Let me start by stating the obvious. Memphis is riddled with flaws as a city and a populace. This we know. Chief among them is an inferiority complex. I say this because other cities have issues, too, but their natives don’t seem to drag and downplay their cities quite like we do.
And trust, I definitely have issues with the city! But I love my city, I do. Part of loving something or someone is about embracing the ugly or uncomfortable bits while you celebrate and have all the feels for the lovely bits.
There are so many interesting people here and it’s not the predictable few you always hear about. This #Access901 expat-repat column is the first in a series that highlights people who have planted roots here on purpose.
NOT people that feel stuck but people with options. Moreover, these are people who have lived and/or have travelled to many other places and chose to either come home or make Memphis their home for the foreseeable future. They are investing in the city, its people and its legacy. They are building. They are representing.
Sometimes on the world stage!
In this framework, “Expat” and “Repat” are used in the hyperlocal sense. The Expats (expatriates) are people who have left their hometown to make Memphis their hometown. The Repats (repatriated Memphians) like me are the prodigal sons and daughters, who have spent a significant time away from home then found their way back. Each of these people add their experiences elsewhere to the very distinctive, inimitable flava of Memphis.
To live in Memphis successfully is to love it unconditionally. You have to let Memphis be what it is with its own personality, traits and culture. We are who we are. It is what it is. And it ain’t what it ain’t.
You will never be happy here, if you continue to look for New York City things, Atlanta things, Chicago things or even Nashville things here. We got our own drip.
Yes, we have a storied and much-ballyhooed history, but we also have a pretty good lookin’ present and future. Yes, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. There will always be blemishes.
To those who need something else, go ahead and sow your oats elsewhere. Leave the folks here who have true love in their hearts to carry on, grittin’ and grindin’ it out!
In this first column, we profile and share the stories of six Memphians. From music production to social justice advocacy, our first group of Expats and Repats run the gamut.
I’m a repat, so let’s start with a tiny piece of my puzzle….
Name: Joy Doss
Lived In: Brooklyn, NY (12 years)
Occupation: PR Consultant, Event Planner, Mommy to Addison
I Love Memphis: Because there is no place like home! Memphis culture is so very, very specific. You kinda know a Memphian when you see – or hear – one.
What makes me so Memphis, Mane? Good, bad or ugly, I keep Memphis in my heart and a lil bit of “Pimphis” in my pocket no matter where I am. Don’t sleep.
Other “Negro Geography” Fast Facts: Went to THE High School, Central. College at UT Knoxville and Fashion Institute of Technology (NY). Proud member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority INcorporated. Of course!
So, that’s me in a nutshell. Read on and check out these other dope Memphians!
a/k/a James Dukes
Lived in: Brooklyn, N.Y., 7 years
Occupation: Producer, Musical Engineer
I Love Memphis: People from Memphis are disrupters, the ones who are willing to speak on taboo issues without hesitation. I love what’s happening here.
I’m so Memphis, mane!: …Memphis is in its own world, regardless to what’s going on next door. As a kid, I hated it; as an adult, now I love it. Now, this tunnel sound locked in its own world became the sound of hip hop. It’s been bubbling in this pot for a long time. It stayed Memphis and didn’t pull in other stuff. The major importance of the high hats in Memphis music – it’s unique to us and nowhere else.
I spoke with IMAKEMADBEATS at the CMPLX, which sits at the edge of Orange Mound. We chatted about The Prodigy, derivative poetry, uppity Negroes, the DJ scene in Europe and more. The whole conversation was dope. So refreshing!
IMAKEMADBEATS sits at the helm of Unapologetic, which is home to musical, performance and visual artists such as Cameron Bethany, AWFM and Catherine Patton. He’s also worked with Solange, Busta Rhymes and Ludacris as well.
Like most of us who left and returned, IMAKEMADBEATS’ experiences and opportunities helped him develop a new love for Memphis. He re/connected with the sense of community here and the new movement that was afoot.
“Memphis communities have been filled with specific people for long, long periods of time,” he said. “The buy-in to community isn’t that deep in a city where there are transplants. New York is a transplant city, people come and leave. (More importantly,) opportunities are no longer exclusive to having to live in a “big” city. The connectivity of the Internet and social media gives us access to information and people.”
Growing up, he spent a lot of time visiting his mom on the East Coast. “I used to think other places like DC and New York were so aware and up on stuff. But I was so wrong. …
“Factually and objectively, there’s no place like Memphis and I’ve been a lot of places.”
Still, he plan on staying here.
“But I saw that people were finally frustrated enough. When you find a frustrated community, you find a community primed for change. People will say, ‘This isn’t here. That isn’t there. So we’re about to start our own stuff. And invest some money.’ Which this place, as we are sitting in, the CMPLX, is a result of this (frustration).”
So what’s up with the mask? Is it the social anxiety that he has talked about? Is he creating an international man of mystery persona? Is it dismantling the cult of personality? According to Dukes, it’s all of the above, plus it forces people to focus on the music and the art rather than defaulting to presumptions based on height, looks, race, etc.
As we talked more about the music and his inspiration, which comes from anywhere and everywhere, IMAKEMADBEATS cited his major superpower as being surrounded by really creative people with dynamic backgrounds. “We’re all different, but we’re all OK with being vulnerable with each other. …That’s what it is. Art is vulnerability. Then using it and emotion within that vulnerability to create.”
Art is the most “art” when you do things in the midst of uncertainty, he said. “It’s always something daring. …It isn’t about technical ability, but in what direction did you push this technical ability that was new and daring and different? These are the artists that are extraordinary and legendary.”
I would say we are looking at a legend in the making. And he’s from Memphis, mane!
Occupation: Policy Advocate, Just City. Also, host of Ladies Night on SCS Radio 88.5FM
Lived in: New York (2 years), New Orleans
I Love Memphis: I love Memphis for our neighborhoods. Not only do we take pride in our high schools, we take pride in our neighborhoods. I love that Memphis has so many hidden jewels. And that so many people do things nationally.
I’m so Memphis, mane!: I’m a product of Memphis City Schools. We produce black excellence over there even though people will say it’s Eurocentric. I also use a lot of Memphis slang! I love a good cookout, spades and UNO tournaments. And Go Grizzlies, of course!
Joia Erin returned to Memphis in 2011. You may have seen her discussing social justice on the national stage as a speaker for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Capital Punishment Conference. Or, maybe she was advocating for the mentally ill, the poor, people of color and those more often on the receiving end of the country’s noxious policymaking. Or, maybe you’ve heard her, until recently, as the host of Ladies Night on 88.5FM/SCS radio.
Since her mom always wanted a lawyer in the family, Joia started down that path at Loyola University in New Orleans. However, it was clear to her mentors that she wanted to change the law, not argue it or make cases. Eventually, she switched her masters track to public policy after detouring to New York working for XXL, The Source, Vibe Vixen and managing artists, tours and festivals with Vital Marketing.
When she learned that her 90-plus-year-old grandmother was ailing, she came right home. “I wanted to hear her tell me, ‘go put some clothes on’ one more time,” she said, laughing. “And I didn’t want to be one of those grandchildren that get the call in the middle of the night and have to find my way back to Memphis.”
Joia connects to and with people, as a collective and as individuals, whether here, in New Orleans or in New York, where she had conversations with and learned from people with different faiths, family structures and ethnicities.
“New York made me more compassionate to different cultures and people. Being the daughter of a pastor and evangelist, you tend to drift (toward) conservative. There’s nothing wrong with being a person of faith, but you also have to be a person of tolerance. You cannot measure your moral compass by everyone else’s.”
Back at home, she was welcomed warmly, which buffered her as she made the necessary social and professional adjustments. For instance, growing up she – like many of us – was taught to always work twice as hard and be twice as good as our white counterparts. In New York, she embraced the need for a more global perspective regarding competition and the importance of having an elevator pitch ever ready.
Adjustments notwithstanding, she continues to be enthralled by Memphis’ distinctive and inherent flava.
“Some neighborhoods have been able to maintain their identity and culture…the candy lady is still on the street. I love hearing stories of Orange Mound and Smoky City and Cooper Young and South Parkway…how the black elite lived along the Parkway.”
For Joia, the people here continue to be a big part of the Memphis sauce, which is exported globally.
“I have always been attracted to people. …The Kameron Whalums, Elise Neals – people who left Memphis to do things nationally then bring that spotlight back on us. David Porter, Isaac Hayes, Cybil Shepherd.”
Leaving Memphis and coming back provided her a time frame in which to measure her social and mental growth. That measurement reflects a greater appreciation for Memphis and – in particular – a deeper appreciation for the elders in the community.
“It made me want to sit at the feet of those people who made a change and transformed Memphis,” she said. “And we are still transforming….”
Hometown (Adriane): Memphis
Occupation: Special Assistant to the President for Strategy and Planning, Lemoyne-Owen College
Lived in: Morgantown, WV, Washington, D.C, Wisconsin (25 years)
I Love Memphis: Because it’s my home. It’s where my people are. And it’s a black city.
I’m so Memphis, mane!: I am both Lemoyne College and Wellesley College at the same time.
Hometown (Trinette): Puerto Rico by way of Canton, Miss.
Occupation: Owner, TJ Builds
Moved to Memphis: In high school
I Love Memphis: I love it because it’s so diverse. There are people from everywhere here. Not because of something fancy; people just want to put their roots. I felt this is where my roots should be. It’s home.
I’m so Memphis, mane!: I’m hustling every day! To me, Memphis is about that hustle for a lot of people. I get respect from real Memphians because of how I hustle.
Adriane Johnson-Williams and Trinette Johnson-Williams met five years ago in Memphis and married in 2014. Adriane is from Memphis and Trinette moved here from Como, Miss., by way of Puerto Rico.
Having lived in several cities, Adriane was in a transition phase, struggling with the decision about what to do next. She weighed whether to go back to D.C. to work in education reform or come home.
“I wasn’t sure what I would do at home. At some point, I was hearing about the (schools) merger process (in Memphis) and I was reading the articles. A lot of the comments that people were making were disturbing.”
Confident in what she knew about politics and sociology and about school improvement, Adriane concluded, “I can do something at home. …I want to work as hard as I can to dismantle all the mess that’s holding us back.”
Now, even when she feels disheartened, Adriane has no desire to leave Memphis.
“Memphis is special. …I appreciate really complex problems. How do you solve a problem like Memphis? It’s very complex here but it’s worth it because it’s my town. Any improvements I make for black folks here, I make for my family. So I don’t want to leave. I can. Even if I can’t make a living here, I’m not leaving because I can make a living in other ways.”
Does she see change in Memphis?
“Driving around, I noticed that certain parts of the city are glowing and sparkling. …White people are moving into parts of the city that I didn’t expect to see.”
Though Adriane describes herself as a realist, she is steadfastly optimistic about the future of Memphis. She nods to the emerging class of thinkers, doers and creators making their own way despite pressures to leave, feeling purposely silence, a lack of upward mobility and so on.
“Because they’re joyful in what they’re doing, that joy is going to sustain and help us to have a brighter future for black folk.”
Trinette’s dad moved the family from Puerto Rico to Memphis, settling in Germantown when she was in high school in the early to mid-80s. In Puerto Rico, Trinette, who speaks fluent Spanish, encountered many who assumed she was African; in Memphis, the assumption often was that was Puerto Rican or “other,” especially with her reddish ponytail!
She finished high school at Kirby and initially found it easy to get a job, she said, largely because people believed her to be different because of the way she spoke. An opportunity with FedEx presented her with multiple options to move elsewhere.
“I wanted to stay here because it most felt like home,” she said. “I didn’t want to be anywhere too country or too fast. Memphis was the right speed.”
As she moved along in her process and up the ranks in construction, it became more difficult to get work, even with 10 years of construction experience and a master’s degree. Her number one fan (Adriane) spoke with some people who helped open some doors.
Her company, TJ Builds, specializes in woodwork – fences, closets, cabinets, doors. She also does construction management and provides owner-representation services, which positions her to be the translator on a job site to facilitate communication between Spanish-speaking workers and non-Spanish-speaking contractors.
Much like Adriane, Trinette thinks of the greater good and about how to improve the lives of those around her.
“I pay my independent contractors a good wage so that they can handle the taxes and be able to do something other than buying a loaf of bread,” she said.
“Down the line, I see my business renovating and flipping homes to make affordable housing. So often people buy homes in these neighborhoods and raise the price points to where people who are used to living there are priced out. I would like to make money but I don’t want to get rich and leave our people out of the picture.”
Trinette and Adriane share a clear vision of the future. It’s both realistic and optimistic and right here in the “M. Onward!”
Hometown: McGhee, MS /Jackson, MS
Occupation: Anchor, Local 24 News
Moved to Memphis: 5 years ago
I Love Memphis: Because of the children. During the time when I wrote my first children’s book, “Up North, Down South,” I fell in love with the children here. When I gave away books they received it like they were receiving a new bike at Christmas. And it touched my heart.
I’m so Memphis, mane!: I think I was (so Memphis) before I came. Memphis is really just a larger Jackson. So I naturally became (so) Memphis….
The kids in Memphis are what has kept her here and endeared her to our fair city.
Five years ago, Katina moved here from Jackson, MS, having also worked at news stations in Nashville and in Raleigh-Durham, N.C. Memphis is an intentional choice but like many professionals, she had options.
“I used to always say I want to go here or there but I stopped that. What I want is not always what God wants. So, I sit still until He says go or stay.”
Memphis was not unfamiliar territory; her sister lived here for some time. Katina traveled to and from Memphis on the weekends to help with her niece and nephew.
Then came the definitive clarion call she was seeking.
“I thought that I was coming to Memphis for television. (But) it was about those babies. It wasn’t until I got to Memphis that I published that book. It sat in a box for nine years. And it was published out of pain. My mom was diagnosed with blood cancer. For 6 months, I would leave work at 10:30 p.m. and drive four hours to McGhee (Mississippi, her hometown).”
During a visit home, she came across the manuscript for her children’s book “Up North Down South.” She recalled climbing into bed with her mother and reading it to her.
“Mom smiled and said two words – ‘publish it.’ Had I not come here and gone through that experience with her, I would have never published that book.”
That book since has taken her across the globe. See what happens when you’re still? Live it and learn, people!
She told me of her visit to the Noyaa school in Jamestown, Ghana, her work with them to secure new land and the 30-minute documentary she is producing. She speaks fondly of her time spent in schools reading to kids and giving away books, impressing upon students the importance of reading.
As a poor kid growing up, books had been her passport. Now, when she signs books, she always includes this message: “With books you can go places. #Read.”
She loves that Memphians have “embraced me even as an outsider. They just welcome me in like I’ve been here the whole time. It’s priceless. Not every city is this way.”
What’s next for the journalist, do-gooder and griot? More books of course! And more work with kids, and in particular, Noyaa (now called Genesis), the school adopted.
Acknowledging and expressing concern for the low literacy and the high poverty rates in our own backyard, Katina said in Jamestown there is “an unimaginable abject poverty – children sleeping on abandoned boats or in boxes on the beach amidst an intolerable stench with no running water or sewage system.”
Thus, she will continue to work both here and there to bring light to young lives. Here next book, “A Kofi Tale,” is tied to West Africa and centers around Kofi Annan, the Ghanian diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, who served as secretary-general of the United Nations.
Hometown: Born in Chicago, grew up Omaha, Neb.
Occupation: On-air personality, K97/iHeart Media (syndicated in 30 markets), program director V101, assistant program director K97, imaging for V103 in Chicago, voiceover work for iHeart radio
Moved to Memphis: Since 1996 at University of Memphis, 22 years minus the one year she was gone.
I Love Memphis: The first thing that attracted me to Memphis was the people. When they say “Southern hospitality” they had Memphis in mind. When you walk down the street and make eye contact, they say hello. They greet you. It’s just a different way of life. There’s a lot of love and a lot of pride. Being here, seeing how things are growing and how they’re changing yet maintaining its identity is one of things I love about the city.
I’m so Memphis, mane!: If there was a checklist, I probably checked off a couple. I’ve lived in multiple neighborhoods. I cut my teeth in North Memphis. I wanna eat at a restaurant that’s run and cooked by Memphians. That’s what make me (so Memphis)…. Ain’t it mane?”
Almost everything Sue said throughout our chat is so Memphis. She embodies some of the best characteristics of our people and our city. She celebrates Memphis and feels pride in our city.
“Every time a Memphian does something, we all celebrate. And we claim everybody regardless. If you were here when Triple 6 won the Oscar, you would have heard Memphians collectively losing their minds!”
The majority of Memphis folks don’t subscribe to “Big I’s and little u’s,” she said.
“Memphians are all approachable no matter what their station. They are all approachable. Anybody from the city, any who left or came back…doesn’t matter what you do. It’s a family.”
Sue transferred to the University of Memphis with ambitions of becoming the female Spike Lee. She was a little daunted by the process and wasn’t that confident in her writing. However, she has always loved music and has wanted to DJ since she was a young girl. Figuring it out in Omaha proved to be challenging, as there was no real access to the equipment she needed.
Once at U of M, she changed course to study communications. She’d done some radio in Omaha and worked at U92 while in college. Subsequently, she was hired by Hot 107. Still, she didn’t get behind the turntables until she started receiving vinyl from a friend at Bad Boy, which renewed her enthusiasm.
“I bought turntables from DJ Jus Born, then he put together a crate for me (to work with). DJ Spiderman gave me my nickname and my first mixer. It really speaks to Memphians looking out for each other, she said.
“The thing that continues to push Memphis forward when we talk about the culture is reaching out and helping someone else. Success doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Whatever success I have is because someone reached out.”
She had her first gig in 2004 (she still has the flyer!) in North Memphis and it was on from there.
She advises, “Continue to extend the hand and as Issa Rae says, network sideways. People tend to get into a certain space and they feel threatened by what’s younger and what’s next. There’s more than enough and if you’re on your business, there’s always more for you.
“If your hands are so full of blessings that they’re overflowing, you have to share that. Whatever I’ve learned, whatever I can hand off, whatever I can share, I will.
Sue plans to stay in Memphis as long as we will have her. She brings a sense of familiarity, friendship and a listening ear to her fellow Memphians.
“If I can share a joke or make the day better, I want to do that. And if I can be a source of inspiration for, especially for the younger ones, I consider myself blessed.”
So, I suppose we keep Sue; she can stay. Really, we’re happy to claim you, Sue!