After two years, Memphis Music Initiative marks improvement in arts opportunities for youth

Children from disadvantaged neighborhoods are less likely to interact with music and arts programming. The Memphis Music Initiative removes those barriers by investing and supporting neighborhood and school-based art programs.

For two years, Memphis Music Initiative has been striving to make its mark on the city with the implementation and support of in-and-out of school arts programming and education. High Ground News has been keeping an eye on this non-profit, tracking its progress and its footprint.

Within organizations and programs that serve African-American youth, MMI can be credited for building and maintaining operations, programming, and infrastructure in order to serve the vast number of young people who desire something greater than the opportunities available to them.

“Memphis has a rich culture and music history,” says Darren Isom, executive director of MMI. “It’s important the city capitalize on that especially amongst its Black and Brown youth.”

Isom believes that music engagement that supports youth development and activities around the arts can “play in offering youth the skills, attitudes and behaviors needed to overcome barriers and succeed in school and life.”

Forty-three percent of Memphis children live below the poverty line, which leaves opportunities to engage in arts and music culture something to be merely desired and not obtained.

Jermey Wilbourne plays the drums in Cloud901's recording studio.

And growing up in poverty leaves 26 percent of Memphis youth ill-prepared for college and more likely to drop out of high school.

According to 2017 data from MMI, the organization’s efforts have touched over 600 youth across the city within 13 community-based providers. Through their MMI Works externship program, youth are able to cultivate skills in the arts and music through internships and apprenticeships.  Nine organizations are now offering internships or externships for youth.

MMI is a benefactor of Cloud901, a teen resource center located in the Benjamin L. Hooks Public Library. MMI sponsored Velocity, a 12-week program that develops leadership skills in teens. Since fall 2015, 33 teens have participated and completed the course and earned a stipend.

Since 2016, The Memphis Library Foundation has received over $112,000 from MMI grant awards.

“MMI has been working with us since the beginning. They helped create our music productions programs at two library locations,” says Diane Jalfon, executive director of Memphis Public Library, which includes all 18 branches.

Darren Isom, executive director of the Memphis Music Initiative Cloud901 is 8,300 square feet of creative space for teens aged 13 to 18. In Cloud901, students can design, produce and create visual musical products as well as work with robotics and other advanced technology. The program has served 69 youth in 2016 including 56 who received instruction in music production.

Grants awarded to programs such as The Memphis LIbrary Foundation allow organizations to increase programming and engagement for youth. A total of 16 grants have been awarded by MMI to increase the expansion of programs according to a report provided by Johnny Kroeze, Director of Finance and Operations of MMI.

“MMI has been most helpful at developing transformative work that would cultivate our youth and their experiences at our libraries,” said JalfonBecause of them, it makes it easier to advocate for better opportunities for our youth and show the city how libraries still play a role in a child’s development.” 

Unique partnerships and collaborations between MMI organizations and other local organizations have also increased during MMI’s tenure. Visible Community Music School has joined forces with Su Casa Family Ministries to offer piano and guitar lessons to Spanish-speaking youth in Berclair and Graham neighborhoods. This year, they’ve exceeded their goal and served 15 youth in the program’s pilot year.

Memphis Black Arts Alliance kicked off its ArtsReach program in partnership with the Porter Goodwill Branch of the Boys and Girls Club this past school year. Since the launch of the partnership, over 20 youth have engaged in the MBAA program and the success of the partnership has led to an expansion of ArtsReach, allowing a broader offering of programs and activities for the summer.

With the national and local reductions in arts and music programming such as proposed budget cuts to the National Endowment of the Arts by the Trump administration, less than 5 percent of Memphis youth have access to after-school music programming compared to the 15 to 20 percent in similar cities according to MMI.

Students work on video editing in Cloud901's photography and videography studio. Their work will be submitted to the 2017 Indie Memphis Youth Film Festival.

MMI has stepped in to support large entities like the libraries as well as small mom-and-pop programs as well. Michelle Johnson, executive director of Harmonic South String Orchestra which offers string lessons says MMI has been a bridge over troubled water. In 2017, Harmonic South has received grants totaling $48,000.

A former strings teacher for Memphis City Schools, Johnson’s program started small with only a few children until she had to care for her sick mother. After her mother passed away, she was contacted by Deron Hall with MMI, asking if she’d be interested in starting her program again. Now as the Executive Director of Harmonic South which involves kids from South Memphis and Whitehaven, she has reached a total of 90 students this year.

“They have taught me everything I know,” says Johnson. “I have a passion to increase the presence of strings and orchestra for inner-city youth.”

With the help of MMI, Harmonic South and other youth arts providers like Angel Street and Blue Violin have formalized their structures for operations by completing the process to receive their 501(c)3 nonprofit status.

As a result, these organizations are now in better positions to seek out donations, compete for grant funding opportunities and other modes of support that will enhance their organizational capacity to provide high quality music engagement programs for Memphis youth.

Walter Perry works with Jermey Wilbourne to produce a song in Cloud901's recording studio.

Johnson started her career teaching at Memphis schools including Whitehaven High School, Middle College High School, and Riverview Middle School. One of her students, Dacavien Reeves, participated in the program before Johnson hired him as an assistant during the summer. He interned for MMI under the director of operations and partnerships. He is now student at Morehouse and credits Ms. Johnson and MMI for pointing him in the right direction.

“They are awesome people committed to changing Memphis especially Memphis youth. They’ve helped turn the shyest of kids to the most extrovert,” said Reeves.

Reeves said he took singing lessons from an MMI fellow, Steven Lee. Bashful, he admitted to Steven that he didn’t know how to sing, but Lee affirmed that he could and could learn. That bit of encouragement led Reeves to discovering his passion.

“MMI and Harmonic South showed me that I love working with kids and helping anyone I can. I’m planning to work with kids this summer in Los Angeles.”

It’s a given that MMI is not going anywhere any time soon. On July 19, MMI announced they will move into the old 3 Alarm Studio firehouse station located next to the FedEx Forum at the intersection of B.B. King Boulevard and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue.

While students find enjoyment and hope in expanding their education through arts and music culture, they receive so much more. MMI has become well acquainted with these challenges, focusing on strengthening problem-solving skills to assist students professionally and socially as well as deepening engagement in schools.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Memphis Music Initiative; it is part of a series highlighting the impact and importance of music on the community in neighborhoods across Memphis.

Read more articles by Kirstin Cheers.

Kirstin Cheers is a native South Memphian and freelance journalist. She's written for The Tri-State Defender and is a current contributor for iLoveMemphis blog and Professionally, she's the communications specialist at United Way of the Mid-South, a non-profit that supports agencies serving people living in poverty. 
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