By Lee Eric Smith, lesmith@tri-statedefender.com

Before he became a worldwide musical icon, Prince Rogers Nelson was a small, shy kid with epilepsy who found his voice — and his calling — by immersing himself in music. It’s a story that Tami Gipson can relate to.

“He was like a lot of really talented kids right here in Memphis,” said Gipson, co-founder of #SaveMusic4Kids, a music education project. “He didn’t fit in easily at school, so he went into his room and taught himself music. The Prince we came to love didn’t start out that way. He found a way to be free and get lost in his music.”

Fans of Prince — as well as fans of music education in public schools — will get the chance to celebrate one while supporting the other on July 8. That’s the date for the Prince Life Celebration and Tribute, happening Downtown at The Cadre Building, 149. Doors open at 8:30 p.m., with the party lasting until 1:30 a.m.

It’s a party with a purpose — proceeds will be used to help teachers, parents and students have access to the instruments, training and other materials that young people need to explore their musical talents. Appleseeds, Inc., a nonprofit focused on working with teen girls, will also receive a portion of the proceeds.

“The desire is to create grants at schools where students and teachers need the most assistance,” Gipson said. “We’re just trying to fill in gaps where we can.”

General admission for the event is $50, with VIP levels at $150 and $250. VIP access includes private seating, a private chef station, and mingling with celebrity guests. Proceeds benefit Shelby County Schools (SCS) music education initiatives and Apple Seeds, Inc. Tickets can be purchased at www.eventbrite.com or www.princelifecelebrationmemphis.com.

The #SaveMusic4Kids campaign is the brainchild of Gipson and Tenikki Sesley, executive director of Appleseeds. The two were having a conversation with several friends who are both mothers and educators when a theme emerged. Several of the women had students who were interested in music. But the expenses associated with a quality music education — instruments, lessons, etc. — can add up, especially in low-income homes.

“It’s more important than ever that the community steps in to help,” said Teresa Lucas, one parent involved with #SaveMusic4Kids. “Especially in this era of budget cuts and limited funds for afterschool music programs. And we want to provide some assistance for parents who need help funding their child’s musical aspirations.”

In May, SCS was named among 2016’s best communities for music education by the National Association of Music Merchants. Its music curriculum is delivered to about 110,000 students across 100 elementary schools, 32 middle schools and 31 high schools. Every elementary school student receives music instruction as part of the nationally recognized Orff-Schulwerk program.

“SCS music teachers find themselves funding projects out of their pockets,” Gipson said. “The SCS Music program is still one of the best in the country, however on a daily basis there are some cracks in the foundation and we are trying to correct them where we can.”

SCS also has classical piano programs in 17 middle and high schools. And about 95 percent of SCS schools have access to quality music instruction with at least one full-time licensed music teacher.

As school enrollments increase, it’s common for schools to offer band and choral music as well as specialized coursework — string orchestra, piano, guitar, music production, commercial music, mariachi, world drumming or recording techniques.

SCS invests annual funds for the replacement and upkeep of a significant inventory of musical equipment. It is district protocol that SCS will provide the student with a quality instrument if they can’t afford one.

However, many parents do rent instruments for their children — instruments that can be repossessed if parents can’t make the payment. Add in uniforms, recitals and other random expenses of a music education and even well intentioned parents need some help.

“Things happen. Life happens,” said Gipson, owner of ICU Communications, a public relations firm. “If your transmission needs repair and your kid’s instrument rental is due, which one is going to go unpaid? We want to create a grant that helps parents not have to make that choice. It’s a shame to take an instrument out of a child’s hands.”

The night will be accented with great food by Chef Michael Francis, Signature Purple Rains Cocktails sponsored by Pyramid Vodka and décor by White Door Events. Grammy Winner Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell will be an honored guest and is passionate about keeping music programs highly viable in Memphis public education.

“Prince helped to provide thousands of dollars for public education to supplement music programs nationwide,” Gipson said. “We hope to receive amazing support from the Memphis community.”

Some studies show that children who play an instrument do better on standardized tests and are more emotionally intelligent, Sesley said.

“My concern is about the proliferation of low self-esteem in our young people,” Sesley said. “So many young girls have babies so they can feel important and loved. The ability to learn music creates the sense of accomplishment and confidence that no one can take away!”

Gipson would agree. She was the first African-American student in her class to learn violin. Unlike her peers, who had shiny new violins to play, hers was a second-hand instrument that her teacher helped her fix up. “It didn’t have a bridge, it was missing strings,” she said. “As the only black child in the room, I felt some type of way.”

As a first grader, she felt uneasy among her white peers and was teased by her African-American classmates. But Gipson said her mom wouldn’t let her wallow in shame.

“She wasn’t going to let me NOT do it,” Gipson laughed. “Mama said, ‘It doesn’t matter what (your violin) looks like, it matters what it sounds like. So I kept playing all the way through eighth grade.”

Since then, she’s raised two boys to adulthood, both of whom were more interested in sports than music. But the importance of music in her own life still motivates her.

“We have the chance to make a real difference in a child’s life,” she said. “I’d like for these kids to have the same opportunities that I had.”

(For more information, contact Tami Gipson at 901 550-2206 or email at Icu2.tami@gmail.com.)