by Lar’Juanette Williams
Memphis, Tennessee, long ago established itself as the city with heavy artistic influences that span from music ideologies to dance, voice, live stage and visual artistic impression. Many flocked to Beale Street to see, hear, feel and experience the sensation of artistic excellence. It was not only a place to hear good music, but a place to see marvelous stage talent; a place where African American artists from around the country longed to work, create and belong. Memphis is and always will be in the minds of those who treasure creative artistic expression from the African American culture. South Memphis – SoulsvilleUSA – was the birthplace, the incubator, the place where African American artists met, connected and collaborated on these historic works of art. In the late 70s and early 80s, many of these artists met, worked, rehearsed, and perfected their work at the Memphis Black Arts Alliance (MBAA). Rufus Thomas taught tap dance. Carla Thomas taught voice. Nokie Taylor taught sax. George Hunt created visual art. MBAA sits in the gateway to SoulsvilleUSA and the location is… just right! This is where Memphis’ art excellence begins!
In 1982, Bennie Nelson West began the MBAA in a 1910-era former fire station as an alliance of 19 Memphis black arts organizations. Back in the 70s, shortly after the Civil Rights Movement and after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it was difficult for these organizations to thrive on their own. With the support of one other, though, they could manifest their dreams and visions. The MBAA served to pull these precious gems together and lead them to work together in an effort to develop a sound foundation from which to grow. Since that time, many African American arts organizations have successfully sustained themselves and it all leads back to the efforts of the Alliance.
Since December 19, 2015, while under my leadership as the new executive director, the Memphis Black Arts Alliance has developed a new vision and mission to improve the quality of life and economic well-being of Greater Memphis through the preservation, celebration and advancement of African American arts, culture and literature. The MBAA is dedicated to inspire, educate and engage artists and audiences toward the creation of just and equitable communities through forward-thinking experiences. We adopted the belief of the mystic Sankofa, the bird that flies forward while looking backward with an egg (symbolizing the future) in its mouth. It means to never forget all that is good from the past so that one will be able to achieve full potential in the future. We cannot go forward successfully without preserving, acknowledging, or paying homage to our artistic history. And we must also celebrate the brilliant creations of today, while striving to advance, support and nurture what will come through our future artists.
In 2016 the Memphis Black Arts Alliance was able to impact the lives of nearly 5,000 urban youth, young adults, artists and arts enthusiasts. We created leadership opportunities (internships) for 20 economically disadvantaged youth ages 14-21 through event, program and administrative planning and implementation. We also exposed 115 area youth, ages 6-18, to the many professional opportunities in the arts, including music, stage, dance, creative writing, visual arts, technical production and videography through Souls-A-F!RE, Voices, Summer Camp (SPARK) and The Academy programming.
2017 will offer expansions of the aforementioned programming as MBAA seeks to collaborate with other arts organizations including Bridging Souls Dance Productions, Stage Door Productions, Stax Academy, and more. Souls-A-F!RE, the prized multimedia performing arts group for ages 7-24, will perform at various venues this spring including Rhodes College, Africa In April, and the Hattiloo Black Arts Festival. The Academy will feature a series of workshop and masterclass experiences including “We Shall Overcome” a dramatic production with music that highlights the importance that the state of Tennessee played during the Civil Rights Movement, and Dreamgirls AllStars in Concert, a masterclass in longevity in the entertainment industry, featuring national touring and world renowned performers who starred in the ever popular Dreamgirls stage production. Our popular monthly Jazz-A-F!RE is moving to a larger venue, Brinson’s Downtown, and will continue to feature some of the most noted area artists, along with house band Prime Cut Trio. Voices – Open Mic has taken on a new life and offer video and recording studio time as prizes for the artists that find favor with an Apollo-style voting audience.
For more information, auditions, and program/performance times and dates, please call the Memphis Black Arts Alliance at 901-948-9522 or visit our website at www.memphisblackartsalliance.org.
Lar’Juanette Williams is a native Memphian and executive director of the Memphis Black Arts Alliance. Prior to taking the helm at MBAA, Williams spent 25 years away from her hometown after earning degrees in arts communication and theater and arts administration. Her diverse career includes time in city government in Los Angeles, where she directed the Los Angeles Civic Leadership Awards; helping to reestablish the historic Bijou Theater in Knoxville, Tenn.; the creation of Knoxville’s “King Week” through her work with the Martin Luther King Commemoration Commission of Greater Knoxville; and program administration for KAATCH (Knoxville African American Tours of Cultural Heritage), a federally funded program that created East Tennessee’s first virtual tour through downtown Knoxville.