Bennie Nelson West: “We have spent 40 years helping Black youth know what it really means to be young, gifted, and black, to use a well-known song lyric.... It is so gratifying to look at how far we have come.” (Photo: MBAA)

During an epic celebration on Saturday (Dec. 17) of its 40th anniversary, the Memphis Black Arts Alliance (MBAA) will honor accomplished African-American artists who have made a local, national, and global impact with their artistry. 

Bennie Nelson West (Photo: MBAA)

“When we got started four decades ago, I envisioned nurturing ambitious artists and creators,” said MBAA founder Bennie Nelson West. “We wanted to provide an incubator through which their gifts and talents could be honed and perfected.”

A special tribute to West will be featured in the largest event in the organization’s history.

Among a stellar lineup of honorees, who hail from Memphis, are actor Elise Neal, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and producer Katori Hall, Grammy Award-winning producer Boo Mitchell and widely acclaimed rapper Al Kapone.

“Our sons and daughters have not only broadened our legacy in music, but Memphis artists have excelled in every creative endeavor. Elise Neal was born right here in Memphis, graduating from Overton High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.”

Kapone remembers when he received the email informing him that he was included in this class of honorees.

Al Kapone’s “Whoop That Trick” became a Memphis Grizzlies standard. (Photo: TSD Archives)

“I first found out on Nov. 9, but the tickets hadn’t gone on sale yet,” said Kapone.

“The hardest part was not saying anything, but I was just so excited and happy to stand with these other great artists and creators.”

West said her mother and father were creative, and she grew up loving all artistic pursuits, both performance and exhibition.

“I, myself am one of the Nelson family,” said West. “Talented artists and creators have come out of the Nelsons, including Prince Rogers Nelson, the artist known as ‘Prince.’ I spent 10 years in Manhattan. New York, of course, is the artistic center of the world.” 

MBAA began 1982 as a collaborative of 19 African-American organizations and more than 100 artists.

MBAA Executive Director Lar’Juanette Williams: “Artistic Expression has unlimited power. It allows us to experience the creative influence of our ancestors as they laid the foundation for world-wide artistic genius. MBAA is a center that supports that genius and pledges to uphold the contributions of African American Artistry for years to come! SANKOFA!” (Photo: Screen capture, MBAA video)

“We are excited to honor our 40-year history and the legacies of these extraordinary Memphians,” said MBAA Executive Director Lar’Juanette Williams. 

“We are proud to celebrate each of them because of their major accomplishments and global artists … We look forward to heralding their work, sharing their stories, and showing our appreciation for their artistic genius.”

Kapone expressed gratitude for the recognition with such celebrated awardees.

“I have been rapping since I was in the sixth grade,” said Kapone. “I fell in love with hip hop, and I would perform wherever I could, in the hallway at school, in the lunchroom, beating on the table.

“I loved doing just what I was doing,” said Kapone. “I loved the genre, hip hop, just for the artistry and creativity in writing and performing for my peers. I have no doubt that this is what I was called to do.”

Although Kapone’s career has brought him global fame and wealth, money was never the goal, he said.

West said she wanted African-American children to have a space all their own.

“We have spent 40 years helping Black youth know what it really means to be young, gifted, and black, to use a well-known song lyric,” said West. “It is so gratifying to look at how far we have come.”  

The Arts-A-F!RE Celebration Experience will kick off the prestigious evening at 6 p.m., in the Halloran Centre for the Performing Arts & Education grand lobby, followed by the Honors and Awards Ceremony at 7 p.m.

A variety of activities will comprise the event, including live music, dancing, silent auctions, and loads to eat and drink

Additional honorees are entrepreneur and designer Moziah Bridges, world-renowned musician Jimmy Kinard, drummer Charles Streeter, music professor and producer Dr. Ashely Davis, recording artist and American Idol Finalist Lil Rounds, and visual artist Mosal Morszart. 

Tickets can be purchased at www.memphisblackarts.org.