MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - For the denizens of Soulsville - the South Memphis-based community/nonprofit foundation centered on the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Stax Music Academy - 2020 was supposed to have been a year of celebration. Stax Music Academy was set to mark its 20th anniversary with a series of concerts and events, while the museum was poised to continue its curatorial reinvigoration. Instead, COVID-19 happened.
The music academy’s elaborate anniversary plans were scrapped, including the annual Staxtacular, the gala event that serves as a key fundraising source. The museum - operating in fits and starts amid fluctuating health and capacity restrictions - lost about two-thirds of its revenue, a significant component of Stax Music Academy’s funding.
As an after-school and summer school program teaching all aspects of music - from theory to performance, production to business - the academy has proven to be vital to the lives of thousands of Memphis kids. In the last 12 years, music academy graduates have a 100% college acceptance rate and 67% of the 2020 class earned music scholarships. The onset of the pandemic, and its myriad complications, could have been a devastating blow for the program and Soulsville.
And yet today, the Soulsville Foundation and Stax Music Academy have navigated the financial and logistical struggles associated with the pandemic and somehow found a way to flourish. Even more remarkably, in recent weeks Soulsville has been given major boosts, both in terms of visibility and stability.
Last month, Stax Music Academy students appeared with pop superstar Justin Timberlake, as part of the “Celebrating America” festivities marking the inauguration of President Joe Biden. The segment - shot in and around Soulsville - was the single biggest exposure for the academy and museum, watched by an estimated 11 million people.
This coming week, Concord - the Los Angeles-based music company that owns the Stax label - will make official a donation of $1 million to Stax Music Academy over the next five years, part of an expansive scholarship and mentorship program.
The high profile and high dollar boosts come at a critical time, just as the music academy celebrates Black History Month with a filmed concert program that will be made available online Feb. 17.
For the organization’s CEO Richard Greenwald, the roller-coaster nature of the past year has only confirmed the spirit of resilience that has long defined Stax and Soulsville.
“The pandemic was a punch in the gut,” said Greenwald. “But we’re dusting ourselves off and moving ahead and getting ready for the next 20 years.”
For Greenwald, taking a philosophic approach to dealing with the pandemic was crucial from the outset.
“At the Stax Music Academy and Soulsville in general, we’ve taken the attitude that we will not whine, there will be no woe is me,” said Greenwald. “It’s never been about, ‘Oh, it’s so desperate here,’ even if it has been financially. We all know how hard the pandemic has been for everyone. As an organization we just had to deal with it.”
Still, Greenwald and the Soulsville Foundation were faced with a uniquely disruptive force in COVID-19.
“And the reality for us is there’s not some big endowment, there’s no line item in any city, county or state government for us. That doesn’t mean people aren’t amazingly supportive in those sectors, they are. But there’s no guarantees for us financially,” said Greenwald.
The Soulsville Foundation has been able to offset some of its losses by applying for public money via the Paycheck Protection Program and other public programs.
While Greenwald focused on the finances and future, Stax Music Academy director Pat Mitchell Worley was left to deal with very immediate needs of her students.
“We’re creative people, all of our staff is creative, and that characteristic allowed us to adapt quickly and still reach the goals we have as far as music education,” said Mitchell Worley.
With the onset of the pandemic, the music academy went virtual and stayed that way through the start of the 2020-21 school year. Finally, in October, the school resumed some in-person sessions, with regular COVID-19 testing for students, and strict safety measures in place designed in consultation with medical experts.
“We do COVID testing at least once a week and the students haven’t complained,” said Mitchell Worley. “Their attitude had been if this is what we need to do to perform and to sing and to learn then we’re all about it. These kids still need and want music. In the past I often heard them say, ‘I don’t know what I would do with SMA.’ But I hear it even more now. That tells us we’re on the right track.”
For Mitchell Worley, the uncertainty of the pandemic has clearly had a psychological impact on the students. “It’s tough on them. One of our seniors recently said, ‘I don’t know what my graduation is going to look like. I don’t know what it’s going to be like at the college I plan on going to.’ They feel like their lives have stopped,” she said.
“By us being here and being able to conduct classes, we’ve been able to give them a little touch of normal. The SMA has become even more of a safe space than it was before. We have mental health services built into the program, and a lot of parents and students have called on that during the pandemic.”
Over the last few weeks, the students have been busy rehearsing and shooting a concert film of sorts, one that will be available as part of an online curriculum celebrating Black History Month (to view the video, register here).
Titled “Rhythm & Revolution: An Expression of Struggle, Collaboration, and Peace,” the project has been a tremendous learning experience for the students.
So far more than 70,000 people and organizations have signed up to watch the concert and get the accompanying curriculum - typically Stax Music Academy’s Black History Month concert might be seen by a few thousand people in person.
“Now educators can teach it in classrooms or parents can do it with their kids. It’s very exciting that a school district in Odessa, Texas, or a family in Omaha, Nebraska, will be watching Memphis kids perform soul music and Black music, and learning about those sounds and stories,” said Mitchell Worley. “The only positive thing to come out of COVID is that we’ve discovered how much we can expand our reach through (virtual) programming like this.”
After nearly 10 months of setbacks and struggles, things began to take a more positive turn on New Year’s Eve when Greenwald got a call from representatives of Justin Timberlake.
Since becoming a global pop star, the Millington native has been a major supporter of various Memphis music initiatives including Stax. In 2019, Timberlake established formal ties with Stax Music Academy when, as part of a Levi’s-funded effort, he installed a new $200,000 songwriting lab in the academy and conducted a camp for students. Timberlake also pledged $100,000 toward a scholarship fund for academy students.
Shown as part of the star-studded “Celebrating America” broadcast Timberlake duetted with up-and-coming artist Ant Clemons on their recently released single, “Better Days.” The segment was shot in and around the campus of Soulsville with a group of Stax Music Academy students serving as the backing choir for the performance.
“Millions of people saw that performance and what we do here,” said Greenwald, “and the response in Memphis and all around the country was amazing.”
Just this week, a further boon to Soulsville came with confirmation that Concord, the music company which now owns the Stax label, would be launching a scholarship fund to benefit Stax Music Academy, to the tune of a million dollars over a five-year period.
The Concord Stax Scholarships will be presented to students in the names of iconic Stax recording artists or executives - among them Stax founder Jim Stewart, former Stax owner Al Bell, members of the label’s famed house band Booker T. and the MG’s, longtime publicist Deanie Parker, and singers Carla Thomas, Otis Redding and William Bell, among others. The scholarships will be awarded by the academy based on financial need and merit.
According to Concord, the company and its partners - which include the PULSE Music Group, Creative Titans, Hang Your Hat Music, and Easy Eye Sound - will continue to extend their philanthropic efforts by offering student workshops on A&R, songwriting and music tech, as well remote internship programs.
In a joint statement announcing the scholarship, program Concord Chairman Steve Smith and Concord CEO Scott Pascucci noted that, “The Stax Music Academy gives its students a unique grounding in the Stax musical heritage while supporting their development as the next generation of leaders in the music industry. Concord is proud to invest in the future of these young people, ensuring that the cultural ideals of the original Stax remain a beacon in the global music business and the Memphis community where it all began.”
Even with such support, Mitchell Worley acknowledged there is still much work to do to evolve Stax Music Academy’s programming in the new world her students are living in. Even though COVID-19 vaccinations are ramping up and there is hope on the horizon, it’s clear that the very nature of planning for the academy will be different moving forward.
“My attitude is let’s be ready adapt. We can make soft plans, but this virus has shown us that it doesn’t matter what your plans are,” she said. “Honestly it’s been a great lesson for our students. You’re always going to be challenged in life, but how do you remain resilient, how do you still push forward? Those are all lessons that we teach within the program.”
“It’s true,” said Greenwald. “There’s residual damage that we’ll be taking into the next few years. But the great thing about us is we have 20 years of experience (…) We’ll be ready to handle whatever challenges we’re faced with.”
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