Every student got an offer at Memphis Music Initiative's first HBCU scholarship audition event

In mid-March, two dozen students from 12 Memphis high schools auditioned for scholarships from the music programs of six historically Black colleges and universities or HBCUs.

It was Memphis Music Initiative’s first event of its kind, and it was a resounding success. Every student participated in the virtual audition at no cost to their families, and every one of them received a scholarship offer.

“We did not even consider a registration fee, as that goes against our organizational fight for equity,” said Victor Sawyer, MMI’s Senior Fellowship Coach.

“An important note is that some of these scholarships were for both music and academics—a testament to the talent and brilliance found in all of our Black and brown youth," Sawyer continued. 

On Saturday, March 13, MMI connected 24 student musicians with audition opportunities with Rust College and Jackson State University in Mississippi; Tennessee State University, Fisk University, and LeMoyne-Owen College in Tennessee; and University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

The students represented a 12 music programs from schools across the Memphis area, including Whitehaven High School, Memphis Business Academy, the Soulsville Charter School, and Overton High School.

MMI representatives worked with area schools to identify seniors who were interested in continuing their music education beyond high school.

Founded in 2014, MMI is a nonprofit supporting primarily Black and Latino students through music education with in-school, after-school, and summer initiatives. They also have a funding arm that supports other organizations with the goal of “building a sustainable Black arts ecosystem for Memphis youth.”

Advocates of HBCUs say they can give Black and other students of color the freedom to learn in an environment where they feel comfortable, accepted, and included. Instructors and classmates also understand the challenges and obstacles people of color or POC have likely faced in the education system before college.

“In a world that frequently says, ‘This isn't for you,’ going to an HBCU may be the first time where a young POC finds themselves in an environment rich with a multitude of Black and brown experiences,” Sawyer said. “How incredible is it to have the burden of fitting in lifted, the burden of representing your entire race in the face of people who are unwilling to do the homework of racial oppression themselves.”

MMI developed their HBCU music audition program because the college application process can be difficult for students to navigate, especially if they’re the first in their families to attend college, said Sawyer.

The organization wanted to remove the daunting financial and administrative barriers that can keep students from applying to college at all. Through audition tips and scholarship opportunities, representatives from the six HBCUs were able to support these 24 young people in their journey toward higher education.

“We most certainly plan on doing this next year," said Sawyer. "The event aided Black and brown youth in creating opportunity for themselves, helping them realize their dreams and manifest the life they strive for.”

Read more articles by Sarah Rushakoff.

Sarah Rushakoff was raised in Memphis and is a graduate of White Station High School and the University of Memphis. She is a longtime member of Our Own Voice Theatre Troupe and works professionally as a graphic designer, writer, and photographer.