Ypsis Grove Studios and Ann Arbors Leon Speakers work together to amplify the voices of the black musicians
A veteran of the southeast Michigan music scene, new mom, and aspiring singer-songwriter all have their voices amplified a new scholarship program for Washtenaw County’s African American musicians.
Founded by Ann Arbor’s Leon spokesman and Ypsilanti-based Grove Studios, the Reinforce Fellify Start in autumn 2020. As part of the pilot project, three scholarship holders were selected by a jury: Ann Arbor singer-songwriter Dani Darling, Ypsilanti R&B singer Kenyatta Rashonand Ann Arbor singer-songwriter London Beck.
Maia Evans and Rod Wallace at Leon Speakers.
“Dani is a veteran of the Southeast Michigan music scene, but she brings a youthful exuberance to the project,” said Rod Wallace, education coordinator at Grove Studios. Wallace calls Rashon “the number one cheerleader” for the companions.
“Your positive attitude is extremely strong in the group,” says Wallace. “And London is one of the most talented musicians I have ever met. Everyone brings a different dynamic to this group. I think these projects will make history not just in Washtenaw County, they will make history in our region be . “
Maia Evans, co-founder of The Amplify Project and e-commerce manager of Leon Speakers, says the idea of supporting African-American artists arose out of conversations she had with colleagues after the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed.
“We as a company had taken a break and stood in the parking lot together and talked about how wrong it was for an organization to go on with so much inequality in the world and in our community,” says Evans. “It’s not just out there. It’s here in our church and we have to do something about it.”
She says that as a speaking company with its own music venue, the staff knew they could provide unique resources to color artists. Shortly thereafter, Evans began talking to Wallace and others at Grove Studios about a joint venture that became the Amplify Fellowship.
The project gives each colleague 40 hours of studio time at Grove Studios, plus engineering, production and other support for a creative project. The fellows work separately on their projects, but meet for monthly meetings that provide professional development and camaraderie. In return, each fellow will select a local charity to support throughout their fellowship.
According to Wallace, an important part of the project is that each fellow be able to “create freely without borders … and free from market considerations”.
“One of our cornerstones is that artists have complete ownership of all of their music,” says Evans. “This self-representation and personal responsibility is important in an industry in which people can be exploited.”
All three scholars say they value both the freedom and the support they receive from the program during a difficult time.
Darling says her career was on an “upward trend” when the pandemic hit. she was profiled by the Metro Times and had a full set of shows set up for the summer. When the pandemic ended most of those opportunities, Darling thought she might have lost her only shot at success.
She felt dejected about the impact the pandemic had on her music career and emotionally about Floyd’s death when she heard of the scholarship option, applied, and was accepted.
She says that without the scholarship, including the support of the other two fellows, she would not have been able to make the progress she made in 2020.
“It was kind of an opportunity to do our own Motown thing, a collaboration or a collective of artists. We now have this vibe where we all work together, feed each other, share resources, and they really bond together,” says darling. “This was the step I took to get to the next level. The entire rest period during the pandemic has been very productive for me and I’m really excited.”
Beck says they can relate to Darling’s experience.
“I was also on an upward trend and great things were happening,” Beck says.
They were seen in sets at Ann Arbor’s famous music venue Blind Pig and were about to start their own music festival when “everything just stopped”. Then Floyd’s death and other highly publicized incidents of police brutality against blacks, coupled with problems in Beck’s personal life, piled on the stress. Beck thought they might have to let go of the dream of being a musician.
It was just at this time of desperation when a friend sent Beck a link about the community.
“I was like, ‘What do I have to lose?’” Beck says. “And it has turned into this amazing community of other musicians who can empathize with my pain and feel it. We drive and encourage and encourage one another.”
Beck says the scholarship was an opportunity to discover and try new things.
“I’ve just recorded with a string ensemble for the first time in my life,” says Beck. “It was just an amazing, incredible opportunity. I’m so grateful to be on this ride and to share it with other talented artists.”
Rashon says she felt very community support at a time when she was becoming a new mom.
“I’ve got a lot on my plate and during my creative time I’ve been able to create so many different representations of myself through songs,” she says. “The team and our small community created connections that are now unbreakable.”
The three fellows are currently participating in a series of monthly virtual concerts known as “The” Reinforce Kickback SeriesThis resulted in the release of an album by each colleague in June. Evans calls the concert series “a showcase of where the fellows are now, and a preview of the new project”.
Every kickback concert is a ticket event that is recorded in the Leon Loft music venue and streamed online. Proceeds will be split in three ways between the artist, the nonprofit chosen by the artist, and the Amplify program, which uses its third of the funds to increase programming for artists.
Rashon was the first to participate in the Kickback series in March Do you see what i see, a local organization that supports mentoring and empowerment of women. She says musicians tend to feed on the energy of a live audience, but she still “felt comfortable and engaged with my audience” during the virtual concert.
“I played an acoustic set, which I don’t normally do. It was just bass and guitar,” she says. “And it was possibly my last gig before I had my son, so it was just about looking ahead.”
Darling will be seen at a kickback concert on May 1st and Beck at the series’ closing event on May 31st.
More information about the Amplify Fellowship can be found here Here. More information and a link to tickets for the Kickback Series are available Here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of Ypsilanti on the floor. She has joined Focus as a news writer in early 2017 and occasionally writes articles for others Output media group Publications. You can reach them at [email protected].
All photos by Doug Coombe.