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Wednesday, February 01, 2006 | Even when she heads to her office for some personal time, Makeda Dread founder of the WorldBeat Center, is hardly ever alone there.
She never turns down the volume on the beats of reggae bouncing from wall to wall with euphoric oomph. Prior to our interview, her energetic staff peppered her with ideas and scrambled around, hoping to speak with her. The voices of visitors in her center below echoed up the stairs.
The WorldBeat Center, which Dread founded 27 years ago, is dedicated to preserving the history of leaders, cultures and traditions for all races of people, and to educating the community. Dread believes that the center’s current home in Balboa Park, which was built 12 years ago, serves as a place for families to feel welcome while bringing a unique presence to the community.
The center’s eclectic appearance greets all who visit with an urban feel. The concrete floor produces a coolness in the air. A unique statue depicts several men holding up the United States – intriguing enough to attract wonder in itself. And the colorful wall hangings, alternative artwork, variety of exhibits and plenty of chairs and open tables make this place much more of a casual hang-out than a stuffy museum.
As for Dread, she is an energetically creative woman, whose zany ambitions have been known to inspire her staff.
Through her journeys to places like Peru, Ghana, Jamaica and Mali, Dread is trying to show the culture of the United States in a positive, un-greedy way, while emphasizing that “you just don’t want to come over to America to be rich.”
Dread was brought up in a Geechee culture in the South, so she understands communal living. The Geechee people are the descendants of African slaves brought to the South during the 18th and 19th centuries and still thrive off the coastal islands of South Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida.
Dread also spent her childhood in Linda Vista, at a time when the first blacks came to work in the defense plants in San Diego. It took her 13 years before she ventured further into the city. However, throughout that time, she learned to embrace different cultures, people and places.
“I’ve always loved studying anthropology on my own, so to have the WorldBeat Center to study people is great,” she explained.
Realizing how easily the essence of cultures and traditions can get lost as time goes by, Dread dwells on African history to maintain the essence of the leaders she admires. She’ll hold exhibits, musical performances and media presentations to tell history’s “untold stories.” The center also has a school of music, where they teach everything from Egyptian and African drumming to Brazilian percussions and belly dancing to adults and children.
Music and environmental education is extremely important to Dread, who said WorldBeat is “filling the music gap in San Diego’s city schools.”
Dread hosts many cultural holidays and events through WorldBeat. She feels it is vital that San Diegans and people across the United States have celebrations to enjoy their history, just as people of other cultures do.
“WorldBeat exists so that we can show the diversity of our city,” Dread said, over the loud music. “I want to show the community how we work with the new refugees (in San Diego), the Ethiopians, Liberians, the people who did not know American stories.”
Dread said she has found similarities in the characters of refugees who have come to the United States from all over the world. She said the spirit of these refugees is unbreakable. Even as these very proud people go through the challenges of working two or three jobs and going to school on very little sleep they still appreciate the life they have been given in this country.
“This is what the spirit of America is, and that is why it’s great to welcome this refugee community because that is what we are in America. We’re all refugees and are founded on refugees, so we should always have that respect,” she said.
Referring to the many refugees who have migrated here, Dread said she believes that San Diego has no lack of culture. Rather, she argued, it is a place where culture is going to be given the attention it deserves … with her help.
“The Sudanese are here, the Somalis are here, the Ethiopians came a long time ago and are coming in again, and the Liberian refugees are here. This all makes one of the largest refugee communities here in San Diego.”
One of Dread’s other passions is the culture of African-Mexicans. She is interested in the untold stories of the Omecas, the pre-Columbians in Mexico. In March, Dread will travel to Mali, where the Omecas originally came from, and will use the research she gathers there to create exhibits for WorldBeat on the Africans in Mexico.
WorldBeat’s Cultural Institute educates young minds through their Children’s Organic Ebony Garden. Every year, the garden gives nearly 6,000 fifth grade students from the San Diego school system a chance to learn about nutrition and agriculture, while bringing them closer to Mother Nature and cultural competency.
Dread calls herself the voice of the voiceless. She is empowered by great cultural icons of the past, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Sojourner Truth. Having studied anthropology formally and not-so-formally, she said she is a lover of people, animals and cultures from around the globe.
Dread often tours the world to help others in need. During a recent trip to Jamaica, she found herself visiting an orphanage in St. Elizabeth. Seeing the children without visitors, understanding the sadness in their faces, she realized that they lacked the one thing money can’t buy.
“They all needed hugs and so I came back to San Diego and started the Give a Hug Foundation,” Dread said.
Seeing her reaction to aid others in need, a friend told her of a refugee camp of Liberians in Ghana that needed not only the financial support, but the motivational support that Dread could offer. An overwhelmed Dread said she is already doing all she can handle, especially as she starts a new WorldBeat Center in Jamaica.
It was then that someone went to her and asked if she had heard of a four-line prayer from the Bible. Dread recollected the prayer:
“It says, ‘Yes, Lord bless me indeed, expand my territory from coast to coast so I can do good, guide me with your hand so I do not cause wrong, do wrong and cause pain.’ So I said this little prayer and I started expanding from coast to coast. We’re in all these places and people in need have found me,” she said.
Aside from the backing received through the city of San Diego Arts and Culture Fund, Dread generates funding through her celebrations and concerts to keep WorldBeat and her other centers alive.
The Give a Hug Foundation not only supports the Jamaican orphanage that first tugged at Dread’s heartstrings, but has reached out to maintain a preschool in Thailand for Burmese children.
With the strength of the prayer, Dread has also now found the strength to give to the Buduburam Liberian Refugee camp in Ghana.
From researching the past, traveling to aid others, and hosting her own reggae radio show (on 91X and on her own Web site), Dread considers herself lucky to have the ability to give to those in need while working with people who believe in her cause.
“None of us are free, until all of us are free. We need to build a heart of compassion to serve and put people first,” said Dread. “Practice compassion, love and unattachment to things that are not permanent.”
WorldBeat Center, 2100 Park Blvd, is open seven days a week and can be contacted by phone (619) 230-1190 or online at
Makeda Dread’s next project will celebrate hidden cultures by assisting in building an African-Mexican library for those who live in Costa Chica, outside of Oaxaca, Mexico. She will be hosting a concert on Feb. 17 in Tijuana to raise funds for this effort.
Betsy Lopez Fritscher is Voice’s editorial assistant. Please contact her with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips at