Welcome to MMI’s Fellow Spotlight series featuring our amazing teaching artists. Not only do MMI Fellows lend their talents to supporting and engaging Memphis youth all over the city, but they also help build and sustain our arts ecosystem through their independent projects.
Today, meet percussionist and music educator David Bassa! David has been with MMI since our second year, and works with students at Melrose High School and Douglass High School. In addition to working with MMI youth, David assists various organizations and venues across the city with production, technical needs, and networking opportunities. He recently chatted with MMI about the future of Memphis music, why he loves working with students, and what he's most looking forward to post-pandemic.
I moved from Little Rock to Memphis in 5th grade, and I’ve been here ever since. I was interested in music from a young age—my pops played sax. I only picked up the drums because it was a way for me to get to bang on stuff. But it wasn’t until I went to Overton High School that I decided, “Okay, I can do [music] after high school, whatever that looks like.”
My primary instrument is drums, percussion. But I actually don’t play all that much outside of a teaching context. The thing is, I’ve never really been a gig artist. I've never been a church guy or up for long hours at the club. I do a lot of production around town, assisting with the set-up, networking, etc. at various venues.
I never saw myself teaching. Then, a friend called me during the second year of MMI and told me they were hiring artists and musicians for the Fellowship. It was really random—it was my high school sweetheart's grad school roommate. I was like, "Man, they’re not going to hire me. I like kids. I coach, but I'm nobody's teacher.” You know?
I interviewed, and they hired me. Obviously, I’ve been here a minute now, and I love it. I get to relive high school year to year. And even though I’m really just drumming in a teaching context these days, what I work on with the students fuels my work outside of the classroom, too.
One of my favorite parts of working with the students is having the chance to take them somewhere new every semester. That’s the most fun, because a lot of the students I work with haven’t had the chance to explore much of the city beyond their neighborhood. But when there’s a trip on the line, I’m able to say, “Your GPA needs to be this high. You can't ditch class, or your band practices, or your performances.
My first year, I took them to Mardi Gras. The parade was lit. It's cool because the crowd was screaming and throwing stuff. These kids are walking down the street with hundreds of folks, thousands of folks, cheering them.
If I could give young musicians one piece of advice only, it would be to monitor your progress. Monitor your progress, but also progress in your progression.
You can monitor your progress, like, "Oh, I can play B-flat now," and if you stop at B-flat, you're either going to be in B-flat or you're doing nothing. What are you going to do with just B-flat? Progression is the key.
In general, you have to remember to keep growing. Life isn’t a puzzle. I mean, it is a puzzle, but it’s never finished.
Especially give how unpredictable life these days is. It's been interesting [since the pandemic hit]. Once the school year was over, I was kind of lost in the sauce, because most of the summer camps were canceled, or they were trying to figure out how they were going to do things online. Most of my positions are behind-the-scenes, and there haven’t been as many opportunities for me to do that work.
I can say that I’m ready to get out of my house. I’m tired of making Kroger my club.
Memphis hasn't really had an outstanding label in recent years. Three 6 Mafia did what they did, but they left. They're not here. Yo Gotti is cool, but he's not here.
All the homegrown folks that do make it, are usually pretty reclusive. We’ve got folks with Grammy awards! But you never meet them, unless you're in their lanes.
We need a label that consists of a couple of rappers, a couple of singers, a couple of country folks, a couple of rock folks, a couple of punk rock folks, a couple of alternative music—whatever it is, we just have to have a label again.
I think there are a lot of attempts at it. And there certainly are a lot of labels that actually do exist. I can't say that we haven't had a label, but just there are way too many artists here to not have a Sony. Everybody that wants to create a label wants to do their genre only. There hasn’t been someone who just says, "Hey, we got distribution for this many different projects of this many different genres.” I think whenever that happens, it’s going to totally change the music landscape here. There’s no shortage of talent here. The church, the club, and the classroom—which are all great—shouldn’t be the ceiling here for instrumentalists.
But it's got to come from here first. Nashville's up the street, and it's the country capital of the world. How is it that the country capital of the world is right down the street, with distribution and everything, and we have the talent that we do, and we’re just known for barbecue, Elvis, and B.B. King?
Even so, there are still more opportunities to make it in music in Memphis today. It’s changing, in mostly positive ways. There are more opportunities to connect with different kinds of musicians across genres. I think it's because of organizations like Stax and MMI, helping to connect artists to one another, and to new audiences.
Ultimately, the future of Memphis music looks bright to me.