Ypsilanti

Ypsi's Grove Studios and Ann Arbor's Leon Speakers partner to amplify Black musicians' voices

A veteran of the southeast Michigan music scene, a new mother, and an up-and-coming singer-songwriter are the first artists to participate in the Amplify Fellowship.
A veteran of the southeast Michigan music scene, a new mother, and an up-and-coming singer-songwriter have all had their voices amplified by a new fellowship program for Washtenaw County's African-American musicians.

Established by Ann Arbor's Leon Speakers and Ypsilanti-based Grove Studios, the Amplify Fellowship kicked off in autumn 2020. As part of the pilot project, three fellows were chosen by a panel of judges: Ann Arbor singer-songwriter Dani Darling, Ypsilanti R&B vocalist Kenyatta Rashon, and Ann Arbor singer-songwriter London Beck.
Maia Evans and Rod Wallace at Leon Speakers.
"Dani is a veteran of the music scene in southeast Michigan but she brings a youthful exuberance to the project," says Rod Wallace, educational programs coordinator for Grove Studios. Wallace calls Rashon "the number one cheerleader" for the fellows.

"Her positivity is extremely powerful in the group," Wallace says. "And London is one of the most talented people involved in music that I've ever met. Each brings a different dynamic to this group. I think these projects are going to make history not just in Washtenaw County but will be impactful across our region."

Maia Evans, co-founder of The Amplify Project and ecommerce manager for Leon Speakers, says the idea to support African-American artists evolved from discussions she had with co-workers in the wake of George Floyd's death and subsequent protests.

"We as a company had taken a break and were standing out in the parking lot together, talking about how it felt wrong to continue as an organization with this much inequity in the world and in our community," Evans says. "It's not just out there. It's here in our community and we need to do something about it."

She says as a speaker company with its own music venue, staff members knew they could provide unique resources to artists of color. Soon after that, Evans began speaking with Wallace and others at Grove Studios about a joint venture that became the Amplify Fellowship.

The project provides each fellow with 40 hours of studio time at Grove Studios, as well as engineering, production, and other support for a creative project. The fellows work separately on their projects but come together for monthly meetings that offer professional development and camaraderie. In return, each fellow picks a local charity to support throughout the term of their fellowship.

Wallace says an important piece of the project is that each fellow is able to "create freely without boundary … and free of market considerations."

"One of our core tenets is that artists have complete ownership of all their music," Evans says. "That self-advocacy and self-ownership is important in an industry where people can be taken advantage of."

All three fellows say they appreciate both the freedom and the support they are getting from the program during a difficult time.
Dani Darling.
Darling says her career was on an "upward trend" when the pandemic hit. She had been profiled by the Metro Times and had a full lineup of shows set up for the summer. When the pandemic ended most of those opportunities, Darling thought maybe she'd lost her one shot at success.

She was feeling down about the pandemic's impact on her music career and emotional about Floyd's death when she found out about the fellowship opportunity, applied, and was accepted.

She says she wouldn't have been able to make the progress she did in 2020 without the fellowship, including the support of the other two fellows.

"It was kind of like our opportunity to do our own Motown thing, a collaboration or collective of artists. We kind of have that vibe now, with all of us working together, feeding off each other, sharing resources, and forming these really strong bonds with each other," Darling says. "This was the step I needed to take it to the next level. The whole quiet down time during the pandemic was super productive for me, and I'm really excited."

Beck says they can relate to Darling's experience.
London Beck.
"I was also on an upward trajectory, and big things were happening," Beck says. 

They had been featured in sets at Ann Arbor's famous Blind Pig music venue and were about to launch their own music festival when "everything just stopped." Then Floyd's death and other heavily publicized incidents of police brutality against Black people, combined with issues in Beck's personal life, piled on the stress. Beck thought they might have to let go of the dream of being a musician.

It was just at that time of despair when a friend sent Beck a link about the fellowship.

"I thought, 'What do I have to lose?'" Beck says. "And it's turned into this amazing community of other musicians who can empathize and feel my pain. We push each other and really elevate and encourage each other."

Beck says the fellowship has been an opportunity to explore and try new things.

"I just recorded with a string ensemble for the first time in my life," Beck says. "It's just been an amazing, incredible opportunity. I'm so grateful to be on this ride and sharing it with other talented artists."

Rashon says she felt very supported by the fellowship during a time when she was transitioning into being a new mother.
Kenyatta Rashon.
"I have a lot on my plate, and during my creativity time, I've been able to create so many different renditions of myself through song," she says. "The team and our little community has created bonds that are now unbreakable." 

The three fellows are currently taking part in a series of monthly virtual concerts called the Amplify Kickback series, leading up to the release of an album from each fellow in June. Evans calls the concert series "a showcase of where the fellows are now and a preview of the new project."

Each Kickback concert is a ticketed event recorded in the Leon Loft music venue and streamed online. Proceeds are split three ways between the artist, the nonprofit chosen by the artist, and the Amplify program, which will use its third of the funds for more programming for artists.

Rashon was the first to participate in the Kickback series in March, with funds going to Do You See What I See, a local organization that supports female mentorship and empowerment. She says musicians tend to feed off the energy of a live audience, but she still felt "comfortable and engaged with my audience" during the virtual concert.

"I performed an acoustic set, which I usually don't do. It was just bass and guitar," she says. "And it was possibly my last performance before I had my son, so everything to me was about looking forward."

Darling will be featured at a Kickback concert May 1 and Beck will be featured at the final event in the series on May 31.

More information about the Amplify Fellowship can be found here. More information and a link to tickets for the Kickback series are available here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe. Jaleesa Miller Creative Director for Kenyatta Rashon photos.