"Shaft! Can ya dig it?" rolls off their lips with swagger. It's followed by a pause, then a collective shout calling for a "remix!" As the teenage chorus puts a new spin on this old Isaac Hayes classic, complete with choreographed dance moves and a killer horn ensemble, those in the audience are left to wonder if this is really happening—especially now, in our current era.
How is it possible for these kids to be this cool? How do they even know about this music, written decades before their time? But they do—the youth at the Stax Music Academy know a lot about music and music history. They're working hard to preserve the Memphis soul sound but also to create a new one—carrying on the Stax legacy and becoming the next great generation of soul communicators.
Funky and emotional, gritty and raw, Stax music is distinctly Southern with a sprinkle of gospel and a twinge of the blues thrown in to the mix. And while the "Stax sound" is synonymous with African American culture and artists, Stax was an integrated business in a time and era when that simply was not done, especially not in Memphis.
Founded by two white businesspeople, Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton, the label featured integrated bands (including their acclaimed "house band" Booker T. and the MGs) and a multi-racial administration staff. Stax was a musical powerhouse—producing more than 160 top 100 records on the pop charts and more than 240 top 100 records on the R&B charts. Stax launched the careers of such legendary artists as Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Rufus Thomas among others. But even with such great talent and energy, in time, things took a turn for the worse. During the mid-1970s, due to a number of factors, including a problematic distribution deal, the label was forced to close.
But the spirit and influence of Stax Records still lives on. Now owned by the Concord Music Group, the label was revived in 2007 when new artists were signed for the first time in more than 30 years. Recently, Ben Harper's Stax Records debut Get Up! won a grammy for best blues album.
In 1998, after years of discussions about bringing Stax back, Memphis civic leaders formed the nonprofit Ewarton Foundation to create the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. The vision soon expanded to include the Stax Music Academy as a vehicle to mentor at-risk youth. The SMA provides students with music education and performance opportunities, with the goals of enhancing their leadership and academic skills, inspiring them to become facilitators for community change. SMA's vision is rooted in the belief that music can shape a young person's life.
To date, the Stax Music Academy has served more than 3,000 kids. SMA students study vocals, instruments, music writing, music theory, production, and most all other aspects of music creation. SMA students take the Memphis sound into the future for generations to come, impacting the world through the universal language of music.
"Frankly, our programming saves lives," says SMA music director Paul McKinney. "Many of our students are potentially at risk, but once they become musicians or singers, it gives them the confidence to achieve even more in life. These students learn real music. They are the the future of Memphis music."
The Stax Music Academy features a variety of programs for youth including the SNAP! Afterschool Program, which occurs during the fall and spring semesters of the academic year. There are four main performing ensembles within this program: The Soulsville Jazz Ensemble (big band jazz repertoire), StreetCorner Harmonies (a choral vocal group), The Stax Music Academy Rhythm Section (classic soul/R&B) and the Premier Percussionists (drumline & percussion ensemble). SNAP! Afterschool is an audition-based based program that is open to students in grades nine through twelve. The program also houses the SMA Junior Academy, a program for students in grades six through eight. The Junior Academy is focused on providing a foundation of music theory and music history to young musicians and features a vocal and instrumental ensemble. The SMA also hosts a SNAP! Summer Music Experience program. A special part of this year's Summer Music Experience will be the Les Paul Workshop, which includes a "Be the Band" Competition, where students will gain a greater understanding of what it takes to form a band of strangers, learn unfamiliar music, and create a competition-worthy musical unit. Winning bands will record their music at a major Memphis recording studio. This year, the grand finale concert will be held at Levitt Shell in Overton Park on Sunday, June 29th.
SMA students have performed for celebrities and dignitaries including Oprah Winfrey, Bono of U2, Stevie Wonder and Bill Clinton and have graced the stages of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall, among others. "I never imagined me ever being able to sing on the prestigious stage of Carnegie Hall," says SMA student Corey L. Martin. "When I first stepped foot in the hall, I felt something that I had never felt before. It was the feeling of knowing that I can do anything that I set my mind to."
World traveling and celebrity schmoozing aside, the program's biggest accomplishment is that, since 2008, every SMA senior has been accepted to college. SMA alum Kris Thomas also made it to the top 10 on "The Voice" last season. Student Mikaela Allen is now completing her graduate program at Berklee College of Music at their Valencia, Spain campus.
For the 2014 to 2015 school year, SMA will begin offering a new program in audio engineering and music production—a college prep program for students interested in pursuing careers in those fields.
As the audience listens to the chant "Soul finger!", they know what's coming next—that infamous riff followed by a high trumpet trill. And while the Bar-Kays made it famous, the song is still relevant now in its interpretation by the students at the Stax Music Academy. The students' faces light up at the thrill of performing, of doing what they love. The whole scene provides a sense of hope for the future. A generation of youth is honoring its legacy while creating its own. And the students are clearly willing to work hard to hone their craft. Otis Redding said, "If you want to be a singer, you've got to concentrate on it twenty-four hours a day. You can't be a well driller, too. You've got to concentrate on the business of entertaining and writing songs. Always think different from the next person. Don't ever do a song as you heard somebody else do it."
Isn't that what we all set out to do—to figure out a way to do our own thing, to leave a mark, to make an impression that's lasting? If so, then the students at the Stax Music Academy are paving the way, led by a team that inspires them to flourish—not only in the music business but in their local community and out further into the world. Taking at-risk youth and turning them into leaders is what the SMA does—and they excel at it, creating future talent and a musical legacy for generations to come.