Ypsi-based program creates network of support for Black musicians

The Amplify Fellowship launched in 2020 in Ypsilanti to support local Black artists in producing music during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it's slowly become a robust community of long-term support for past and present fellows.
The Amplify Fellowship launched in 2020 in Ypsilanti to support local Black artists in producing music during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it's slowly become a robust community of long-term support for past and present fellows.

Dr. Rod Wallace, educational programs coordinator at Ypsilanti's Grove Studios, and Maia Evans, e-commerce manager at Ann Arbor's Leon Speakers, partnered to launch the fellowship in 2020. Wallace had seen firsthand the struggles independent musicians were facing due to the pandemic. Performing live was inaccessible, and many musicians were unable to focus on their creative endeavors due to financial stress. 

"We began as an equity-based nonprofit that wanted to identify resources for independent Black musicians during COVID. We wanted to assist them in creating musical projects that reflected social awareness," Wallace says. "What we found was that artists do a pretty good job of creating their own music, but what they sometimes lacked was infrastructure. What we're looking to do is shift our focus by mobilizing businesses that are around us and inside of our network to do some of that work for artists."

From November to June each year, Amplify fellows have access to Grove Studios resources and staff, funding from Leon Speakers, events, and educational workshops to make their projects a reality. In Amplify's first "season," the project supported three fellows in producing albums: "The Black Satin Sessions" by Ann Arbor's London Beck, "The Future" by Detroit's Dani Darling, and "The Art of Keeping It Real" by Ypsilanti's Kenyatta Rashon. Even with those early successes, though, Wallace was already seeing potential growth opportunities for the Amplify project.
Doug CoombeDr. Rod Wallace at Wax Bar in Depot Town.
"We're music people. We love to listen to the music and critique and tweak it, but we saw that we weren't doing enough in order to support the artists getting where they needed to get,"  Wallace says. "We had an original vision of this support of Black music artists in Washtenaw [County], but saw through their experiences that there were additional needs we wanted to make sure we could meet."

As Amplify entered its second season in 2022, with fellows Kyler Wilkins (a.k.a Ki5) from Ann Arbor and Lorian Janine from Detroit, Wallace began to see areas where the project could better support artists both on a professional and a personal level. While music production is still at Amplify's center, Wallace hopes to see the program grow to support artists in finding performance spaces and opportunities, developing their online brands as artists, and connecting to other organizations and resources in the Ypsilanti area and beyond.

"The beautiful thing we learned is that our time together is a journey, and everybody goes through a period of change when they work with us," Wallace says. "We like to think we can serve and support extremely new artists all the way up to artists who have an established imprint, where we can solve a specific problem for them."

Amplify Fellowship alumni are a key part of the ongoing support that the project offers to artists. Wallace says that being an Amplify fellow doesn't end when Amplify's annual "season" does, and he has maintained relationships with all previous Amplify fellows. For example, since Darling finished her time in Amplify's first season, she is still very close with Wallace, Beck, and Rashon. She says Amplify's support network is integral to developing unity amongst artists throughout southeast Michigan.
Doug CoombeDani Darling at Wax Bar in Depot Town.
"Now I think my role is sometimes supporting artists musically, or times where we sit down and I talk with other fellows about their frustrations and give them advice," Darling says. "The whole point of this project was to amplify our voices and deal with the challenges we deal with anyway, but also be able to support each other. It's been great to have the support of other artists, having a network of support from people who are really on your team."

Darling recently took a creative break after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but she says seeing and working with 2022 Amplify fellows and current fellows Where She Creep, Baddie Brooks, and Gwenyth Hayes has been "very inspirational." She's been returning to the music world both by participating in Amplify's ongoing "Seven Series" of recorded performances and interviews, and performing at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. She hopes that Amplify's shift in focus to uplift established artists as well as new ones will continue to drive interest in the program, and further develop the local music scene. 

"Amplify has realized that supporting Black artists in Washtenaw County looks a little different than always trying to find new artists to fund and support, because there aren't as many of us," Darling says. "We're thinking that the resources might be better used to circle back to create larger collabs, and infuse our community with support to keep putting out music. The future is so sonically lush."

Beck says that Wallace and Evans could be "very domineering" about which projects and artists they want to move forward with, but instead choose an approach of "meeting artists where they're at." Beck says that's what makes the experience of being an Amplify fellow so special for collaborating artists.  
London Beck at Wax Bar in Depot Town.
"When it came to my project as a 2021 fellow, I'm someone who likes to do everything. I like to do the production, engineering, writing, recording. I'm very picky, because my art is invaluable to me," Beck says. "Rod and Maia recognized that and were very supportive, and gave me the ability to do whatever I want, and helped fill gaps that I couldn't fill myself."

Since their time in the 2021 cohort, Beck says they have realized providing insight and assistance to other musicians is just as important as making their own music. This passion led to the launch of Renivere Recording, Beck's own independent creative consulting and production company. While Renivere offers some paid services, it also provides initial consultations for free. Through Renivere, Beck often works with current Amplify fellows and Amplify alumni on sound engineering and production as Beck's way of giving back to the music community that uplifted them and their own work. 

"Amplify really sets the stage to make an impact that goes beyond getting on a stage or releasing a song someone can relate to," Beck says. "You can really get into the community and really change lives just by sharing a piece of your own."

Janine, a 2022 Amplify fellow, initially met Wallace while she worked at Eastern Michigan University's Upward Bound program. He encouraged her to apply for the fellowship in 2021. She says that at the time, she had "pretty severe imposter syndrome" and had never fully considered making music professionally, but having Wallace in her corner helped to develop her confidence. While she didn't make it into the 2021 cohort, she says having that initial push made it much easier to apply again the following year and ultimately become a part of 2022's fellowship.
Doug CoombeLorian Janine at Leon Loft.
"The impact that Rod and everyone has had on me has changed the way I interact with people in the creative space," Janine says. "I feel like I'm passing the baton now. I want to make sure other artists feel safe in the space, and affirm their creative journeys in the same way they did and continue to do for me."

While Janine was unable to produce the full album she envisioned during her time as an Amplify fellow, she has since began collaborating with Beck on the project that she initially wanted to create with Beck as producer. She says working with Beck, as well as Wallace and the other 2022 fellows, has helped her grow more confident in her musical ability and her artistic career overall.

"The most impactful thing about Amplify is that these individuals really believe in you and your talent and provide opportunities for you to move forward with it," Janine says. "There's this sense of love from all of the fellows. There isn't a single person that doesn't carry this love and care and desire to be the best, but also to encourage you to be the best."

As Amplify continues to move forward, Wallace hopes to see the program not only positively impact Black artists' creative endeavors, but encourage them to become more active community members through building relationships with local businesses and organizations. Janine, Beck, and Darling feel that the network of support the project has built over the past four years will continue to grow and uplift artists. 
Doug CoombeBaddie Brooks at Wax Bar in Depot Town.
"Creativity requires more than just talent. It also requires knowledge [and] business savvy," Janine says. "It's really cool that Amplify is making that a priority now that they've invested in us artists. They're definitely moving in the right direction, and I'm excited to take advantage of that."

Darling encourages musicians who are seeking support to check Amplify out.

"If you don't know where you fit in, we can help with that," Darling says. "So much has changed, and the fact that it keeps changing is its strength."

Wallace expresses excitement to see how those changes play out.

"We're venturing into a territory where there aren't a large amount of models that show how this can be done, but we do believe we need to do something different because music is being engaged with and created differently," Wallace says. "We really appreciate the support from the community as a whole as we learn and build the plane while we fly it."

Applications for Amplify's next season will open in September. To learn more about the Amplify Fellowship and keep up to date with music and events to come, visit amplify-fellowship.org

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

Photos by Doug Coombe.
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