Davis certainly. Muhammad Ali, I try to equate the footwork and bobbing and weaving to being an MC and meandering between the spaces that the beat leaves for the rapper. Neil Young and B.B. King too. My favorite vocalist is Jeff Buckley. He has a fantastic voice. Also, because I’m an MC I’ll name some of those influences as well…Black Thought, Nas, and Barrington Levy.
Why do you think music is so important to the people and culture of New Orleans?
I think for me it is similar to the reason we gather for food and potluck or drinking beer and wine with friends. I’ve been blessed to grow up with, meet, and become close friends with musical collaborators. Music is very much like food and drinking here. There is an openness here with musicians, and we are willing to share the stage with each other instead of being competitive like in other cities. The comradery, the family, and the shared experiences apply to music and our culture, and I think they go hand in hand.
Tell us about Upbeat Academy and your work there?
Upbeat Academy Foundation is a 501c3 nonprofit after school program teaching young kids and high school aged children how to produce and perform hip hop and electronic dance music. We use industry standard software and equipment to teach basic music theory, beginner piano composition, lyric writing, and song structure at no cost to the students. We hold classes daily in conjunction with the Orleans Parish school schedule. We are a year round organization and hold holiday and summer workshops as well that are more in depth than the after school program. We also do two student run showcases where they perform as well as get hands on with the production side (sound, lighting, load-in, production management, stage management, and ticket and merchandise sales).
I’ve been able to combine two of my greatest passions as a hip hop artist and vocalist with my prior career as an English teacher. Working with young kids has always been a dream of mine so being able to combine mentoring young people in life and in music has been great.
After they graduate from high school I’m often still involved with many of the kids whether it be to take them to a job fair or if they just need someone to talk to that isn’t their parent. These kids go through some tough things like gun violence, so while it’s tough, I enjoy being able to help them as an adult figure but also as a peer.
How are the services provided by upbeat Academy beneficial to the students?
The facility and studio space is theirs. It is an off site program so it is a safe place, but they are not being monitored by a teacher. The hours are from 4-7pm which is a time where they could potentially find themselves getting into trouble otherwise so I think that is important. The attitude we approach the students with makes a difference, it’s their sanctuary and their place.
What inspires you to continue to do the work that you are doing?
We tend to approach music as consumers a lot of the time and just see the track as a whole, a finished polished product, but it’s really neat when you break it down and see the art that takes place in a beat they really like. When they see it just takes time and dedication to make this music, and that it is attainable, is when I get really excited. It can be intimidating, but after teaching them how to create the music, it gives them so much confidence and self-worth that they can do anything they put their minds to. When they see that they can do something they thought they couldn’t do with some hard work and effort, and allowing themselves to fail, it helps them in all areas of life...with school, relationships, etc.
Allen Toussaint once stated music is everything to me short of breathing. “Music has a role to lift you up, not to be escapist but to take you out of misery.” With that being said, how has music gotten you through tough times?
As a listener, music has the ability to take you back in time and relive past memories (for better or for worse). It also allows you to decompress and destress from the day, to let go of everything, and be present.
As a creator, when I’m writing lyrics or freestyling, I’m really not thinking at all. By letting go and letting words just come to the surface without thinking can create a thought provoking lyric. Music helps to quiet my head which is difficult for me to do. It is the most therapeutic way to let go and relax.
In a group setting, there isn’t anything like collaborating with friends and sharing a musical moment that doesn’t involve words but somehow there’s a conversation going on.
If you could pick one karaoke song what would it be?
Time from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.