Memphis Music Initiative pivots its approach to meet more local youth

The Memphis Music Initiative, now in its second year, has opened its own summer programs for children. The nonprofit also fulfills in-school fellowships, which place local music professionals who teach music education in Shelby County Schools.

It has been two years since the inception of Memphis Music Initiative.

The country has a new President. Memphis has a new mayor. And MMI has a new way of investing in the city’s children.

High Ground has covered a slew of events, organizations and policies that will directly affect Memphis’ music culture and organizations that support it such as ArtsMemphis, Tennessee Arts Commission and a host of funders and donors.

As reported during the first installment, MMI was developed to increase access to music education and enrichment particularly for Black youth in Memphis. This would be achieved through bringing in music producers and artists to teach students, cultivating in-school music extracurriculars and creating spaces for youth to educate themselves and one another in music production and theory. MMI also helped launch an internship program and local arts organizations.

However, executive director Darren Isom says while their goals are still intact, their strategies have pivoted.

Isom came to Memphis four years ago leaving his husband and dog in California. Raised in New Orleans, Isom believed he would adjust to Memphis rather quickly, thinking it was similar to his creole-dialect, gumbo-eating, and bounce-shaking home. He soon discovered he was wrong.

A Memphis Music Initiative fellow leading music instruction at White Station High School.

“Memphis is a true southern city with a rich and unique history and an even richer culture,” Isom said.

Isom admits that with his background in consulting and business, Memphis was all numbers seeped in data and studies conducted by those measuring our rates of poverty to our school systems to crime.

Yet, something was missing: a true appreciation for Memphis music and history.

In order to invest in the city’s music history and culture, Isom and his team would have to create a model that could easily be adopted by Memphis music organizations.

“While we reached out to national organizations, we wanted to dissolve the myth that there is no good thing in Memphis and everything must come from outside,” says Isom.

“We’ve found that many organizations are starved of resources and simply needed support in stabilization and create an infrastructure that supports music.”

As the team began to move in the right direction, they would soon learn that Memphis’ culture still deserved more research, or simply, one to become a member of it.

For instance, Isom and his team found MMI to become more than just a connector of resources, but a social justice, advocacy and incubator vehicle for music organizations in the city to operate healthily and effectively.

The MMI team soon learned the solutions to many of the problems Memphis and cities like it face are within the communities they serve.

Darren Isom, executive director of the Memphis Music Initiative. “We’re slowed down to move quickly,” said Isom. “We’ve found that many organizations are starved of resources and simply needed support in stabilization and create an infrastructure that supports music.”

MMI also started running their own summer programs for children to have something to do after seeing the lack of summer music recreation available.

“We couldn’t jump in this work and not give kids something to do. That’s when it became a social justice issue.”

MMI sponsors in-school fellowships, which place local music professionals who teach music education in Shelby County Schools. Tonya Dyson has been a fellow since 2015 and has taught in five different schools and created music programs in four of them.

“I’ve become a better artist being surrounded by youthful inspiration all the time,” said Dyson, programming and marketing director of Memphis Slimhouse in South Memphis. “I’ve also become a better advocate for youth and creativity.”

Dyson says her dream had been providing free music throughout the city for youth and youth engagement, and MMI was stood in her corner to make it happen. With MMI’s assistance, Dyson has hosted the Soulsville USA Festival which has been successful and anticipated each year since 2015.

Students at the PRIZM Ensemble's summer camp festival.

However, with many successes come challenges. With the country’s new administration, proposed cuts to the National Endowment of the Arts, the largest funder of nonprofit arts organizations, looms over MMI’s leadership. Isom asserts, though, that the current tide will only add urgency to their movement and produce a fervor of creativity.

“(The new administration) makes the urgency of the work is that much more pronounced and that much more difficult,” says Isom. “There’s a need for both narrative alignment and embracing who we are culturally.”

MMI is focused on creating and reshaping the narrative of Memphis, its children and its capital investment: music. With MMI at the helm of this necessary movement, the city’s legacy is in good hands.

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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