Music with Motivation

How Ryan Hall’s Heligator Records helps fund an African refugee camp library.

click to enlarge Hall volunteered at Swaziland's Malindza Refugee Reception Centre through the Peace Corps.
Hall volunteered at Swaziland's Malindza Refugee Reception Centre through the Peace Corps.

As a case manager for homeless youth, Ryan Hall chats with minors in homeless camps about all sorts of topics. Sometimes that includes popular rapper Young Thug.

“If I can connect with someone over music, it’s perfect,” Hall says. “It’s a good, non-threatening way to bridge connections.”

Hall does outreach through Lighthouse Youth Services, talking to homeless kids on the streets and getting a feel for their needs. He uses every opportunity he can to apply his love for music toward his equally strong love of social change.

This is apparent in more aspects than just the work he does at Lighthouse. Before graduating from the University of Cincinnati with a master’s degree in social work and starting his job last May, Hall was involved in several musical endeavors.

His music blog, Tome to the Weather Machine, was founded back in 2009; it has national and international music reviews and mp3 samples of songs. In 2013, Hall formed record label Heligator Records as a direct outgrowth of the site. The name comes from a whimsical place.

“A friend of mine in high school had a dream about an alligator that had a helicopter rotor in its back,” Hall says. “And the alligator seemed pretty, you know, nonplussed about it. That image was always rolling around in the back of my mind.”

Conversely, the label was influenced by a serious and major life experience.

Hall and his wife Adelyn volunteered together at the 400-person refugee camp in Swaziland, Africa — the Malindza Refugee Reception Centre — through the Peace Corps from 2011-2013. Heligator exists in part to continually fund a 1,200-book library, started by the Halls, at the camp.

“I wanted to make sure that the library we set up there had some sort of sustainable funding,” Hall says. “It’s so often the case that these projects get set up and there’s no continual funding and it goes to hell.”

According to Adelyn, she and Hall were the first volunteers to ever be placed at that specific camp. They introduced numerous initiatives including English and HIV classes, income-generation workshops for women, health and sanitation workshops and a group to empower young girls. The idea for the library came about when they learned about the Peace Corps’ program, Books for Africa.

“We applied for a grant,” Adelyn says. “We got the books and we had this vacant structure, so we were able to get that funded.”

Today, the camp is in its third year and still efficaciously running, in part thanks to Heligator.

“I actually talked to one of the women who lives (at the camp) a couple of weeks ago,” Adelyn says. “She just messaged me and said, ‘The camp is going great. I went in (to the library) and got some novels and some books.’ It’s cool that people still see it as a really important resource.”

Heligator started when one of Hall’s friends contacted him with a single — he didn’t know what to do with it and asked if Hall wanted to put it out. He had only been home a month from Swaziland.

“I didn’t have a record label or anything at the time, but it seemed like the perfect confluence — him wanting to release something that I could put out and me (wondering) how I’m going to continually fund the library,” he says. Hall decided he would use the record label as a means of keeping the library sustainable. To this day, Hall sends more than $50 a month through Heligator, which pays for maintenance costs, general upkeep and a stipend for the librarian. Most people who buy music from Heligator see it as a donation toward a good cause.“We have some very generous donors,” Hall says.

“Sometimes we’re able to save some of that money and put it toward next month. We’re only selling the singles for $1 or $2, so we’re charging maybe $5 total for EPs. But the idea is hopefully getting the social message upfront so if people are going to buy it, they will see it as a donation rather than buying songs.”

In addition to bringing attention to refugees, Hall says he appreciates that Heligator helps him maintain a connection to Swaziland. He still has friends and peers there and stays in touch with them.

“I’m talking to the librarian, who was a Rwandan refugee, every week,” he says. “It was great knowing that I can contribute to his living — that he can buy food for his kids and pay for their school fees.”

Back in Cincinnati, Hall attends and books shows, curating lineups of noise and experimental musicians: Heligator Records will present an event featuring Circuit des Yeux, Mamiffer, Kate Wakefield and Bridget Battle of Tweens, scheduled for April 1 at Northside Yacht Club.

“I use Heligator as a ‘Heligator Records Presents’ to create awareness about the label,” Hall says. “It also creates some brand awareness, where if people go to a show they know it will be experimental.”

Hall explains that everybody who puts out music through Heligator is essentially donating tracks they worked on independently. They may not see financial compensation, but they’re well aware of where they money is going and are happy to contribute to the cause.

“I put out a long drone single (for Heligator) under my project Zijnzijn Zijnzijn! around a year ago,” says Cincinnati musician Fritz Pape. “I’ve always subscribed to the notion that art is inherently a method of communication. Music especially seems to be an incredibly powerful tool for the creation of various dialogues and then in turn various actions.”

Oakland, Calif., artist Scott Ecklein similarly contributed a digital single to the label, motivated by the refugee camp library funding aspect.

“Refugee camps and the resources within them are important,” Ecklein says. “Access to knowledge, education and information are basic human rights. They are as necessary as food, shelter and water.”

Aaron Snow from Landing, a Connecticut Shoegaze band that Hall has long admired, also released music through Heligator. Hall was able to approach him and some of his other “heroes” after Heligator and his blog started getting good reception from press.

With Heligator successfully attracting artists and keeping the refugee camp library afloat, plus his day-to-day work with homeless youth in Cincinnati, Hall lives out his philosophy of applying moral responsibility to major aspects of his life. And he always manages to sneak in music when he can.

For more information on HELIGATOR RECORDS, visit

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