IU Soul Revue hosts high school students visiting from Stax Music Academy in Memphis

IU Soul Revue

High school junior Brenae Johnson of Stax Music Academy, center, joins Asia Crawford and other members of IU Soul Revue during a class session for the group. Photos by Chaz Mottinger.


“Remember this place. This time, this place, this space could be the pivotal point for the rest of your life”

Tyron Cooper, director of IU Soul Revue, delivered this introduction to 21 high school students from Stax Music Academy who visited Indiana University’s Bloomington campus Oct. 23 and 24.

The Stax Music Academy serves middle and high school students from Memphis, Tenn., through afterschool and summer programs. Students must audition for its ensembles, which carry on the legacy and signature sound of Stax Records.

Tyron Cooper is the director of IU Soul Revue.

Tyron Cooper is the director of IU Soul Revue.

For two days, the students learned about Indiana University and college life through campus tours, talks with university officials, performances and other activities led by IU Soul Revue.

IU Soul Revue visited the academy in March and also is scheduled to return in the spring. The two groups have a blossoming relationship, based on their devotion to the same styles of music and their shared goals of fostering achievement through the arts.

Over time, they also have shared talented musicians. The academy’s artistic director, Justin Merrick, earned a master’s degree from the Jacobs School of Music and worked as a vocal coach and choreographer for IU Soul Revue. Several other staff members also attended Indiana University.

IU Soul Revue

Students in IU Soul Revue are so close that many greet each other with hugs.

And they are so enthusiastic that many arrive long before the class officially starts. One performer tested out an original composition, others belted out their favorite songs or picked up instruments for an impromptu jam session. And this was before class began.

Stax Music Academy students

Stax Music Academy students, from left, Dekarius Dawson, Deonna Pruitt and Brenae Johnson give their full attention to IU Soul Revue during class.

IU Soul Revue students earn two credit hours for the class, which is offered through IU’s Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies.

The performance ensemble celebrates R&B, soul and related styles of popular music from the 1960s to the present. It’s music with a message. “You can dance and you can have a good time, but you need to have something in there that enlightens, that tells people the truth … and empowers,” Cooper said.

Under his leadership, IU Soul Revue has an influence that extends far beyond the classroom and stage.

“It’s a class built on professionalism,” said Ivan Moreland, a freshman vocalist and cellist from Pike High School in Indianapolis. “Dr. Cooper cares not only how we are doing in Soul Revue but how we are doing in all of our other classes.”

To this end, Cooper recently has initiated Wednesday night study sessions.

“Dr. Cooper really cares about us,” said vocalist Dexter Clardy, a sophomore from Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis. “He really wants to make sure we leave here as better people.”

Good advice

Cooper greeted the visiting freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors from Stax with evangelistic enthusiasm. “Whether you know it or not — and I hope you know it — this is an important time for you right now.

“Look around. Taste your environment. Think about where you are,” he said.

“Visualize yourself walking to class at a university like this. Visualize yourself making straight A’s, walking to class, meeting people, networking with people that you are going to know for the rest of your life.

“These are the types of things I want you to dream about tonight.”

Jamaal Franklin

Stax Music Academy student Jamaal Franklin is a freshman.

The next day, the students heard from university leaders and learned about scholarships and special programs at IU. The speakers dispensed information and inspiration in equal measures.

“What is your passion?” asked Charles Sykes, executive director of the African American Arts Institute. “Certainly, music is a passion; I know that. But you don’t have to major in music. There are other choices. This is a university that has many different options for you.”

“You need a lot of knowledge in this world in order to go forward in this world,” said Valerie Grim, chair of the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies. “Creativity is the new money.”

“I’m telling you, the opportunities here are limitless,”  said Martin McCrory, associate vice president for academic support and retention and vice provost for educational inclusion and diversity. “My job is to retain you and graduate you in four years. That’s my job, and I take it very seriously. I want you out and in the real world in four years.”

All of the speakers also shared one message for the talented students from Stax: We want you here at Indiana University.

Musical group mash-ups

The Stax students also had chances to speak candidly with members of IU Soul Revue about music, college life and Indiana University. The IU students shared some of their secrets to academic success, including serious studying, time management, calendars — and coffee.

The Stax students were visibly engaged in the programs, but the visit hit some of its highest notes during the musical meetings of the two groups.

A class session with IU Soul Revue offered a high-energy mix of rehearsals, inspirational “rants” and chances for the younger students to showcase their musical skills. Cooper brought several Stax vocalists forward to sing and match pitches. Several instrumentalists performed, including freshman Jamaal Franklin, one of three triplets in the group, who dazzled with his guitar.

Stax Music Academy

Brandon Dickerson of Stax Music Academy sings Al Green’s ‘Love and Happiness’ at ‘Soul Mic’ while Johnathon Lee and Brenae Johnson dance.

The visit culminated with Friday night’s “Soul Mic,” an open mic event open to students, IU Soul Revue and the general public. To keep things positive, respectful and moving along, a short list of rules was delivered, including no profanity in this house. And then the music took over. Performers stepped up, group by group, filling the room with energy.

During the song “Tell Me Something Good,” the Stax students jumped in as backup dancers. Then the students from Stax delivered a powerful rendition of Al Green’s “Love and Happiness.”

It was a great way to close their visit to Indiana.

Based on their positive comments, the Stax students left our campus inspired about college, Indiana University and the possibilities of their own lives.

Freshman Ljuliana Thomas said her experience at IU was amazing. “Meeting these people has been a pleasure. They’re so positive and uplifting.”

“I realize this is such a great opportunity to be able to come to such a prestigious university. Not only that, but also to have the chance to meet the amazingly talented director of the IU Soul Revue, as well as the gifted and motivated students,” senior Jalein Mason said. “This trip has been such a great growing and eye-opening experience for me. Thanks!”

This is the power of IU Soul Revue.

It all goes back to one of Cooper’s core principles: “Why do music that can’t change lives?”

 IU Soul Revue in action

IU Soul Revue will perform in the “Potpourri of the Arts Concert” at 8 p.m. Nov. 8 in the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. The event also features the African American Dance Company and the African American Choral Ensemble. Tickets are available for $20, or $10 for students with ID and children 12 and younger.

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