In a music-rich state like Tennessee, it’s mind-boggling that government resources for music and other arts programs have been slashed in recent years by state lawmakers.
This is in keeping with a nationwide trend, resulting from education funding cuts that have put more focus on common-core curricula, while lessening the priority for the arts.
However, in a report by Public School Review, as one might imagine, it was determined that students who study music have increased achievement and proficiency in math, among other academic and behavioral benefits.
The Memphis Music Initiative (MMI), a nonprofit organization that invests in youth through transformative music engagement and creating equitable opportunities for Black and brown youth in Memphis, has made it the organization’s business to keep Memphis music, and associated careers, alive.
“The disinvestment in the arts in our schools, especially in Memphis, is a tragedy,” said Dr. Rychetta Watkins, MMI director of grantmaking and partnerships.
Watkins added, “Art, creativity music, they have such a positive impact on child development, giving young people an outlet for their imagination, helping develop skills, knowledge, thinking, discipline, working as part of a team, self-confidence; people aren’t taking into account the underlying impacts arts have on these areas.”
Since 2016, MMI has operated three programs:
- In-school, in which MMI it hires music professionals (MMI Fellows) to equitably expand in-school music education.
- MMI Works, a paid summer internship program for upper classmen and recent graduates to bridge the gap from learning to music careers.
- Grant-making and capacity building that enables grass-roots community organizations, which already provide music resources, to improve their service offerings and promote program sustainability.
Last year, MMI employed 16 fellows, who worked in 31 schools, 21 interns, who created business plans and competed for cash prizes, and granted $1 million to 17 grantees, which impacted nearly 3,000 youth in Memphis.
“Across all programs, young people have positive outcomes,” said Watkins. “They’re seeing themselves as creatives, continuing to sing, play, make art … (and) connect with us.
“Many of them come back and volunteer or mentor, wanting to be part of the crew that helps the next set of young people be successful.”
Memphis native Timothy Walker, 24, now a music teacher at John P. Freeman Middle School, jazz band leader and recording artist, participated in MMI Works after graduating from Central High School. He believes in MMI’s mission and mentorship.
“I interned at Memphis Slim House and learned so much about production, writing a business plan, and giving back,” said Walker. “After my internship that summer, I would go back as an alumni see how I can help and tell the new students about the program and how it worked for me.”
Walker, whose stage name is “Tim Walker,” started playing drums in sixth grade, but never really thought he would pursue a career in music.
“I was really into art and drawing. I honestly thought I’d be an architect,” said Walker. “But music was always around me; my whole family is musical.”
Walker started making beats on his iPad, and sang in the choir in high school, but credits MMI and other organizations, like Lite Memphis, for giving him the blueprints, budgeting skills and confidence he needed to really pursue a career in music.
“When I was at Jackson State University (JSU), I also participated in the Sony Music College Marketing Program. Through that I learned another aspect of music – marketing. I got to see what artists do behind the scenes and what other people do for artists, which was beneficial for me,” said Walker.
Walker earned his degree in Music Technology from JSU and is putting all his skills and training to use. He has just released two singles, “Can’t Keep Chasin’” and “Trip,” both of which are racking up steady streams on Apple music.
“I’m proud of myself. I never saw myself doing this at first. It just kind of came and I’m excited to see where it goes from here,” said Walker.
MMI’s Watkins said, “We do our work through the lens of creative liberation, leveraging music, art and creativity to provide young people greater freedom; to use their imaginations, exercise their talents to build a fulfilling, enriching life of their choosing – that is the ultimate freedom,” said Watkins.
Walker’s middle school jazz band from John P. Freeman will perform next week for the Zeta Phi Beta conference at the Renasant Convention Center.