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Stax Music Academy: Levi’s Music Project and Justin Timberlake foster the next generation of Soul Communicators

Stax Music Academy: Levi’s Music Project and Justin Timberlake foster the next generation of Soul Communicators

For decades, the history behind Memphis’ Stax Records has offered a musical refuge for both new and seasoned musicians alike, including the storied Stax Recording Studio, once home to artists like Otis Redding, Booker T. & The M.G.’s and more. Most recently, the Stax legacy expanded with the creation of Stax Music Academy, an after-school program offering students the chance to learn the basics of music theory, songwriting, and their production program Song Lab—a crash course on the music business. “We want our students to be equipped with the knowledge of how to be successful in music,” says Pat Mitchell-Worley, Stax Music Academy Executive Director. “In this day and age, that means they’ll need to understand how the industry works, how it’s changing, and the tools that are available to them. That’s a freedom artists didn’t have 25 years ago.”

For Pat, the impact of Stax Records within her hometown of Memphis spans far beyond the classroom. “I grew up in a family that loved music,” she says. “My father went to high school with the Bar-Kays and Earth, Wind & Fire. He grew up in the same neighborhood as STAX Music Academy.”

Recently, Guitar Center partnered with the Levi’s Music Project and Justin Timberlake to help outfit Stax’s Song Lab with brand new studio equipment, as well as provide additional resources to develop skill sets in collaborative production. We sat down with Pat to talk about the mission behind Stax’s Song Lab programming, as well as how the Memphis community continues to inspire a new generation of artists.

Tell us a little bit about the history of Stax Music Academy.

Pat Mitchell-Worley: Stax Music Academy is celebrating our 20th anniversary in 2020—20 years of music education for the young people of Memphis. It’s pretty amazing for an arts program of this kind to have history. A lot of organizations fall by the wayside over the years, but we have been able to keep it going for 20 years, and plan on being around for 20 more. It’s pretty exciting working here. There’s something empowering about being able to teach the things that you’ve learned to the next generation to carry on. There’s an energy here, and the students are so open. They’re young creatives, ready to soak things up. I wanted to spend more time here, and that’s how I ended up in my current role.

Can you walk us through some of Stax Music Academy’s programming?

We want our students to be equipped with the knowledge of how to be successful in music. In this day and age, that means they’ll need to understand how the industry works, how it’s changing, and the tools that are available to them. That’s a freedom that artists didn’t have 25 years ago. You no longer have to wait until you’re out of school to start your music career. Your music career starts now.

The programs are separated into different ensembles—we have a jazz ensemble, a junior high school ensemble, drumline, and a senior high school ensemble, around 100 total students. We teach a foundation of music theory—we believe that it’s necessary to build a musician. This year, we also added in Songwriting, Music Business, and our Song Lab program to showcase all aspects of music industry careers. The other piece for us is performance. We have always been strong on performance. Over the years, we’ve done several European tours, toured Australia, and also performed at the opening of the Smithsonian African-American Museum. There’s never a question that if Stax Music Academy is coming, it’s going to be a drop-kick of a soulful experience.

Song Lab set-up of keyboards for students at Stax Music Academy
A look inside the new Song Lab classroom at STAX Music Academy, including Yamaha P45B Stage Pianos, Sennheiser HD 200 Pro Headphones, and more.

Tell us about how Levi’s Music Project connected you with Justin Timberlake.

Once we crafted the Song Lab idea, which included a studio environment, we had no idea how were going to pay for it. We thought, This is the dream, but how do we get there? Soon after, Levi’s Music Project reached out to us and said they wanted to work with us—oh, and bring on Justin Timberlake as a partner. [Laughs]

The Songwriting/Music Business element has always been the missing piece at the Academy—it was an important need for us. It’s been a wonderful roller coaster ride—you have this little cell of an idea, and you get to watch it grow and develop. Now that we’re past the launch with Justin and the collaborators that he brought with him, we can’t keep the students off the gear.

We now have a full studio at Stax Music Academy—Guitar Center has been so phenomenal donating musical instruments and equipment for this project. Oftentimes, you get either the instrument or the instruction—but to be able to have both in one place has meant the world to these students. That space to work on their own music is essential.

Collaboration is a major piece of our curriculum as well. In our Songwriting cohort, we’ve picked 25 students from different ensembles within the Academy for the program, and what we’ve seen since we began is more collaboration between students who may not have otherwise connected on that level. They’ll realize “Oh, wait. He likes to write songs. I love the way he writes beats. They’re really good. Oh, he’s a great piano player, and he comes up with some great hooks, etc.”

That’s really important to us, too, because one of the things about Stax Music Academy that makes it different is our emphasis on youth development. We don’t just want to create great musicians—we want to create great people.

Justin Timerlake and Timbaland address Stax Music Academy students
Justin Timberlake and producer Timbaland sit in on a Song Lab session with STAX Music Academy students.

Tell us a little bit about what defines a “Soul Communicator”, one of STAX’s core mottos.

As defined by our curriculum, a Soul Communicator is a:

Socially-conscious artist of integrity who

Openly expresses and embodies the message of the music and has the ability to connect with a variety of audiences through soul-to-soul performance

Uplifts his/or her community through music and servant-leadership, and is  fluent and fluid in the

Language of music.

“Soul Communicator” was created towards the beginning of the Academy—it was a way for us to express that we wanted our students to not only communicate through music, but also foster any opportunity to create a lasting, positive impact. It’s about defining your place in the community and amongst peers.

It’s a vehicle in which you can do all of these things—it will put you in amazing places and give you opportunities to meet people. For our students, our programs may be the best part of their day. A voice, a sound, a song—that emotion may be the best thing that’s happened to them.

Tell us about how the history of STAX Records ties into the mission of Stax Music Academy.

Growing up in Memphis as a music fan, you could go to the grocery store and run into Isaac Hayes like it was nothing. Memphis is known as a studio town. We have some great studios: Hi Records, American Sound Studio—all of this great music has come through these studios, but live performance is really how Memphians connect. It was important that we foster that through Stax Music Academy’s mission.

For African-Americans, there were so many rules that were placed on where you could go, when you could go there—there was much restriction on our social experience. Really, there wasn’t a lot of social experience in which you were allowed, despite the fact that African-American performers dominated the live show scene in Memphis at that time. When you look back at the footage of Otis Redding and the Bar-Kays and Earth, Wind & Fire—those were some phenomenal shows. The kind that people were talking about the next day at church.

When you hone in on the youth development aspect, Stax was a small business. Half of the ownership belonged to a woman. At one point, Stax was the third largest employer in the city of Memphis. It was a huge African-American owned business in the ‘70s. Most importantly, Stax Records is all about community. Artists like James Alexander, Isaac Hayes, David Porter—they were neighborhood kids. There’s so much within that story that allows us to pull from for our programming and how we teach and why we teach.

Timbaland mentors a Stax Music Academy student
Timbaland mentors a Stax Music Academy student during their visit.

Lastly, do you remember the moment in your life that you realized music was the career path for you? Was there a specific concert, artist or event that inspired the initiative to give back?

Wow. That comes with the fact that I grew up in a family that loved music. As I mentioned, my father grew up in the neighborhood that Stax Music Academy is in. I go to the church my five generations of my family have attended. Most of our teachers have some connection back to this neighborhood.

I love music and have always had a passion to help musicians. Today, I am privileged to work with a lot of legendary artists that have kept me on the right path—I think "What would they do? What would they say?" It keeps me honest, and reminds me that it’s not about all the glitter and glam, but instead how you can express your humanity or how you make someone feel.

It’s a sense of pride for my hometown and a city that I absolutely love. I’ve had many opportunities to work somewhere else, but I chose Memphis because for me, it’s the right place and right time, every time.

Learn more about how you can support Stax Music Academy at staxmusicacademy.org.

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