The North Carolina Hip-hop/jazz infused band The Beast may look like a typical band if you caught them playing on the rooftop of the Durham Hotel last Sunday. They have the drums, the bass, the keyboard and the charismatic lead singer. But what you can’t see when you watch them jamming in the midst of an adoring crowd is their dedication to education.
The group, headed by frontman Pierce Freelon, started in 2007 as a typical band. But it gradually morphed into a group that takes its act into schools, providing musical accompaniment to an educational workshop that takes kids through music history.
Freelon was already doing workshops on the history of African-American music through his Blackademics Hip Hop curriculum when The Beast came together. He kept doing the workshops on the side for a couple of years after the band started, but one day he was asked to give a talk. He decided to bring the band along. They played the background music to what he described as a Ted-style talk, and after that education became a focus for the group as a whole.
“It really amplified the heft I think of the curriculum from a musical standpoint to be able to work with musicians who are so well versed in these genres,” he said. “I can just show you in real time what it is instead of listening to a prerecorded thing.”
“Our educational workshops have actually become a big part of the band’s mission,” said The Beast’s drummer Stephen Coffman.
The flagship workshop the band presents is called “SANKOFA: African American Music from Spirituals to Hip Hop.” Coffman said the band loves going into schools, elementary though college level, and presenting a mix of historical information, original songs and covers to give the kids a musical education.
“We try to hook them from the beginning so it’s like ‘This is cool. I can relate to this music,’” he said.
The students really get into it, especially when the band starts talking about the breakdancing roots of hip-hop music. At that point, the band brings up teachers and try to get them breakdancing for the audience.
“We do that routine at every school and it’s always hilarious watching the teachers, and it’s just great watching the kids’ reactions,” he said.
Coffman said at first, the rest of the band followed Freelon’s lead when it came to the workshops. But at this point, after hundreds of shows, the rest of the band have become full collaborators.
“We’ve been able to put our stamp on the workshop more as a group,” he said.
Below, you can check out a video of one of The Beast’s workshops. Find more about their educational component and thoughts from teachers here.