Partnership benefits low-income Mississippi youth
Garrison resident Leo Horton is harnessing his passion for music to create change far beyond his hometown.
The 17-year-old’s talent emerged about a year before the pandemic shutdown, when he downloaded a digital audio workstation program called FL Studio. He experimented with the music-sequencing software, and during the lockdown learned to transform his simple drum patterns into complex tracks.
Soon after, Horton began to solicit rappers for “placements,” or use of his beats as the foundational instrumentals in their songs. He has since produced multiple tracks for the Harlem-based rapper Shawn “FINNA” Piccardi and the Colombian artist Yeissy El Ingeniero del Flow.
This year, on Spotify, Horton released three of his own singles, infused with a distinct blend of his central influences: Afrobeats, rap and pop. The first song, “BAD,” was written, produced and recorded in his bedroom with “a $100 mic I took from my sister’s karaoke machine,” Horton says.
In March, Horton traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, with his father, Radley, a climate professor at Columbia University, who was working on an environmental justice project. The experience inspired Horton, a senior at The Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, to support youth there from a predominantly Black and low-income neighborhood.
“I thought it would be so great to connect with these kids and form a bridge between our communities,” he said. “And I was like: ‘Music is the perfect way to do this.’ Because I’m a kid I can bond with them, but I can also teach them without it being weird.”
Horton dubbed his program Beats 4 Justice and joined forces with Mississippi Citizens United for Prosperity (MCUP), a community organization, to offer music production classes for middle schoolers. Ramona Williams, MCUP’s executive director, recruited 15 local students plus 15 more from Grenada, a rural town north of Jackson, to participate.
To obtain equipment, Horton contacted adult acquaintances in Garrison and Dobbs Ferry, who contributed old computers and funding. He also reached out to the company that makes FL Studio. “I was like: ‘Hey, I’m doing this thing in Mississippi, could you guys donate 15 licenses with the software?’ ” he said. “And they actually did. Each one was worth about $900.”
At the end of August, Horton and Piccardi traveled to Jackson for four days. They kicked off the program by sharing a short video by the Louisiana-born producer Weezy, who deconstructed the process of creating “Yes, Indeed,” by Drake and Lil Baby. The two teenage instructors distributed computers and began walking through the basics of FL Studio.
“About halfway through that, we realized that they weren’t listening anymore to what we were saying,” said Horton. “They had their headphones on and were making beats on their own, which was great to see. They had figured it out on their own — the good thing about the software is that it’s very intuitive.”
Another popular lesson involved writing lyrics. “We gave everybody pens and pencils, played some tight beats and then everybody got their flows and started writing to them,” said Horton. “Once we actually had lyrics written, we got out the microphone and everybody recorded on top of one of the kids’ beats.”
Horton reflects on that inaugural visit with a sense of success and pride. Although the facilitators and participants hailed from vastly different environments, they swiftly bonded over a shared enthusiasm for music and creative expression, just as he had envisioned.
“I think about this so much, because I’ve had so many experiences in my life where music has brought me together with someone,” he said, recalling a trip to Indonesia when he was 8. There, “we didn’t even speak the same language; we weren’t even the same age. But we formed such a deep bond, just dancing and singing to music.”
Horton and Piccardi will continue to meet regularly with the Jackson students over Zoom throughout the year. “I was trying to stress to them that when we went down there, it was only the beginning of the project — we were just getting introduced,” said Horton. They left behind a studio with 15 computers, 15 licenses to FL Studio, a microphone, two studio monitor speakers and an audio interface. It will be accessible to the middle schoolers through a Jackson community center.
Horton is hoping to expand Beats 4 Justice into underserved communities in Putnam and Westchester counties, and is developing a website that will include FL Studio tutorials. He intends to continue producing his own music and to pursue ethnomusicology, the study of the music of different cultures, especially non-Western ones, in college.