by Jeff Kollath
“You can’t start a fire without a spark…” – Bruce Springsteen
I began my career at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music on June 8, 2015; I met staff from the Memphis Music Initiative on June 22, 2015. Needless to say, MMI has been there all along for the museum and me personally over the past two years. A true partner, MMI staff and consultants have pushed our organization to look beyond our core business, examine what truly makes us a uniquely Memphis cultural entity, and how we could impact a broader local audience through intentional, thoughtful, and creative educational programming. MMI’s support has been the spark needed to affirm and expand its role within the wider Memphis educational community.
Simply put, the Stax Museum has functioned almost solely as a tourist attraction and not a museum for most of its 14 years. While the museum has seen earned income and attendance increase steadily over the past few years, the connection to its neighbors in Soulsville, especially young learners, has lagged. Through an MMI pilot grant, though, the museum was able to offer a slate of programs in summer 2016, including “Stax/Volt 2.0,” a high school program based on Stax Fax, Stax Records’ newsletter that not only promoted music, but issues of cultural, social, and racial import. Participants wrote reflective essays on Stax music (published online and in a printed zine format), spun records in the museum gallery, and met several Memphis music professionals, including former Stax Records employees. While museum staff supervised their work, the participants were the driving force behind “Stax/Volt 2.0,” steering the program towards their personal and group interests, and the particular skills each hoped to learn. The program will continue in 2017.
MMI’s greatest contribution to the Stax Museum, though, is the support provided to hire a Youth and Community Education Manager. A Memphis native and former Shelby County Schools educator, Kimberly Hooper-Taylor began at the museum in January 2017, and has been working diligently to establish collaborative relationships with schools, museums, and other cultural non-profits. It is through these new partnerships that the Stax Museum will establish itself as a leader in youth programming in Soulsville and South Memphis. The need in our neighborhood is vast. Of the 8,000-plus residents in the 38106 and 38126 zip codes, nearly 25 percent are under the age of 18. When system budget cuts and a focus on standardized testing combine with a lack of off-hours learning opportunities, Soulsville youth will fall behind. We hope to work closely with our neighborhood partners to build academic and employment skills in our young people, ones that last far beyond a summertime afternoon.
At the center of our efforts is the rich legacy of Stax Records. While Stax receives plaudits for its commitment to integration and diversity, it is the label’s long history of commitment to empowering young people that really resonates with me. Where else would 16 and 17-year olds be given the freedom to make music and make records? Moreover, where else would 16 and 17-year olds get PAID for this work? Where else could they important life skills, like teamwork, problem solving, troubleshooting, and improvisation? Combine this freedom and opportunity with the company’s open door policy – yes, the front door was always open at Stax – and it was no wonder why the company had such a strong relationship with the neighborhood and its young people. It is imperative for the Stax Museum and its partners at the Soulsville Foundation, the Stax Music Academy and the Soulsville Charter School, to re-establish this relationship with its neighbors and provide this new generation of young people with essential skill-building opportunities.
In many ways, the Memphis Music Initiative has been the spark the Stax Museum of American Soul Music needed to propel the organization into a new phase of community engagement and program development. We are in a much better position as we enter in 2017, with a crucial year of pilot programming behind us, and new energy and excitement for what lies ahead this summer.
Jeff Kollath is the Executive Director of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.