#PBTM: Matt Zarba, Director of Operations at Upbeat Academy

Matt Zarba, aka Mr. Z, dedicates every day of his life to bettering the youth in his community and does it in absolute style. The emcee and “hip-hop principal” has created a new way to inspire youth — doing what he does best. As the ringleader at non-profit organization Upbeat Academy, a learning platform for kids to learn music business and production, Mr. Z does everything he can to help his students succeed. 

It’s clear when someone has found their true path and purpose in life, and there is no doubt that Matthew Zarba has found his way to change the world for tomorrow. 

We applaud his endless dedication and hustle to bringing a top-notch experience for the students at Upbeat Academy.

For our latest People Behind the Movement, #PBTM, we are proud to feature Matthew Zarba the Director of Operations at Upbeat Academy Foundation. 


What was your first step into the industry? 

“I decided to go to college five years after graduating from high school. I wanted to be a high school English teacher and apparently, you need a degree to do that. I’ve been an emcee and a performer since I was in high school, and when the opportunity to essentially become a hip-hop principal presented itself, I thought, ‘This is me. This is what I should be doing.'”

What was your first moment that you knew you wanted to be involved in the arts/music/culture scene?

“I’ve been putting on shows and entertaining friends and family since literally before I can remember; but, for better or worse, there’s video footage to remind me. I remember being obsessed with memorizing the lyrics to my favorite songs at a very young age. If I messed up a word, I’d have to start the song over. Looking back at it now, those were my first rehearsals. ”

What has been your biggest accomplishment?

“Maybe completing my first feature-length screenplay. Seeing anything through to completion is an accomplishment in and of itself. I’m also proud to have made my onscreen acting debut last year, and I’ve been a part of five short films in just two years with my friends in DumbSmart Industries.

The crown jewel, though, is without a doubt my work at the Upbeat Academy Foundation. Our organization is growing and our student-artists have really created a culture over here that gives them pride.

To use a restaurant analogy (since we’re in New Orleans): they say if you’re open for three years, then you’re developing a good base and doing well; and if you make it to five years, you’re a staple and here to stay. We’ve made it past the three-year mark and have great momentum to make it to and through the five-year milestone, and we couldn’t be more excited about the future.

We’ve had students go on to study music production in college and come back to work at Upbeat as paid instructors while they’re home for a holiday or break. That’s been really cool to facilitate.

It’s important for our new students to see other young people have completed the program and reached their goals. It lets them know that they can too if they put in the work. A lot of young people want to rap, DJ and make beats, but it’s very challenging. These young men and women really want it and put in the work.”

Proudest moment?

“I don’t know. I’m usually more proud of friends and family than I am of any personal accolades. I get fulfillment from watching others succeed and genuinely want people to reach their goals.

I’m proud of my younger sister. She’s worked really hard all her life in school and in general, and she’s created the life for herself that I think she’s always wanted. She’s got a wonderful family and seems fulfilled. My father has worked his butt off and, without speaking for him, has probably surpassed even his own expectations for himself. He’s always stayed humble, has never been flashy, and has a great sense of humor. I’m proud to have those qualities as well (maybe I’m a little flashy). And my mother is 100% unique and unabashedly herself. I’m very proud of my family, and my friends surprise me at every turn.”

Who are you listening to right now?

“Frank Ocean, Run The Jewels (and earlier El-P), MF Doom & James Blake.”

What is your life motto?

“Be open to ideas, beliefs, and people that are different from you or your own. I’m interested in people’s interests.

I have an adage I came up with a long time ago: Beliefs, be they religious beliefs or just perspectives, are like pizza. You and someone else can have completely different tastes in toppings, but you can get what you like on one-half of the pizza, and they can get the other half with the toppings they like. You’re both still enjoying the same pizza, and you’re both still pulling from a circle. Pizza is life.”

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

“I’ll hopefully be opening and running new Upbeat Academy locations in different cities around the country. I’ll always want to work with and mentor young people.

I’m hoping my beat-making and productions skills are still improving, and that I’ve put out a few albums by then. I definitely want to finish writing more screenplays, and hopefully, we’ll raise some money and get one of them shot with the DumbSmart krewe. I plan to continue acting as well, and hopefully, all of my passions and interests continue to intertwine. I’ve been very fortunate in that sense.

My main goal is to become more disciplined, and I think the other things will fall in line. It’s hard to find the time, but as my friend and colleague, DJ Strategy, tells me, quoting Louis Pasteur: ‘Fortune favors the prepared.'”

Where would you like to travel to?

“Prague is way up on the list along with other Eastern European countries. I’d like to spend some time in Central and South America, and I definitely will visit my grandparents’ homeland in Ustica, Sicily.”

What is something you are really excited for in the next year?

“I’m looking forward to seeing my niece and nephew (7mos/ 2yrs) grow and develop their personalities. My sister says my nephew reminds her of growing up with me because he’s always singing, talking, and yelling; but he’s not annoying like I was because he’s cute and hers. A lot of my longtime friends are having babies this month or just had them, so it’s a pretty exciting time. I’m the “zio,” which is Italian for uncle; but I like it because it works well with my last name, too.”

Upbeat Academy at BUKU Music + Art Project 2015 with Boyfriend & Pell
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