We're so much more than rock and roll and barbecue.

Memphis culture is often reduced to two words—music and barbeque. There’s no doubt the city does them well, but its culture is far more rich and layered than those two pillars.

New Memphis hosted a recent virtual conversation on the Bluff City’s current identity as a culture creator, cultural destination, and cultural influencer on the global stage.

“This conversation is not about our legacy,” said moderator Rachel Knox, “because we don't want to continue to uplift what we have done right at the detriment of what we are currently doing right and the new narratives that we’re building.”

Knox was joined by guests Elle Perry with The Daily Memphian, Isaac Daniels with the Stax Music Academy, Jason Wexler with the Memphis Grizzlies, and Whitney Hardy with 3RDSPACE and Epicenter.

“We have this culture and this talent that we're constantly growing and producing. It gives this wonderful atmosphere when you blend all of those different aspects, from food to music to sport, to produce this brand that we have in Memphis,” said Hardy. “...we are a global destination for arts and culture.”

According to the panel, Memphis culture also includes museums, film, fine artists and makers, performance arts, fashion, world-class craft beer, and the local restaurant and bar scenes.

Wexler said he’s glad to see the city begin to remember its power as a cultural influencer. He’s heard more conversation in the last few years about Memphis’ future and less about its past from Memphians and from outsiders who once again looking to the city for cultural cues.

“...nationally and internationally, people are recognizing that we're back to being ahead of the game and that if they want to look for what's next and what's cool and what's dynamic and what's interesting, you look at Memphis and you'll see what the rest of the world is going to see two or three or four years from now,” he said.

Daniels said that within local music scenes, he’s noticed a similar shift away from focusing on the past in favor of making moves today. He noted the rise in creative collectives and collaborative organizations and spaces, as well as an increase in collaboration between younger and older artists.

“It's kind of new to me because I remember when I first kind of got on the scene, it was a big divide. But I see that divide completely diminishing,” said Daniels.

The one-hour discussion can be watched here.

First Horizon Foundation, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, and Bass Berry Sims sponsored the event, which was hosted by New Memphis as part of its quarterly Celebrate What’s Right luncheon series. Recent topics include workforce development, health equity, and education.

Where’s the Culture?
Perry said that if a person wanted to understand Memphis, she’d suggest a day trip to Midtown on one of Memphis’ highest holy days—the day the Southern Heritage Classic and Cooper Young Fest simultaneously blanket the area.

“You have all these tens of thousands of people in this less than a mile radius and there's food and there's drinking and people who haven't seen each other in a long time hanging out,” said Perry. “If I were to tell somebody how to experience Memphis culture, I would just drop them off and tell them to walk around the whole radius.”

Audience members chimed in to contribute more pieces of the city’s soul and culture, including farmers markets, food trucks, live music, strong communities, and its diversity and history. They also offered suggestions for cultural locations like the Botanic Gardens, P & H Cafe, and the 30 Days of Opera series.

Wexler added Overton Park, Shelby Farms, and Autozone Park.

Hardy offered up Chickasaw Park in Downtown Memphis as an example of Memphis’ cultural intersections. It has a basketball court that includes a mural by a local contemporary artist commissioned by a local nonprofit arts organization. It’s named after the Chickasaw Nation that once used the land as a burial site, and it boasts a beautiful view of the river that is foundational to the city’s identity.

Highlights from the Conversation:
Daniels: “Whether it's R&B, hip hop, funk, or old school, all of it is being embraced by so many people throughout the world.”

Hardy: “Cities that have really strong arts communities are thought to be a lot more innovative and risk-taking. I think Memphis does that. I think we have a strong arts community that says, ‘Hey, we like to see new perspectives and we're ready to see new challenges.’ And that’s what’s
really going to catalyze economic growth in the city.”

Knox: “Memphis culture is, yes, barbecue. We do it so well and other places wish that they could. But Memphis culture is also tacos and nachos and tamales and passionate debates that sometimes devolve into people insulting your entire lineage because you pick a place they don’t think provides the best fast casual food. It’s waiting patiently for the lemongrass tofu to come back out on the buffet at Pho Bihn.”

Perry: “ If you have a business, get these [local creatives] to design a t-shirt and business cards and they can play at your company show and things like that, where you can support them and also give them extra exposure.”

Wexler: “Memphis has been an influencer before anyone knew what an influencer was, before that was a term or concept. And then we kind of got stuck in a rut for a while of talking about all the ways we used to influence everything and kind of forgot about all the ways we were still influencing things.”
Support for this article was provided by New Memphis. New Memphis’ mission is to forge a more prosperous and vital city by developing, activating, and retaining talent and working to inspire and develop engaged, civically responsible leaders. Their work highlights the challenges and opportunities facing Memphis and provides a platform for civic education and engagement.
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Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.