Stax Music Academy
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Stax Music Academy

Memphis, Tennessee, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2000

Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Established on Jan, 2000
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The best kept secret in music

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"Stax Music Academy, closing in on its 20th year, is 'amazing on a daily basis' | Opinion"

On June 1, 2000, the Soulsville Foundation began its first Stax Music Academy summer music camp in the lunchroom of nearby Stafford Elementary School before the construction of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and Stax Music Academy.

We started with 125 young children, who were treated to lessons by the likes of Stax legends Rufus and Carla Thomas. It was “cute” and our aim was to give these children a positive place to be using music education as a hook to keep them occupied and mentor them.

Now, almost two decades later, former Stax Music Academy students are growing up, doing amazing things all over the world, and they are coming back to give back to the music institute that they feel gave so much to them.

One of those is Kameron Whalum, who attended the academy in 2003 and 2004. He is now Bruno Mars’ trombone player and joined Stax Music Academy in February as its new artist in residence because, as he says, “It all started for me at Stax and, having now traveled the world as a professional musician, I just want to come back and lend a hand and share my experience with the students who are like I was all those years ago.”

Another is Kirby Dockery, who goes by the moniker KIRBY, and who attended the academy in 2006 and 2007. She is now a successful songwriter for Jay Z’s Roc Nation and, in recent years, co-wrote Paul McCartney’s first top 10 song in 29 years, as well as writing for Rihanna, Kanye West, and Demi Lovato, among others.

KIRBY now serves on the Soulsville Foundation’s board of directors and recently established a scholarship fund to pay for the tuition of three students to attend the academy for a year.

Evvie McKinney, winner of the first season of Sean (Diddy) Combs’ hit television show “The Four” last year is now living in Los Angeles, signed to Republic Records.

A graduate of both the Stax Music Academy and our Soulsville Charter School, she stops by regularly when in Memphis to tell our current students to never stop following their dreams. Same with Mikaela Allen, now a music distribution specialist with Jay-Z’s TIDAL video streaming service based in New York City.

Others who have decided for now to live in Memphis are Stax Music Academy teachers, mentors, and volunteers. Academy graduate Amber Robinson joined the Soulsville Foundation staff in 2016 as a development associate to help raise scholarship funds for those students of the academy who need financial assistance. And Stephani Brownlee, a graduate of both Stax Music Academy and The Soulsville Charter School and attended Brown University after graduating, is now working on her second master’s degree, this time on full-tuition scholarship at Harvard. She will be the charter school’s graduation commencement speaker on May 20th.

I don’t think any of us in 2000 had any idea that we would see this level of success among the “cute little kids” we were serving, much less see them come back to “give back” in the extraordinary ways they are now doing.

It fills us with unbridled joy to know that the Stax Music Academy has worked, continues to work, and has so much more work to do to help make the future of Memphis music as soulful and beautiful as it was in the past. We are humbled and we are grateful to our graduates and all of those who have supported our efforts all these years. It is simply amazing on a daily basis. - Commercial Appeal


"The Stax Music Academy celebrates success in Memphis"

(February 24, 2019) She has written for Rihanna, Kanye West, Demi Lovato, Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, Christina Aguilera, and co-wrote “FourFiveSeconds,” the first Top Ten hit for Paul McCartney in 29 years. In 2017 she was a recipient of ASCAP’s Women Behind the Music Awards. And she is a product of the Stax Music Academy in Memphis, Tennessee, the renowned music institute at the original site of Stax Records, the label that launched the careers of icons such as Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. & the MGs, the Staple Singers, and 2019 GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award winners Sam & Dave.

Kirby Dockery, a DeSoto County, Mississippi native who goes by the moniker KIRBY, attended the Stax Music Academy in the mid-2000s, earning a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music upon graduation. She left Berklee after two years “to become famous,” she says, but fame and success initially eluded her and she found herself back in Memphis working in a restaurant. However, she didn’t give up on her dreams to be in the music business and, after posting an original song on YouTube every day for more than 200 consecutive days, she drew the attention of Jay Z, who signed her to his Roc Nation Entertainment Company as a songwriter.



With just a few years of songwriting success under her belt, KIRBY decided to come back and give back at the Stax Music Academy, which serves primarily inner-city youth who have taken the Stax sound around the world to places like Australia, Italy, France, England, Germany, New York’s Lincoln Center, and two gigs so far for the Smithsonian Institute: Their 2011 Folklife Festival on the National Mall and 2016’s grand opening festival for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Kirby is now the first-ever Stax Music Academy graduate to serve on the board of directors for the Soulsville Foundation, which oversees the Stax Music Academy, Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and The Soulsville Charter School. She also just established the “The Kirby Dockery A Song A Day Songbird Scholarship” at Stax Music Academy, which requires students create an original piece of music, of any genre and submit it via video. (Cell phone video is permitted.) The scholarship funds SMA tuition for three students for a year. Tuition for the after school program is $1,000 per year.

According to Kirby, Stax Music Academy was more than an after-school program: It was the bridge between her dreams and reality.

“As soon as I got across the DeSoto County [Mississippi] line, and entered that parking lot something within me came alive,” she said. “I was exposed to a music community I didn’t even know existed in Memphis. It was there, at Stax Music Academy, where I heard my first original song put to music. It was there, on the corner of East McLemore where I refined my craft and gained the courage to apply and later attend Berklee College of Music. It was there; where I learned that music wasn’t just a hobby it could be my profession. Stax Music Academy was an incubator for my dreams. I do not believe I would be where I am today had I not been connected to that music program.”

KIRBY is just one Stax Music Academy graduate making headlines, making it in the music business, and remaining a part of what the academy calls its “Stax Music Academy family.” Graduate Evvie McKinney (2015) won the first season of Sean Combs’ reality show The Four last year and is now signed to Republic Records in Los Angeles working with Combs and Meghan Trainor on new, original material. Others have traveled around the world with soul legends William Bell, Otis Clay, Bobby Rush, and others to promote Martin Shore’s 2015 documentary Take Me to the River, which also starred Bobby “Blue” Bland and Snoop Dog. And each summer, Stax Music Academy graduates who are in college but home on summer break form a Stax Music Academy Alumni Band are paid to perform in the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and at B.B. King’s Blues Club on iconic Beale Street.

“We are trying to keep as many of our graduates as possible engaged with us through adulthood,” said Stax Music Academy spokesman Tim Sampson. “It’s important that we offer them this ‘family’ to belong to because we know youth does not stop at high school graduation or even college graduation. Many of them have a deep desire to give back to the academy that helped them through music education and mentoring and some are coming back to teach and volunteer.”

Another one of those former students is Kameron Whalum, who the Stax Music Academy announced February 11th as its new Artist in Residence. A student early in the academy’s programming in 2003 and 2004, Whalum went on to become and currently is Bruno Mars’ trombone player, performing with Mars on the MTV EMA’s, MTV VMA’s, Billboard Music Awards, Canada’s Much Music Awards, the GRAMMY’s, the halftime show of both NFL Super Bowl XLVIII and Super Bowl 50, and a voice and trombonist of the GRAMMY Award winning song, “Uptown Funk.”

“Since we started the Stax Music Academy in 2000 with 125 students,” Sampson continues, “we’ve served over 4,000 students, mostly very young students until we changed our model in 2007 and 2008 to serve older students with a more intensive music education model. Now, we are starting to see the results of our work with these students growing up and doing such amazing things. To have KIRBY on our board of directors and establishing scholarships and to have Kameron Whalum come give back and mentor our current young people is more than we could have ever asked for for. It’s proof that music can change lives and that is what we are here to do.” - Soul Tracks


"Levi’s, Justin Timberlake gift Stax Music Academy Songwriting Lab"

In June, Memphis’ Stax Music Academy will celebrate its 20th anniversary.

The academy, its parent organization, the Soulsville Foundation, and others are hoping a new songwriting lab that singer and Millington native Justin Timberlake and the Levi’s Music Project installed there will help usher in its next era.

That next era includes a new Songwriting and Music Business cohort, made possible, in part, by the new Song Lab.

About 25 students are currently in the cohort, which started in August. They will spend a year writing original music, as well as learning how to safeguard their music, distribute it and promote it.

Timberlake and collaborators – songwriter and producer Timbaland, producer Danja, songwriter Rob Knox and guitarist Elliott Ives from Memphis – came to Stax for a two-day songwriting workshop in mid-August. During that time students broke into groups of five to create new songs. The musician guests worked with students and also critiqued them.

“They loved the kids,” said Richard Greenwald, president and CEO of the Soulsville Foundation. “They were surprised how good they were. They were surprised how they could take criticism and then learn from it and turn things around.”

Their appearance surprised the students.

“They were so stoked,” said Pat Mitchell-Worley, executive director of Stax Music Academy.

The students also performed the songs during a private concert in front of Timberlake and guests, families and Soulsville Charter School staff in Studio A of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. There were about 200 in attendance.

"There was so much energy in that room,” Greenwald said.

Stax Music Academy plans to release a compilation of the songs.

When she joined the organization last year, Mitchell-Worley said she looked for areas where programming could be improved. The academy had a long history of excelling in performance and teaching kids music theory and composition. But it needed improvement, she felt, in the areas of songwriting and music business.

But the Stax Music Academy wasn’t sure how to fund the new program.

In came the Levi’s Music Project, which asked Stax Music Academy what it needed. Levi’s Music Project, a program of the Levi Strauss & Co., provides resources to music education, while partnering with major musicians.

So, the program developed by Mitchell-Worley and Stax Music Academy production director Isaac Daniels became a reality after several months of talks.

The donation included the design and build-out of the Song Lab. Stax Music Academy also received instruments, as well as recording, audio and production equipment from Guitar Center, Gibson Brands Inc., Native Instruments, Shure, Universal Audio and Korg. The value of the donations is estimated at about $140,000, according to Soulsville Foundation spokesman Tim Sampson.

Timberlake also committed to a personal $100,000 donation at the student concert, according to Greenwald.

Of the in-kind gift impact, Greenwald said, “It will allow us to teach some things, in ways we want to teach. It will allow us to send more equipment home with students so they can practice. It will probably attract more kids down here so they can take advantage of what we do. And the building of the songwriting lab is just great.”

He also said the cachet of the superstar visitors will wear off on the academy and promote the arts.

About 100 students per year participate in Stax Music Academy’s after-school program August through May and about 100 students per year participate in its June summer experience.

Students receive instruction on vocal and instrumental performance, marketing, choreography, stage presence and more. And students have performed in concerts in Memphis, as well as Europe and Australia. The students range from incoming sixth-graders up to high school seniors and are from Shelby County and surrounding counties in Mississippi and Arkansas.

Tuition for the after-school program is $1,000 per year, while the summer experience tuition is $500. The academy offers discounted tuition and scholarships based on merit and financial need.

Timberlake talked about Levi's Music Project, among other things, in an episode of Entertainment Tonight that aired Monday, Oct. 14.

“We’re here at Stax Music Academy and it’s important to remember how (Stax Records) changed the world, really, but I want these kids to be able to make their music as well,” Timberlake said in the interview. “I want them to be able to cover Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding, but I also want them to be able to sample them and, like, turn it into something else.” - Daily Memphian


"Stax Music Academy hopes prominent, national TV spot sets stage for fundraising campaign"

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the Stax Music Academy, and the nonprofit organization is looking for monetary support to keep it going. But, before the year is up, the organization will be showcased on a national stage, which might help Stax get to its fundraising goal.

Richard Greenwald, president and CEO of the Soulsville Foundation — which operates Stax Music Academy, Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and the Soulsville Charter School, all at the original site of Stax Records — announced Wednesday, Dec. 4, the effort to raise $1 million in the next 12 months.

Stax Music Academy provides music education, youth development, and mentoring for middle and high school students. It has educated about 5,000 students, many of whom have gone on to be a part of the arts economy.

Donors such as Millington-native and superstar performer Justin Timberlake has pledged $100,000 in the next four years to the Stax Music Academy, Greenwald said. In October, Timberlake and the Levi's Music Project partnered on a new, $200,000 songwriting lab to the academy. The organization traditionally receives support from philanthropists, individuals, corporations, and from the public sector, as well as from sources outside of Memphis.

The annual operating budget of running the music academy, museum, and charter school is around $9 million. The three divisions on the Soulsville campus have a staff of 105 employees, Greenwald said.

"Most of our children pay a very discounted tuition and are here on some kind of assistance or scholarship," Greenwald said. "These are middle schoolers and teenagers [who] need to be part of some kind of activity. We are a premier music program, so these kids not only can sing and play music but perform, as well."

Also announced: Stax Music Academy will be the closing act on "Ellen's Greatest Night of Giveaways." The NBC program, hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, will air at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 12. Greenwald said some donation for the academy is expected to come from its involvement in the show.


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With Stax celebrating the next generation of soul, the foundation knows how important it is to help keep the music campus going forward.

"We are in the middle of our strategic planning," Greenwald said. "The strategy includes looking to expand the number of kids we serve, and I would love to be open [longer] and have more hours, such as [on the] weekends. … The future also includes better publishing and making sure people [can] get original content out, and be supportive of that. … We want to become a destination not only in Memphis, but to be a national place for people to study soul music." - Memphis Business Journal


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