'Born and raised on the Motown sound': Accelerator kicks Detroit musicians' careers into high gear

On a recent Saturday, acoustic R&B singer and guitarist Charity sits in the front row of the conference room at TechTown where three industry professionals who specialize in show booking and touring are speaking. Charity, one of the four winners of a $20,000 grant from the Motown Musician Accelerator, had previously released a few independent singles, but releasing music and marketing to audiences was expensive.


Being a part of the accelerator has helped her navigate that. “The program has changed my life and my creative process,” says Charity. A singer who was “born and raised on the Motown sound,” she says that recording and releasing music presented a challenge prior to winning the grant. “I knew that I was talented and creative, but when it came to putting a project out … that was expensive. I would have to choose between releasing my music and my everyday needs.” Since being chosen as a Motown Musician Accelerator artist, that choice has gotten a little easier.


In addition to the grant winners, artists of all levels packed the room for the inaugural public workshop of the Motown Musician Accelerator. Drake Phifer, event producer of Urban Organic; Richard Dunn, culture, community, and commerce strategist of Muddy Water Group; and Ashley Eden, assistant talent buyer with Live Nation all offered advice on how to solicit shows with an explicit warning to never “pay to play.” Followed up with time to chat with each expert over Jet’s Pizza and Faygo soda, the event was the first of several workshops, which are open to the public, aimed at kicking the four grant-winning artists' careers into high gear.


The idea of Detroit’s most iconic musical brand name providing coaching, mentoring, industry networking opportunities, and grants to four Detroit music artists was met with excitement when announced earlier this year. The four artists in the cohort will be given the opportunity and resources to bring their music to the world.


The accelerator artists, all in their 20s, have been rolled out slowly in partnership with WDET-FM doing interviews and playing tracks, which has given the artists a little individual shine of their own. There's Charity (@charity), whose thought-provoking lyrics are inspired by women’s experiences. Asante (@mindofasante) sings over sleek Afrobeats that belie his Ghanaian heritage. Kaleb the Intern (@kalebtheintern) is a classically and jazz-trained pianist turned hip-hop, pop, and R&B producer. MYNA (@itsmyna) is an in your face 20-something lyricist with a distinctive voice who sings over R&B and hip-hop tracks.


According to Detroit musician and program director Suai Kee, 409 applicants vied for the coveted four spots. Through a blind process, Kee and her small team narrowed the field down to the four winners.


Each artist gets a $20,000 grant to spend on their craft. The artists each say that they’ve used their money so far on things like MacBooks, headphones, microphones, wardrobe, movement coaching, production equipment, cameras — things that allow them to create content quickly for less money and to have more autonomy as an artist.


For Kee, the transition from artist to the management side has been a learning lesson for her as well. Once signed to a major record label when such a feat was rare for Detroit artists, Kee never quite hit the mainstream success she expected. Instead, she began to educate herself on the industry embarking on an independent career. She parlayed her self-taught industry knowledge into a management and music industry teaching role.


The Nov. 9 workshop is another example of how the yearlong program is beneficial to more than just the four program participants, she says.


“We do community workshops and office hours,” Kee explains, “The idea behind that is the idea behind the program, while we chose those four artists and hope that they will use the grant to their benefit, we also remain hopeful that they will stay true Detroit artists.” Though Kaleb the Intern is moving to L.A. where the film industry can support his music career, he says he remains committed to being a “Detroit artist.”


“The money that we were awarded, I know that I’ve been spending it with other Detroiters.” He explains that he and the other participants are paying local studios for time, as well as purchasing things like photo shoots and graphic design from local professionals. “I think that’s one of the big benefits to the larger community, helping to build a bigger entertainment market.”


That component is important to both Gener8tor, a turnkey platform that supports artists and entrepreneurs and is one of the sponsors of the Motown Musician Accelerator program as well as another program gBeta MusicTech, which funds entertainment and tech-related startups. One of the primary goals of the programs is to enhance the creative economy in Detroit.


There is also a mentoring component to the program. The four artists each get a trip to New York, as well as Los Angeles where they have a chance to meet with industry professionals, ask questions and build relationships. “We’ve already gone to New York where they were able to get into meetings that they wouldn’t have been able to get into on their own,” Kee says. “We used our juice, Motown, and Capitol’s juice. They get to ask questions that help them. They met with the head of A&R at RocNation, AudioMack, William Morris Endeavor — one of the largest talent agencies in the world. The trips get them out of Detroit and get them connections with people that they can stay in touch with long term.”


Meeting with industry professionals is one of Kaleb’s favorite parts of the program. “It’s amazing that in just a few short weeks, I’ve been able to play my music for some really great people.” A gentle giant at well over 6 feet tall, the soft-spoken 20-something producer seems awestruck by the opportunity. “To know that I’ve met these people, that they know who I am and are open to hearing from me is amazing.”


On the programming side, the Motown Musician Accelerator program has workshops and office hours, which are both free and open to the public. On the Motown Musician Accelerator website, there are three days that any Detroit independent artist can schedule a time to ask questions about the music industry. For Kee, this is where she sees the ultimate value and one of the ways she enjoys spending her time. “We can sit down and map out a strategy for them as well. It’s just a matter of them reaching out and asking. Some weeks, I get really full and some weeks it’s kind of dry. But, it balances out and that’s natural as a new program.”


At the end of the program, during the planning phase, Kee and the other program directors will sit down with each artist and map out the next year of their career. “I’m going to ask them, ‘What do you want 2021 to look like? Are you on the road touring? Are you working on another album?’ ” she says.


So far, all of the program participants are planning larger projects and working on creating images that help build their social media following, “I’ve been able to get equipment that allows me to do more videos, which helps reach new fans,” Charity says.


This city isn’t going to look like the Motown of 60 years ago. But with the help of the Motown Musician Accelerator program, and others like it, there is the potential to create and support an entirely new music ecosystem that can benefit all Detroiters, musicians and non-musicians alike.


Go to motownmusicianaccelerator.com to learn more about news, events, and opportunities related to the program and Detroit’s greater music industry.

This article is part of our Equitable Development series, in partnership with Henry Ford Health System, where we explore neighborhood progress and impact of Henry Ford Health System and community partners. Stories illustrate growing an inclusive Detroit in a way that allows people from all races, classes, and abilities to participate and benefit.


Read more articles by Biba Adams.

Biba Adams is Model D's Editor at Large. Biba Adams is a longtime journalist whose work is fueled by her passion for people and her native Detroit. Her work has appeared in VIBE Ebony Magazine, and more. Find her on all social channels @BibatheDiva.
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