For six years, Upbeat Academy has been a beneficiary of the BUKU Music + Art Project, with a percentage of proceeds donated to the local nonprofit which offers at-risk students education in music production, performance and more.
At the 2019 festival, Upbeat Academy students performed for the fourth year in a row, putting on a showcase demonstrating the innate talent and developing skills fostered by instructors like Director Matthew Zarba.
Zarba (whom students affectionately refer to as “Mr. Z”), is effusive and modest when telling me about his students. With him are three current pupils, The ADONi, BluShakurX and Ziggmonster. “What Upbeat Academy has become, is what they have made it. I just provide the gym, the ball and the hoop, and they come in and practice and support each other,” he tells me. “Everybody is just bringing it for everybody. And the inclusivity really is something cool. I think they all know that everybody’s got a different style, however, it’s not stepping on toes. It’s coming together to be its own thing and that’s what makes me most happy: seeing how much they’ve made this a family.”
Zarba calls Blu a writer, poet, activist, little monster and “stage tearer-downer.” The MC and performer made her Upbeat showcase debut last year. In addition to making her BUKU introduction, she was brought on stage by enigmatic New Orleans rapper Jay Electronica. Since then, “she’s been grinding and growing,” says Zarba. Blu was, at one point, considering what she calls “a real career” when Mr. Z helped her refocus on her passion for music. “I was so focused on my academic life and pushing my creativity back,” she says. Dropping out of college was a decision she made in an effort to “follow the voice” of her creative subconscious. “That’s when I started taking myself seriously as an artist and really demanding my presence, standing up for women in this industry now and really putting my foot down,” says Blu.
“Mr. Z taught me to drop my balls. Drop my ovaries, whatever. Like he said, last year was my first show, but what t he didn’t tell you about the Jay Electronica show was that he gave his spot to me. And at that moment, he didn’t know, but he just threw me to the sharks and I’m a professional swimmer now because of him.”
If you would’ve looked at the stage during the showcase, I mean four strategies, turntables like he’s djing on a boat. And they are wise and I think with the education background to be able to, instead of being like the authority or the english teacher, to combine music with working with young people. We can have a lot more honest, real conversations and relationships. There’s no fear of who’s this going to get back to or is it safe for me to share this or that. So as a person I’m willing to get some real relationships with the students.
The ADONi (“just call me ADDi,” he says) is “an adopted Upbeat student,” says Zarba. “We met him a few years ago and he was kinda busy doing his own thing but was open to whatever kind of help or advice we could offer, and he’s definitely his own self-starter. He’s got some very great content out there. He’s got the press ready, he’s got the video ready. He wants to play all the songs all the time. Heopened up the showcase that we just did and couldn’t of got it started any better.”
“From the very first time I met Mr. Z, a lot has changed in the past year and a half or so,” ADDi tells me. “It wasn’t really creative growth, but more of a business standpoint. Mr. Z and Upbeat helped me remind myself what I had to do. You can have talent but you also have to have a certain amount of business skill in order to move forward and monetize your arts.” He describes his music as what might happen if BROCKHAMPTON decided to get coached by Kanye West and Pharrell. ” I don’t think I have a certain specific sound, it’s just whatever is my emotion is what comes out,” he says.
When describing Ziggmonster, Zarba says “he’s a really great songwriter with the great energy on stage.” Zigg, a producer, clothing designer and graphic designer, was already semi-established before he came to Upbeat, and definitely committed to doing everything himself. “Coming to Upbeat taught me to sit down, chill out and learn something. I learned stuff I already knew but that I could tweak. I got a new perspective of beat making and I heard these new sounds that I’d never heard before. Just knowing you can do so many things with this music…it’s cool. Upbeat just opened everything up for me. You can Google me. I tell everybody to just Google me.”
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