Does Detroit still have something to prove when it comes to music? You wouldn't think so, right? After all, there is…
Motown (which was born here)
: Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson…
: Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, The Detroit Wheels, Bob Seger, the MC5, Kid Rock, The White Stripes, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, Madonna…
(which was born here): Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson…
The Detroit Symphony Orchestra
(obviously born here)
Rap and Hip Hop
: Eminem, J Dilla, Slum Village, Big Sean, Danny Brown…
: Ron Carter, James Carter, Ralphe Armstrong, Regina Carter, Yusef Lateef, Milt Jackson, The McKinney Cotton Pickers, Alice Coltrane, Dorothy Ashby…
: John Lee Hooker, Little Sonny, Alberta Adams, Johnny Bassett…
: The Winans, Aretha Franklin, her father the late Rev. C.L. Franklin, Fred Hammond, Karen Clark Sheard…
And on and on it goes, a list of American musical greats that stretches all the way to the horizon.
And yet, despite our indisputable musical legacy, which spans three generations on both the national and international scenes, it's sometimes difficult to hear on street level. There is no central music district where visitors and tourists can go to sample the best of what we have to offer. There is virtually no official acknowledgment by the city's tourism bureau – or by any city department – of the critical role music has played and continues to play in what makes this city great and so unique. There is no effort to promote and market Detroit's rich – but essentially untapped – musical capital ($) as a means of rebuilding the city and its economy as the
The best way to begin to remedy this situation isn't to wait until someone else wakes up. Instead, let's kickstart the dialogue – and subsequent action – right here and right now. Here's what needs to take place so that Detroit can re-assert itself as the leading contender for the title of Music Capital of the World. (If you have some more ideas of your own, don't be shy and add them to the comments. Let us hear from you. This is about all of us.)
1. Mayor Duggan should appoint a Detroit Music Ambassador.
Somebody with clout. Smokey? Jack White? Aretha? Eminen? This appointment should be a front page headline around the world when it is announced.
2. Ask Smokey Robinson to host a Detroit Music Homecoming
Last year, organizers of Detroit Homecoming
invited business people to return to and participate in the revitalization of their hometown. Why not do the same for Detroit's famous musicians? The Detroit Institute of Music Education (D.I.M.E.) would be a great candidate to coordinate the event so that Detroit music alumni can also be utilized to help educate the city's up-and-comers. Smokey once sang about the many reasons why he cares about Detroit. Now's a good time for a second chorus. Anyone got the man's number?
3. Wiki Detroit Music History
An app/map/website that helps locals and out-of-towners alike connect with live music and music history in the city is sorely needed. Perhaps the Blexting app can be adapted to the purposes of documenting Detroit's music history. Regardless, Wikipedia's "Music of Detroit"
page needs some improvement.
4. Elevate the E. Azalia Hackley Collection
Do you know what the Hackley Collection
at the Detroit Public Library is? You are not alone. The Hackley is a world-class collection celebrating the contributions of African-Americans to the performing arts. The collection deserves to be elevated to the level of the Schomburg Center
in Harlem and promoted along with the rest of the city's rich musical legacy.
5. Embrace Detroit's queer music history
In 2004, the godfather of house music, Frankie Knuckles, was honored by his adopted home of Chicago with the renaming of a street after him near the Warehouse, a venue he made famous. When Frankie died in 2014, Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a press release honoring his achievements. Detroit should embrace its queer musical histories by making a similar move for the godfather of techno, Ken Collier, at 7 Mile and Woodward where the famed Club Heaven
used to stand.
6. Honor Detroit musicians
We should fly the Detroit flag at half-mast whenever a local music legend passes. There should also be a mayoral proclamation acknowledging every loss.
7. Put up Detroit music billboards everywhere
There should be billboards advertising Detroit music throughout the city, the state, and the region. Websites that promote music tourism are important as well, but there should be no doubt when driving through the Midwest where the Music Capital of the World is located. If the Rock Hall of Fame in Cleveland can have billboards on I-75 in Michigan, then there is no reason why a large sign of Betty LaVette shouldn't be on I-75 in Ohio. Or Atlanta.
8. Stop asking to be on the guest list
Increasing the volume of our scene begins with the person you see in the mirror. Musicians must be paid. Promoters must be encouraged to take risks. There is no guest list tonight.
9. The Detroit-Planet Earth Connection
Berliners want to come to Detroit. Brooklyn wants to come to Detroit. We say bring them all. Memphis should come to Detroit, too, as should Tokyo. Let's keep trying to attract outside investment in Detroit's music culture along the lines of the Detroit-Berlin Connection
. Perhaps most importantly, we must re-encourage the Detroit-Windsor connection.
10. The governor should…
Ask MDOT to begin a revision process for its environmental impact survey to protect the legendary United Sound Systems recording studios (among other things) from the encroachment of I-94. It's not just another building that happens to be situated in the way of "progress"; it's a legendary recording studio as historically important as Hitsville U.S.A., Stax, or Sun Records. The only reason there aren't louder protests about this is because Detroit too often either cannibalizes its history or shoves it aside like a feeble elder relative. We don't acknowledge the cost because we don't acknowledge the value.
11. Create more music districts
Not to take away from places already here, but there needs to be more destination districts for live music in the city, places with a density of continuous musical activity. In addition, we must expand musical spaces that we honor with historic district designation. The Detroit Sound Conservancy is hosting a conference this May
dedicated to this very hope.
12. Make Baker's Keyboard Lounge a national landmark
Baker's is billed as the nation's oldest jazz club, and I'm not aware of any challenges to that assertion. Now an effort is underway to make it a national landmark
. Some things are just kind of obvious. But there are so many other buildings that also deserve landmark status, too, from the Apex Bar to The National Theatre. Let's make it happen.
13. Support the Detroit Sound Conservancy
Yes, I am on the board. I confess. But that doesn't change the fact that this is one relatively new organization fighting harder than just about any other to preserve Detroit’s sonic history and legacy.
We shook up the music world many times. We can do it again. What are your ideas for how Detroit can re-assert itself as the Musical Capital of the World?
Keith Owens is a Detroit-based freelance writer and musician, as well as a board member of the Detroit Sound Conservancy. Follow him on Twitter @kaoblues.
Photos by Marvin Shaouni.