I live in Memphis.
The responses these four words elicit are telling. “That’s where Elvis is from.” “I hear they have good barbeque.” Or even, “I watch The First 48!”[i] inevitably followed by two questions: “Is it really that bad there?” and “How do you live there?” Of course, what runs through my head is, I live there the same way you live where you live. It is distasteful to see how limited people’s views are, but I always make sure they know: “I love my city.”
I moved to Memphis in my twenties. As a longtime resident, I now know firsthand how rich in culture and diversity Memphis really is. It’s not just the place where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while supporting sanitation workers on strike in 1968. Memphis is Beale Street Music Festival.[ii] It’s the Home of Stax Records and Soulsville, and Hattiloo Theatre.[iii] My story of how I came to be in Memphis reveals so much of what makes the city my town, and the place I love.
Imagine a little girl raised in a strict Christian household in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Living with my mother and stepfather, we didn’t listen to secular music except on Saturday mornings. I remember hearing Freddie Jackson, Luther Vandross, and Michael Jackson flowing from the speakers of the radio we had in the family room while we did chores. It was the first thing we did before we could watch Saturday morning cartoons. The soothing sounds of my mom’s favorite non-Gospel crooners bellowing through the halls and permeating the entire house gave us a little more insight into who she was outside of the church.
When I was five years old, my Aunt Jackie moved in with us for a summer. She loved music. Until then, I could tell you about gospel acts like the Williams Brothers and the Mighty Clouds of Joy, but that was the extent of my musical knowledge aside from the few songs we heard on Saturday mornings. When Aunt Jackie came to live with us, everything changed. She would have the radio playing constantly and introduced me to music in a way that I hadn’t been before. She would turn up the music full blast, put a comb in my hand as a microphone, and tell me to sing; she would be my backup singer. She used to be a dancer and cheerleading coach, so every song had its own choreography, which I desperately tried to learn despite my two left feet.
I remember hearing my aunt tell my mom, “Rere, Tracey can sing!” After that, it’s all I wanted to do. When I returned to school after the summer, I was in the first grade. At the end of the school year, I entered my first talent show and sang Deniece Williams’s “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” with my best friend, Tamara Jones. It was one of the best times of my young life!
Of course, in my mom’s mind, encouraging and nurturing that gift translated to letting me sing in the choir and lead solos, which I enjoyed for a while, but for me, music had become about so many other stories thanks to my aunt—not just religion, but stories of life, love, disappointment, and family! Through music, I searched for the thing I felt was calling to me from years of listening to Whitney Houston, Jody Watley, Tracie Spencer, Boyz II Men, Shai, and so many other artists who resonated with me. They were the voices of my time.
We moved from South Florida to my mom’s hometown, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, during the middle of my freshman year of high school. I was now living in the same city as my father for the first time. I spent most weekends and summers with him. I remember the day my father played “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding. What a journey that song took me on! I was swallowed up by the emotion; the soul and grit of his voice called to me in a way that music never had before. I loved all three minutes of the song. I was a teenager in the 1990s listening to Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and the entire Stax Records roster on heavy rotation with my father. It became the way we bonded. Music. It is one of the oldest systems of storytelling and sharing culture.
My father was an “everything” type of man who loved music more than I did. He listened to any and every genre, and it was intriguing to me. He would play music even if it was barely audible. On the weekends, he would wake up and turn on a mix of CDs on shuffle; it became the soundtrack of our lives together. He sang too, so just like I’d done with my aunt at five, we would pull out “mics” and make anything that blared from the speakers a duet—popular songs of the day like Shanice and Johnny Gill’s “Silent Prayer,” and old-school songs like “Pain in My Heart” by Otis Redding or the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There.” Music was our love language and way of relating to each other. Even after I moved away for college and life took me away from home, I was grounded by the music I was introduced to by family. My love for telling stories expanded into theater and creative writing. It was then when I realized that what I had been searching for was my “voice.” My creative outlet for expression. My father encouraged and fostered this talent after reading an essay I had to write my sophomore year of high school.
In 2003, I lost my father, and my life was changed—it was devastating, and I was silently spiraling. For a young woman just starting life, it was an unimaginable loss. I pushed the trauma down so deeply that for years, I didn’t even recognize how it was affecting me until Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and I was displaced from Hattiesburg to Memphis.
At first, I was apprehensive about relocating because of the history of the city, but through a chance meeting with a group of creatives in theater and music, I was reintroduced to my love for the arts. I was swept up in a literal storm and landed right in the heart of the Home of the Blues and Soul, the Birthplace of Rock ’n’ Roll, where so many of my favorite artists, including Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and the Staple Singers got their start at Stax Records. Although the original studio had been torn down in 1989, after the company went under in 1975, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music was reimagined by the Soulsville Foundation and opened in 2003, just one month prior to my father’s passing. (How coincidental is that?) Artists that I had grown up listening to since I was a teenager, and had bonded with my father over, recorded right here in this beautiful city. Prior to moving here, I only knew of the city’s civil rights activism and protest history. Memphis reconnected me to my roots, to my father, in a way that I could have never foreseen; it has provided me space for healing. Although that process was not always linear and beautiful, it helped to remember that neither was the music I loved, or the stories I told in my personal writing. It was a journey, but it was my journey!
I’ve since found my tribe within the walls of this city. From the streets of midtown and Overton Square to Beale Street to the historical Lorraine Motel,[iv] Memphis is my city, my culture. I am at home here. I am in the birthplace of music that the love language I shared with my father is rooted within. It has all come full circle. The connection I feel to my family history in the deepest way is rooted in the music that has been cultivated over the course of multiple generations in this city. This is my home, my heritage, and my legacy— this is Memphis!
[i] The First 48 follows homicide investigators during the first forty-eight hours following a murder. Memphis was featured on the show from 2005 to 2008. The Memphis City Council halted production of the series due to the harmful image it was portraying of the city (https://www.memphisflyer.com/first-and-last-48).
[iii] As the only freestanding Black repertory theatre in five surrounding states, Hattiloo has built a strong regional audience (32 percent in 2015). Hattiloo is known for offering free high-quality programming and performances staged throughout the city, engaging over five thousand people each year (https://hattiloo.org/).
[iv] Located about four blocks from Beale Street, the historic African American commercial center in Memphis, the Lorraine Motel was where Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and Andrew Young stayed in 1968 when they came to Memphis to support the city’s striking sanitation workers, most of whom were African American (https://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/TN-01-157-0057).