I was born in North Memphis, right before the Sears Crosstown closed. My upbringing was marked by two decades of declining employment opportunities and home ownership. It was also marked by scenes of violence that I cannot forget—scenes that pushed me to pursue my dream at all costs.
Sixth grade: dead bodies in front of my home on Watkins Street. Ninth grade: two of my closest friends murdered; two others incarcerated. Tenth grade: playing with a gun, seven bullets on the ground, one left in the chamber. It was my friend’s turn to pull, gun aimed at my face. Click. It jammed. I survived. That childhood impression called out to me louder than the others, demanding that I dedicate myself further to it. I listened.
For urban youth who came of age in America where neighborhoods were destroyed by deindustrialization and urban renewal, this is a familiar story. If it weren’t for the real consequences of these processes, the real lives they affect, we could call this a kind of coming-of-age tale cliché.
Yet, how I avoided becoming a proverbial statistic isn’t cliché by a long shot. I was born the youngest of four children in a lower-middle class Muslim household in the inner city Bible belt. I had three older sisters, seven-and-half-years separating me from the oldest. When I was three, my mother was forced to leave us, having suffered significantly from the abuse she had endured from my father. She could no longer care for us, and my father became our primary guardian, a single father of four. In my father’s house, my sisters and I were the third generation to try to survive carrying the weight of abuse.
My outsider status was evident in multiple facets of my life. Whether it was being banished outside because our single bathroom was occupied or being teased at school as the only Muslim boy—a Muslim boy with an Arabic name—in elementary school, my place on the margins was clear. Still, I was able-bodied, heterosexual, and male, and the balance between my place on the margins and in the center gave me a unique outsider-insider perspective.
Ultimately, it was my love and talent for music—for the arts, really—that erased many of the barriers that I faced with friends and peers. By 2005, I was able to navigate the various social cliques that divided our school. Music was our common thread, our common bond. Years later I would go on to run a record label using what I’d learned during my adolescence.
Yet arts programming remains criminally underfunded in places like Memphis despite the positive outcomes it has proven to yield.
States invest little in state arts agencies—less than one half of one tenth of one percent of state budgets are invested in arts programming—but the arts still generate significant dollars. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $166.2 billion in economic activity annually and is responsible for 5.7 million full-time jobs in the United States. What’s more, this industry generates nearly $30B in revenue to federal, state, and local governments every year.
Culture spending often is concentrated in cities, and cities often compete to offer the best arts amenities to attract youth. So what are other places doing?
Seattle. The garage band rock capital is home to 4,571 arts-related businesses that employ just over 20,000 people, generating local spending, government revenue, and encouraging tourism.
Austin. Home to South by Southwest, the nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $236.1M in economic activity, including $137.2M by arts and culture organizations and $99M in event-related spending by their audiences. This spending supports 7,315 full-time equivalent jobs, generates $164.9M in household income to local residents, and delivers $23M in local and state government revenue.
Nashville. For our neighbor up I-40, the music and entertainment industry has a $10B impact on Nashville’s economy annually, creating and sustaining more than 56,000 jobs in the Nashville area and supporting more than $3.2B of labor income annually.
“Art stands in the gap, like it did for me, in dysfunctional spaces where social services can’t reach.”
So how does Memphis measure up?
Like other states, Tennessee spent one-tenth of one percent of its general fund expenditures on the arts, allocating $6M out of a $12B budget.
The city of Memphis spends roughly $250,000 to $400,000 on two arts-related organizations per year: The Urban Art Commission, an independent arts organization that aims to enhance the cultural vibrancy of communities through the development of public art, and The Memphis Music Commission, which is rumored to have lost its annual $250,000 in the upcoming year’s budget.
Still, the economic impact of Memphis nonprofit arts and culture organizations is significant. The nonprofit arts support more than 3,800 full-time equivalent jobs and generate more than $15M in local and state government revenue. The economic impact of our nonprofit arts and culture industry is more than $125 M—312 times more than the investment that the city of Memphis makes. This includes $62.6M in spending by nonprofit arts and culture organizations and an additional $62.6M in event-related spending by their audiences. In short, in Memphis, like in other cities, the arts mean business—creating jobs and pumping money into our local economy.
The truth is clear: More than any of our neighbors, given the city’s widening income and educational gaps, we should be investing more significantly in art to improve outcomes for our city.
In addition to creating jobs and having a $125M impact, we would be able to enhance academic achievement with targeted, accessible arts programs for students maneuvering a turbulent time in K-12 education. Making coordinated, youth-focused investments we can leverage art as a power tool to strengthen the city’s youth, communities, and future. This will, in turn, create more civically engaged citizens who are positively focused and invested in improving their communities. Arts programming can create a sense of belonging, particularly for communities disrupted by poverty and gentrification. With increased and better investments in the arts, we can continue to preserve the rich cultural history of Memphis, while also preserving and supporting existing growing legacies. We can create opportunities for new artists to change the cultural landscape.
But the lack of infrastructure on the Memphis art scene creates five challenges:
- Artists are competing for small pots of money from arts organization, which discourages collaboration.
- Lack of infrastructure and social support for artists encourages artists to be hobbyists who see art as an outlet rather than a viable career.
- Understanding the business from an artist’s perspective, and basic standards of professionalism are scant.
- Arts organizations feel tremendous pressure to raise money to support a damaged art scene.
- Consequently, we experience an arts brain drain, as we lose talented artists to other cities with better arts infrastructure.
Memphis’ current infrastructure does not operate to maximize arts assets. One way we can begin to address these challenges is to change our focus. I suggest we shift the focus from arts organizations to arts entrepreneurship. To borrow Mayor A.C. Wharton’s “cradle to career” focus on education delivery, I suggest we devise plans for “cradle to career” arts entrepreneurship.
So what would this look like?
- Put the focus on the business of art. More artists will succeed if they have business skills, knowledge, resources, and contacts. We must help current artists turn their passion into a living. Many visual, performing, and literary artists struggle to make a career out of doing what they love. Often, the missing ingredient is an understanding of simple business practices that can help the artist better promote, manage, and finance his or her efforts. Students in particular, both college and high school, need to be made aware of opportunities to create sustainable careers as arts entrepreneurs. The arts are also a key ingredient of creating vibrant communities where people want to live and establish businesses and community leaders recognize the importance of this critical piece in economic development.
- Provide practical resources to help aspiring artists gain the entrepreneurial knowledge and skills needed to establish and maintain a career as an independent artist.
- Artists with businesses should establish unions to advocate on their behalf and on behalf of the other artists. Artist unions would allow artists to secure legislation in the interests of their members—More investment from the local and state level. Artist unions would also work to influence public opinion of art and how it is consumed—Artist do not show up and perform for tip money or, worse yet, food. Finally, the artist unions would work to promote, encourage, and bring into existence satisfactory contractual relationships with employers in other industries that benefit from the arts—Sponsorships!
The immediate impact is money; with the minimal invest that Memphis currently makes in the arts, the economic impact of Memphis arts and culture organizations is more than $125 million per year. With a tenth more focus on the arts we could double this within two years and provide thousands of new jobs to the city.
Longterm, we transform citizens into cultural citizen consumers. We create a new generation of civically engaged arts patrons. We increase the number of minority business owners. We usher Memphis into the future of progressive cities, becoming an attractive place for residents and newcomers alike.
Art stands in the gap, like it did for me, in dysfunctional spaces where social services can’t reach. Many peers of mine did not make it to high school; many peers that did make it were lost; culturally, spiritually, they were missing something. My art and my dream of making art allowed me to transcend all these factors that could have killed me.
As children, we all had dreams for our lives, about what we wanted to be when we grew up. We dreamt of being doctors. Or lawyers. Or astronauts. But often our dreams changed, and we ended up a far cry from what we imagined in diaries or on the playground with our friends. But some of still hold tight to our childhood ambitions, nurturing them like a calling we didn’t quite understand but we had to make happen.
And for some of us, like me, those childhood dreams saved our lives.
Marco Pavé is CEO of Radio Rahim Music, a hip-hop artist, activist, and educator from North Memphis. His new EP, Perception, is set to release November 17 on iTunes and Google Play.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]