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Soulin’ on the River serving up Black joy

Since the onset of the global pandemic, Memphis artists have had to be more creative about getting their music to the masses.

Some performed at home, live-streaming with their CashApp handles on display for donations. Others shifted gears completely and learned new non-musical skills to make ends meet.

Thankfully, over the last several months, people have been getting OUTSIDE, and as of this summer, live music is back. 

From Court Square to W.C. Handy Park, there is no shortage of that sweet soul music we all know and love. 

Fourth Bluff Park, once home to Confederate statues, is now, too, the home of Memphis SOUL. 

Soulin’ on the River, a free outdoor live music concert series, is in full-swing Friday nights (gates open at 6 p.m./show at 7 p.m.), through July 29th at Fourth Bluff Park (N. Front St., between Court and Jefferson). 

Soulin’ on the River has proven to be a crowd-pleaser. (Courtesy photo)

The series is presented by the Memphis Slim Collaboratory, Memphis River Parks Partnership and The Kresge Foundation, and is sponsored by Arts Memphis and the Hyde Family Foundation

Tonya Dyson, executive director of the Memphis Slim Collaboratory since 2019, said the concert series was her brainchild, which manifested soon after starting at Memphis Slim.

“I mulled over the idea for years before reaching out to Carol Coletta, president and CEO of Memphis River Parks Partnership,” Dyson said. 

“During the time of the controversy surrounding Confederate relics being in our public parks and thinking of plans after their removal, I began to brainstorm ways these spaces could be reclaimed through celebrations of black joy versus their historical representations of black suffering. And then Soulin’ was born.” 

Coletta added, “We are thrilled to work with Tonya and Memphis Slim Collaboratory again this year on Soulin.’ 

“Her vision falls right in line with what we envision for this public space — a place to bring people together from all walks of life to enjoy music, culture, and humanity together.

“We couldn’t have a better collaborator than Tonya to share the evolved, contemporary version of Memphis Soul.” 

The Soulin’ on the River concert series is the brainchild of Tonya Dyson, executive director of the Memphis Slim. (Courtesy photo)

This year’s series features six Memphis artists with national and even international reach: Doll McCoy, Jonte Mayon, Courtney Little, Cassie Bonner, Candy Fox and Black Cream.

“These artists are not only singers, but have amazing showmanship, and are songwriters who have tunes on international charts. We are providing a safe space and platform for these artists to share their original music and feel comfortable in their own city. 

“There’s tons of places where audiences can hear cover songs but the Soulin’ audience, and its familial vibe, allows for some freedom of expression,” said Dyson.

Little said, “I’ve been doing Memphis music since I was a child, and to have someone you can lean on and get the knowledge needed to move forward in this business, it’s one of the best things that could have ever happened for us as artists and for the city of Memphis.”

The Soulin’ series not only gives artists a platform, and a return-to-work opportunity for sound engineers and other entertainment workers, but audiences can also enjoy the best in Memphis food and beverages. 

“We’ve got King Manor Catering and Bar, Champ’s Barbecue, Stick’em, Speed Vegan, The Genre Memphis, Mr. Frazier’s Fish Fry and SNOWTASTIC Treats,” said Dyson.

Cassie Bonner is the featured artist for the July 15th installment of Soulin’ on the River. (Courtesy photo)

The artists and vendors chosen to participate this year are African American. 

“We are intentional about reclaiming Fourth Bluff Park for Black joy and Black economic impact. All the artists and vendors are amazing at what they do and they’re just great people to work with. We are honored to give them a platform,” Dyson said. 

Memphis Slim Collaboratory

“Slim House,” as it’s affectionately known by local artists, is a nonprofit that educates, supports, and inspires the Memphis music community to create a culturally vibrant city and spread music throughout the world. 

It’s based in the Soulsville USA neighborhood (adjacent to the STAX Museum of American Soul Music) and operates in four areas — artist development, preservation, education, and community engagement. 

“We are a support system for artists,” said Dyson. “Through our Artist Development program, we provide members with access to essential resources, like rehearsal space, workshops, seminars, and other opportunities to further their careers.

“We provide paid performance opportunities through our community engagement program, where we host free community events like Soulin’ on the River and the Soulsville USA Festival. Nationally, we’re looking to make impact through the preservation of Memphis Slim’s global legacy and connecting his Memphis roots to his safe haven, Paris (France).”

Memphis Slim (John Len Chatman), for whom the Memphis Slim Collaboratory is named, was an iconic American blues pianist, singer, and composer, born and bred in Memphis. He created more than 500 recordings and put Memphis Blues on the map. 

(RSVP for the second half of the Soulin’ Concert Series here: https://bit.ly/3P9Vht8.)

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