Fellowship for Washtenaw County Black musicians welcomes new cohort, plans outreach in Ypsi schools

A "one-man vocal band" and a singer-songwriter will record albums and do community outreach work in Ypsilanti Community Schools as recipients of the 2022 Amplify Fellowship.
A "one-man vocal band" and a singer-songwriter will record albums and do community outreach work in Ypsilanti Community Schools as recipients of the 2022 Amplify Fellowship for Washtenaw County-based Black musicians.

Established by Ypsilanti-based Grove Studios and Ann Arbor-based Leon Speakers, the Amplify Fellowship kicked off in autumn 2020 with a mission to support and amplify the voices of local Black musicians. As part of the pilot project, three fellows were chosen by a panel of judges.

Grove Studios educational programs coordinator Rod Wallace at Leon Loft.The latest cohort of Amplify Fellows is made up of Ann Arbor-based Ki5, who uses vocal looping to create sunny pop melodies, and Ypsilanti-based Lorian Janine, a singer-songwriter performing in a wide range of genres. 

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 meetings that offer professional development and brainstorming. 

The fellowship also includes a community service element, which will focus on kids and education this year. In the past, each fellow has picked a charity to support, but this year, both fellows will be taking their music into Ypsilanti Community Schools. 

Rod Wallace, educational programs coordinator for Grove Studios, says the community service in the schools will have three parts. First, the fellows will do monthly assemblies in school media centers that will be "celebrations of music." Secondly, the fellows will look for ways they can enhance those media centers with donations and equipment. Thirdly, plans are in the works for an after-school program focused on music at Estabrook Elementary in partnership with nonprofit Bright Futures.

Maia Evans, co-founder of The Amplify Project and e-commerce manager for Leon Speakers, says the choice to name two fellows this year instead of three was due to the need to put some money and effort into securing the program's future.

"If we're going to do it, we're going to do it right. As a nonprofit, we decided to scale back so we can put together the infrastructure we can build on for more fellows in years to come," Evans says. 

"Creating something that honors the place where we live"

2022 Amplify Fellow Kyler Wilkins grew up making music nearly every day, playing viola and singing with a capella groups in college. But it wasn't until a year after he graduated from college that he got his first loop station, a piece of equipment that allows the user to record vocals or instruments in real time and then play them back on a loop, layering loops to build up a piece of music. Wilkins adopted the stage name Ki5 at that time, combining his first name and the number five, which represents both the number of people in his family and the sections of the loop station.

Wilkins knew the 2021 Amplify Fellows and had even played the same venue as 2021 fellow Dani Darling. She told Wilkins about her experience and encouraged him to apply.

"I'm always looking for ways to expand, do something new and different," Wilkins says. "The Amplify Fellowship looked like a way to do what I was already doing, only bigger."

He'd released singles and an EP in the past, but his goal for the fellowship is to put together a full-length album.

"I have this batch of songs, around 40 of them, that I want to refine. I want to write more and then pare it down to about 10 songs," he says. 
Ki5 at Leon Loft.
In the community service portion of the fellowship, Wilkins says he hopes to convey to students that "you can create your own art."

"We want to help students get hands-on experience, talk through the concepts, and give them space to play and explore for themselves, but also come to us for mentorship," Wilkins says. 

Another aspect of his fellowship will include collecting sound samples from around Washtenaw County, a project slated to continue through March 18.

"The fellowship [staff] thought it was something that would lend itself well to my style of essentially sampling myself, but then expanding it to be a celebration of Washtenaw County," Wilkins says. "I think it's very interesting. I haven't quite heard of a project like that before."

So far, he's listened to samples of the University of Michigan carillon and has issued an open invitation for people around the community to send him sound samples.

"The plan is to listen to everything with an open mind and see where things can possibly fit around what's going on," he says. "We're going to create something that honors the place where we live."

"In my heart, I'm not only a musician but an educator"

Lorian Janine grew up in a musical family. Her father was a pastor, and she was always around people who sang and played instruments, including her sisters and brother, who had a passion for guitar, flute, piano, and vocals.

"Everyone had their thing, and then I picked up the violin and it became my thing, the thing I was good at and confident in," she says. 

However, Janine didn't want to be pigeonholed as "the violinist." During her senior year of high school, a friend challenged her to write a song. She'd just started teaching herself guitar, so she wrote a song for a play being performed at her high school.

Once she did that, she decided it was time to start working on her voice, so she began singing more, including on the worship team at her church.
Lorian Janine at Leon Loft.
"One of the things I loved growing up was doing impressions. I could do people at my church and imitate stars, but I was thinking, 'Where's my voice?'" she says.

She began writing more of her own songs and going to the occasional open mic event. She also applied for the first cohort of Amplify Fellows. Even though she wasn't chosen for the inaugural fellowship, she was awarded 40 hours of free studio time.

"That was such a blessing," Janine says. "With those free hours, I started building up my portfolio doing YouTube videos."
Amplify Project co-founder Maia Evans.
She applied again for the second cohort and made it to the final round. During her fellowship, she hopes to create an EP that will introduce her to new audiences. The educational piece of the fellowship is a natural fit for Janine as well. 

"In my heart, I'm not only a musician but an educator," she says. "I graduated with a degree in special education and I'm a teacher consultant at the school where I work. I love kids and I love teaching."

She says she is especially excited to work with elementary-age kids.

"That's a critical age, the age I was introduced to music and fell in love with it and saw how it could be applied to real life," Janine says.

She notes that children who understand music theory tend to do better at math, for instance.

"There's so many ways music can be applied to real life. It strengthens your social skills," she says. "If you're socially awkward, music is a way you can meet other kids, give you something in common to talk about, and [get] an opportunity to learn about other cultures."

More about the 2022 Amplify Fellows is 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.
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