Building Momentum: Memphis Music Initiative

By Kevin Dean
Photo by Memphis Slim Collaboratory / David Roseberry

Memphis music has shaped American culture, served as the soundtrack to social movements past and present, and continues to connect us into the future. Although Memphis is known internationally for its legacy of arts and music, young people, particularly Black and brown youth in under-resourced communities, are experiencing declining access to quality music engagement programs—a truth that has only been underscored  by the ongoing pandemic. In Memphis, there simply aren’t adequate internship and apprenticeship opportunities for young people to gain professional skills and make career networks in the creative sector.

Memphis Music Initiative was created when research revealed that the city had less accessible music engagement for youth than similar cities of its size and cultural importance. Memphis Music Initiative invests
in Memphis’ young people through direct programs that connect youth to high-quality in-school, after-school, and summertime music engagement opportunities, and by providing grants and capacity building resources to grassroots and community music programs serving Black and brown youth. These programs help strengthen the local arts ecosystem and ensure that Memphis’ young people always have access to high-quality arts programming.

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic presented new challenges for the organization, but it also taught them to identify creative, new solutions. Engaging virtual technology allowed Memphis Music Initiative to partner in 2021 for the first time with six Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to hold a day of virtual music auditions for musically gifted high school students from 12 school music programs across Memphis. Over the course of one day, band and choral directors representing Rust College, Jackson State University, Tennessee State University, Fisk University, LeMoyne-Owen College, and University of Arkansas at Pine   Bluff heard vocal and instrumental performances from 24 student musicians from schools MMI works with across the city.

"Memphis’ young people brought their A-game," says Amber Hamilton, Executive Director of Memphis Music Initiative. "Following the auditions, all 24 students who auditioned received partial or full college scholarship offers. We held the auditions this year as well. Twenty-three students from 11 schools participated in band or vocal auditions. Of the students who reported back, at least five were offered scholarships. We can’t wait for next year’s auditions!" The organization encourages young people to become creatively immersed in their past, critically engaged in the present, and more able to determine their future through the power of music and arts. They aim to create a classroom in which young people recognize and acknowledge the challenges of current systems, yet feel equipped with skills, agency, and creativity. We can guarantee you'll be hearing more from Memphis Music Initiative's talented students!

Kevin Dean is CEO of the Momentum Nonprofit Partners. He received his Ed.D in Organizational Learning and Leadership from Vanderbilt University in 2021.

Building Momentum: Memphis Music Initiative