From Stax Records to social media, two generations of Black arts leaders support the scene

“There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone ... The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”

James Baldwin’s perspective of an artist’s creative process speaks to the prominence of Black arts organizations in Memphis. A broad collection of entities share a motivation to create, establish and brandish opportunities for aspiring artists while making divested communities in Memphis their home and workplaces.

The Memphis Black Arts Alliance leads as one of the first creative incubators for Black artists in Tennessee. The longstanding organization is currently led by LaJuanette Williams, a Black woman with an extensive history as an actress, dancer and performer. She returned to Memphis to carry the banner woven and sown in 1982 by MBAA founder Bennie Nelson West. MBAA’s mission is “to educate, inspire and engage artists and artists toward the creation of equitable communities.” 

Down the street and around the corner, Victoria Jones leads The Collective. The 27-year-old organized her friends and colleagues within the art scene in Memphis to create an intentional space for artist development and collective impact while forging a platform where artists can promote their own work. Unlike MBAA, The Collective is not rooted to a brick-and-mortar location as the artists weave through neighborhoods and across social media. 

Multimedia artist Lawrence Matthews of The CLTV talks with Dr. David Acey, professor of African-American rhetoric and creator of Africa in April at an exhibition opening for Black Resistance, hosted by The Brooks and programmed by The CLTV. (Ashley Bend)
MBAA remains a staple in the South Memphis community. Historically, it is staffed and operated by Baby Boomers offering classes to children and teenagers in ballet, piano and acting. 

The Collective, on the other hand, is more modern and is spearheaded by social media master millennials who give the impression that The Collective is a movement that touches all aspects of Black life in Memphis. 

Surrounded by blighted properties, vacant land plots and a run-down shopping center, the MBAA is housed in a renovated fire station, giving its original name Firehouse Community Arts Center. The organization claims it has staffed over 300 employees since it was founded in 1982. 

“We are dedicated to improving the quality of life and economic well-being of Greater Memphis by preserving, celebrating, and advancing African-American arts, literature and culture," said LarJuanette Williams, executive director of MBAA. “African-Americans are a creative people.  We have always been.”

Related: "An inventory of the Memphis black arts scene"

Jones, executive director of The Collective, says her organization is able to exist because of the work done by MBAA and other Black leaders such as Ekundayo Bandele, founder and CEO of Hattiloo Theatre, now located in Overton Square.

“We stand on their shoulders. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the barriers they overcame and paths created for younger generations,” said Jones. “The only reason I can wear my nose rings and tattoos is because the sacrifices of MBAA and folks like [Ekundayo] who had to cut his dreads before going into business.”

"All of these record-breaking, internationally recognized achievements have been in spite of poverty, gentrification, and the lack of quality education."

As for MBAA, Williams says their existence is due to the Black artists of the 1960s and 1970s who could have disappeared from Memphis during an increased time of racial unrest and chaos.

Shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., West reached out to local artists involved with Stax Records, a record company which took pride in its integration of Black and White artists and suffered greatly during the riots after King’s death.

While MBAA was officially formed in the early 1980s, its foundation was set during the 1970s in the tumult following King's death.

"Beale Street had already fallen on hard times and after the riots during the time of Dr. King's assassination, black artists were misplaced," said Williams. Her predecessor, West, single-handedly contacted some of the brightest artists from Stax and beyond to rebuild the Memphis Black arts scene.

West, who was a friend and colleague to many Stax recording artists, wanted to create a space for Black artists to continue curating and working together while combating the racial and political tensions in the south. Those early conversations helped shape the MBAA, which is located a mile away from the Stax Records property.

One of the first education programs was led by artists including Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas and Naomi Moody. The organization launched with 19 members. Those education programs and classes have since reached over 3,000 people, MBAA says.

The Memphis Black Arts Alliance is housed in a former fire station in South Memphis. (MBAA)
“Had it not been for these very important and talented artists making a determination to come together and ensure the future of Black arts in Memphis, we most likely would not exist as we do today,” said Williams. “
We stand on their shoulders and because of their strength and guidance, I stand today to take this mantle to the coming generations.”

Jones and the members of The Collective carry that mantle forward.

The Collective's early mission was informed during a showing of work by Lester Merriweather, who is a local Black visual artist. Jones noticed that most of the patrons at the Crosstown Concourse exhibition were not Black, a contrast that left her wondering how to better engage the surrounding Black neighborhoods in the activities at Crosstown Concourse. 

“[Our] original intention was ‘how do we get Black folks comfortable in this space and how do we build community in the arts for Black folks,” Jones said.

Related: "ArtsMemphis and The Collective partner to raise profile for local artists of color"


She believes that greater inclusion in the art world comes with demystifying art as a luxury. Creating artistic communities and space not only adds beauty to a community but increases the worth, value and pride there. 

“The rules for interacting with communities have changed,” said Grace Stewart, strategic development director with The Collective.

“Those old rules such as ‘If you build it, they will come,’ or ‘we have all this information and we’re going to generously bestow it upon you’ is not how communities want to interact with any organization. They want them to be more integrated within the community. It can sometimes be difficult for places like museums and other 100-year legacy organizations to adjust and change whereas we’re new, young and identify with this community so we can start anew with building that trust," Stewart added.

For instance, The Collective recently partnered with Melrose High School and RedZone Ministries in designing and installing a mural at the historic Orange Mound school. Jones says partnerships with the community like that only come through trust building.

With local students, The CLTV designed and installed a mural at Melrose High School. (CLTV)
For MBAA, being a source for history and resources and pushing the narrative of Black Memphis is integral to their continued investment in the South Memphis and Soulsville community.

Instilling pride in South Memphis is a priority for Williams and the MBAA. She says MBAA promotes the history of South Memphis, giving residents something to already be proud of.

“South Memphis, the home to many creative influences that built the foundation of Memphis artistry, has always been a place of pride and joy to most.  All of these record-breaking, internationally recognized achievements have been in spite of poverty, gentrification, and the lack of quality education. South Memphis is the home of artistic creation for Black America.”

Rudy King, a visual artist and painter, is currently holding an art exhibition from February 2 through April 30 at MBAA along with fellow artist Naima Peace. The work deals with expressions of equality versus inequality in America.

“I enjoy working with MBAA and Ms. Williams," said King. “[They’ve] helped with advertising and making sure everything was running smoothly with the program. I even sold a few pieces thanks to a silent auction the team organized.”

"It can sometimes be difficult for places like museums and other 100-year legacy organizations to adjust and change whereas we’re new, young and identify with this community so we can start anew with building that trust.”

Open daily, within the halls of MBAA lies an art gallery, dance studio, piano lab and private music instruction studio. Sessions are discounted for certain groups. Fall sessions are 10-weeks for groups and private classes are priced as low as $45 per 30-minute session.

“MBAA has offered an amazing platform to showcase my work,” said visual artist Peace. “The interactions between the patrons of the gallery during our current exhibit have allowed me to not only express myself through visual art but also through conversation and dialogue.”

Jones said that the native talent in Memphis is worth investment. She’s had multiple conversations with artists in her organization who wrestle with the sustainability of Memphis’ arts scene for Black curators. While the conversations are not new, she recognizes the sacrifice she's asking artists to make by staying in Memphis.

“Most of these artists don’t want to leave. They really want to invest in their hometown. We don’t have a model, we just know what we’d like to see and we’re learning on the way. Sometimes artists have to leave because the city’s infrastructure is still growing, but once we get it right, LA for what? NYC for what?” 

While birthed in different eras, these two organizations endure the similar strifes of combating generational poverty in disinvested communities and having to navigate and engage artists in a city where arts infrastructure is in its infancy. Yet, the successes of cultivating artists who can travel the world and return home to pour learned experience to future generations are worth the uphill battles. Their secret is to keep climbing. While approach may be different, their goals are the same: Be Black and invest in Black.

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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.