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 singer Calvin Barnes! Calvin is a producer, musical director, songwriter, pianist, and more who works with choir students at Cordova Middle School and Memphis Business Academy. In addition to working with Memphis youth, Calvin is also the CEO of his production company, Calikeyz Music, and serves as Minister of Music at church. He recently chatted with MMI about growing as a teaching artist, why there are many paths to making a career in music, and how he’s staying productive during the pandemic. 


I’m from Memphis, born and raised. I grew up in a very musical family. My mom was actually a Raelette for Ray Charles. My dad was a singer, too. When I was a baby, he taught himself to play piano.

So, when I was coming up, my parents sang and played all over the city, and put out music. My family was, especially in the gospel world, pretty popular. I guess my decision to pursue music was a natural progression from there. I started playing piano around 11, and, of course, I sang.

That said, my dad actually was pretty big on me finding something outside of music, because he knew that it wasn’t a given that you would be able to make a really great living.

But I stuck with music. It wasn’t always easy—especially when you’re not trying to move out of Memphis. I just had to do it. I got married pretty young, so me packing everybody up and moving to LA wasn’t as realistic. I stopped at one point. I used to be in the corporate world real heavy—banking and all that different stuff.

Eventually, I just let it all go and pursued music full time.


On why there are many paths to “making it” in music

The music industry has a lot of different branches and subsidiary ways that you can look at it and work within it. I’m really big on fleshing it all out and doing it as much I can.

I’m a musical director. I’ve put choirs together for John Legend when he’s come to town. I put on different performances like that and have my hand in different areas of the Memphis music scene. I think when you get into production, that’s a really, really, really, really competitive field, especially when you’re in a city that’s not the center of the music business. You’re really fighting for that spot. You realize that only a couple of guys make it to the top.

And I’ve just never been one of those guys. I’ve always been respected and I’ve had success, but that knowledge can kind of wear on you.

I always tell my students who are interested in pursuing a career in music that it depends, in many cases, on who you know. So, I want them to understand that you are only as good as your word. That really comes before you even show your skill set.

I also tell them to make sure they’re on top of whatever that lane is that they’re trying to pursue—whether that’s being an artist, a producer, a PR person in the industry, or whatever—just study that and the skills around it so that you’ll understand how things work.

There are different avenues to being a part of the music business. You don’t have to be the artist. There are many different facets, so tap into that because you never know what really will grab hold of your interest.


On growing as a teaching artist

I’ve been with MMI for about two and a half years.

When I came on board at MMI, it was the first time I focused on teaching artistry. It’s been really fulfilling to be able to hear from my students, honestly. To hear their thoughts and creative expression, and then be able to try to help. Not necessarily to mold their creativity, but give them options, and show them ways that they can enhance that thing that they’re trying to do—whatever it is.

That’s always been my goal, to present options and then watch how they take the information and apply it.

The teacher at Memphis Business Academy, Ms. Wilson, is so great to work with. She’s not as focused on the traditional construct of what that program is supposed to look like. She’s really more into being broad with the creative aspects. And so that gives me a chance to show the students a wider variety of ideas—just giving them some background information on what my experience is, and then watching them take that information, apply it, and the next couple of days coming back and seeing the improvement.

For example, we had the students look at characters from The Wiz. We looked back at the old one, and then they watched this new one that just was released a year or so ago. Being able to watch them work through that process has always been super fulfilling for me.

I also just completed the Orpheum Teaching Program course. The training was basically a full semester, and it was very intense. But it was so rewarding—I learned so much going through that process.


On staying busy in quarantine

I haven’t been able to work with my students [during the pandemic], but I have been on some Zoom calls with them and with their teachers. We had this contest going for Cordova Middle School—a songwriting contest—and we ran that for a couple of weeks.

When the pandemic hit, I started out doing a whole lot of Zoom meetings and all of that. It’s kind of died down a little bit just because we’re getting closer to the summer months. But it’s been pretty good overall.

My sister lives in Vegas now. And when she moved, we were talking about doing an album together. And so now during the pandemic, we’ve actually had time to do it. We’re working on an EP that should be out really soon. And working on a second one as well, under Calikeyz Music—my production company.

So I’ve been staying busy.