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Exporting culture, importing experience: The benefits of taking Detroit musicians abroad

Wayne Ramocan plays drums in Turkmenistan

Mahogany Jones and band

A venue in Turkmenistan

Mahogany Jones with fans in Turkmenistan


Detroit has a long history of manufacturing products that change the world. However, in the 1960s, Detroit was best known for its contribution to music through Berry Gordy and the young people of Motown. 

This would be a convenient point to romanticize the golden era of Detroit music. Fortunately, much has already been documented and there is no need to be redundant. Instead of insisting upon Motown 2.0, I suggest we remember and embrace two major principles that the label mastered: access and exposure. 

In the 1960s, Berry Gordy and his team provided access and exposure for young performers such as "Little" Stevie Wonder, The Jacksons, and The Supremes. In 2015, Detroit has a group of emerging musical artists that has the same potential to affect the world's culture just as Motown influenced people across the globe. 

My Jamaican uncle plays all styles of music when we visit him, including country, folk, reggae, and soul. Uncle Courtney explains that as young children, he and his friends listened to all sorts of music because reggae was still an underground expression. In fact, "Judge Not" and other early Bob Marley recordings were inspired by the doo wop and soul popularized by Motown. The music created on the Boulevard in Detroit made its way to Jamaica and other countries, where it would make a big impression. 

Today, this tradition of exporting Detroit's cultural products lives on as the musical innovations of Juan Atkins (techno) and James "J Dilla" Yancey (hip hop) continue to touch every part of the globe. Music has provided a platform for Detroiters to expose the outside world to their talents while exposing them to the world outside of Detroit.

As a young musician, I can recall other musicians returning from tours overseas with tales of the people, culture, and food of the places where they had performed. What was consistent in all of their recollections was "love" – the appreciation that crowds showed for their music. 

Recently, I was afforded the opportunity to experience this overseas "love" firsthand. I traveled with a band accompanying hip-hop artist Mahogany Jones to Turkmenistan, a country that many have not heard of. The eight-day tour was by request of the U.S. State Department as a part of a cultural exchange with the former Soviet country. 

Despite the Turkmen tradition of isolation, we were able to perform an art form that is commonly perceived as youth rebel culture, just as hip-hop was perceived in America during the '80s. We toured the major cities of Ashgabat, Turkmenabat, and Dashoguz to perform and teach in that little understood region of the world.

Despite our lack of knowledge of the country, we were welcomed by people who were fully aware of the culture that is expertly exported from America. Through the performances and music education workshops that we conducted, we were exposed to the beauty, culture, and love of the people of Turkmenistan. 

Exposure to the people and culture of a different place has the tendency to positively affect an individual. In Detroit, a city where only 12.7 percent of adults have a bachelor's degree or higher, many young people are not being exposed to the Asian and European study-abroad programs through universities. I must clarify that all musicians are not forgoing formal education; however, it is more common for music, not academia, to provide opportunities to travel and gain exposure to the world outside of Detroit. Musicians who are able to travel bring back influences from the cultures that they have encountered and return with a greater perspective of their place in the world. 

Musicians who tour abroad also receive greater respect from their peers and hometown audiences. Detroit artists of all types are aware of this. It is not explicitly stated, but Detroit artists are expected to make a name for themselves outside of the city before being celebrated at home. In other words, the lack of attention that the artist receives at home causes them to push for exposure outside of the city. As a consequence, Detroit artists often are celebrated worldwide with large followings years before they are recognized at home. So I am left wondering if this quest for respect is part of an unintentional conspiracy to infuse the world with Detroit music.

After overseas exposure, the work at home doesn't necessarily become easier, but it does carry a greater sense of purpose. The resurgence of Detroit frequently includes a conversation about "braindrain," however this term usually applies to STEM-related fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). Are the influencers in Detroit considering retaining talent within music? It is important that the creative community, audiences, and philanthropy support musicians as they strive to establish their careers from this city? Detroit has manufactured many things, including music. Let's uphold that reputation.

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Wayne Ramocan is a Detroit musician who drums for Mahogany Jones and the Gabriel Brass Band. Read about his community work in Model D's sister publication Urban Innovation Exchange.
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