Welcome to MMI’s Fellow Spotlight series! Every other week we’ll be posting an interview with one of our amazing teaching artists. Not only do they lend their talents to support MMI and engage Memphis youth all over the city, but they’re also helping to build and sustain our arts ecosystem through their independent projects. 

Today, meet songwriter, producer, and audio engineer Ty Boyland! To say Ty wears many hats is an understatement. In addition to being an amazing musical artist and lending his talents to programs across Memphis, Ty leads Ty Boyland Consulting and Soul Soil Microgreens. He currently serves MMI youth at Central High School and Crosstown. Ty recently chatted with MMI about how Memphis has changed over the years (and what remains the same), why he’s passionate about food justice, and why youth is a powerful tool. 

***

I am a native Memphian. Over the past 25+ years, I’ve been a songwriter, producer, and audio engineer in the music industry. In my free time, I spend time with my grandson, Chance (I call him Chico). I also am an avid documentary and TEDx watcher.

I’ve been with MMI since the pilot. The most important part of what I do is helping young people self discover themselves and the world around them. My classes encourage youth to define their value, take ownership of their narrative, and take pride in what they contribute culturally. Music production teaches critical thinking, social awareness, giving and receiving constructive criticism, and self-awareness.

 

On the Evolution of Memphis

I often ask myself how can so many things change, yet still stay the same? 

I grew up in Memphis during the birth of underground Memphis rap, beepers, the Mall of Memphis, and economic division. I reached a point where I was standing at a crossroad of two paths. In hindsight, I feel like I chose wisely, but my life could’ve gone very differently, very fast. Now, everything from my childhood in Memphis is all but gone. There’s no more Mall of Memphis, no Liberty Land, and the old Sears building is Crosstown Concourse now. Not even the Kroger or Piggly Wiggly in my community exist anymore. Kids all have smartphones; they’ll never know what waiting on dial-up was like. 

But what remains is an economic division and the same crossroad. What helps me connect with my students are the experiences, not the structures. 

That’s what we build on.

 

On Choosing a Musical Path

To talk about when I decided to choose music, we first have to discuss my options at the crossroad at that time.

For me, the choices were all over the spectrum: sell drugs, join a gang, work in a factory, go into politics, sports, or music. My decision ultimately came down to which one I thought would make my mother proud. My mom, to this day, is the single most creative person that I know. When she saw that I took after her in that regard, she was and still is to this day, my biggest fan. She challenged me, encouraged me to use my voice to say something important to the world. 

Without her, this version of me would not exist.

 

On Helping Youth Find Their Strengths

As far as my projects, there is so much to be proud of. 

With MMI, I’ve helped kids author a book of lyrics, and I’ve trained youth how to use recording software that they were able to operate as far away as South Africa. Many of the young people that I mentor have a better sense of self, and to me, that’s more important than grooming the next music superstar. 

With Ty Boyland Consulting, I’ve been able to educate schools, non-profits, and after-school programs on how to create the most meaningful music programming for the kids they serve. One of my favorite things to facilitate is the parent vs. student rap battle. Each side writes a message in rap form to the other, records it, and shares their verses. Parents have expressed that it was the first time that they were able to communicate with their child that didn’t feel forced or awkward, and everyone felt that they were heard. 

 

On the Intersection of Food and Social Justice

Soul Soil teaches kids about multiple streams of revenue, using music production and agriculture. I always say that access to healthy food is a form of social justice because it’s true that what goes in, comes out. There is a direct link between diet and performance. Where I grew up, in Frayser, fast food is cheap and in abundance. An improper diet can create hormonal imbalances, and those imbalances can negatively affect health and behavior. 

Also, by teaching young men in particular how to contribute to their families, there is a sense of pride that begins inside, but eventually reflects outward to benefit the whole community. Musically, like diet, what goes in comes out. 

Not every child has a happy story to tell, but what we can do is teach them how to reflect on their experiences, but open their minds to rejecting the narratives of limitations and embracing what life can be like with work and a positive outlook. 

 

On Teaching Under Quarantine

COVID-19 has shined a light on what’s possible educationally, but also the inequities that remain—even now in 2020. While I can work with many of my students remotely via zoom, in a high-quality curriculum, many students don’t have the same access. Besides the students that I serve directly, I have opened training via zoom to all SCS students, as well as young people with special needs. 

This pandemic has been an eye-opener for me, and I hope that it has opened the eyes of policymakers that access should never be a limitation to education. 

To young people, I say: Take this time to take stock of who you are, and who you want to be. If you are not already there, there will be a time in your life—maybe sooner than you think—that you will be faced with your own crossroads. Be brave but be accountable. Above all, use your youth as your most important tool. 

It may not seem like it now, but it is a gift, and if you use it wisely, it could change your whole life.