Both onstage and off, Tonya Dyson sings the soul of Memphis. An accomplished professional performer as well as an energetic creator and supporter of the arts, Tonya is building on the hallowed ground of Soulsville and beyond. As the Marketing and Program Manager of the Memphis Slim House, she communicates the historic home’s mission to foster new artistic expression, but that is only one of many roles she inhabits in a seemingly nonstop quest to carry on Memphis’ musical legacy.
We sat down at the Memphis Slim House — a member-supported, collaborative performance, recording, rehearsal, meeting and event space — to talk about how her steps followed those of Memphis’ greats and how she’s carving a new path all her own. Welcome Tonya as our newest FACE of Memphis!
Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in Covington, Tennessee, which is the next county north of Shelby County. I grew up in the church, a typical Southern upbringing. I had one of those blended super-families. Everyone was amazing and helped guide me into the adult that I am.
What brought you to Memphis?
I had an early affinity toward soul music. I studied Stax and Hi Records and paid attention to Isaac Hayes — you know, Isaac Hayes is from Covington as well — and I kind of wanted to follow that whole thing. I started school at the University of Memphis, but coming to LeMoyne-Owen College was my way of immersing myself into the whole culture, bringing myself into the neighborhood.
Tell us about your journey into the music business.
I decided to be an OB/Gyn, but then through Air Force ROTC, I discovered two things right off the bat. One thing is, I don’t really like blood, so delivering babies? That would be a malpractice suit, because I’m surely going to drop someone’s baby. And I also discovered that I’m afraid of heights. It wasn’t so long before I started getting my whole crew in trouble, because I wouldn’t jump out of the plane, so everyone had to run laps.
I finally settled on business administration with a major in marketing and management. I was looking at the careers of other artists and particularly different jazz artists who always had issues with managing their money, and missed out on their publishing and royalties. For me to be a business major was to improve on my career, and I also saw a way for me to help other artists.
What was your first professional performance?
I was maybe 12 or 13. I got paid to sing the National Anthem for a Memphis Chicks game. They played the Birmingham Barons, and that’s when Michael Jordan had decided he wanted to play baseball and he was playing on that team. I remember standing on home plate when the teams ran out, and Michael Jordan did the weirdest head rub to me — he treated me like a little boy. I’m out here in little curls and he was like, “Good job, kid,” and my headband was knocked crooked.
What is the mission and message of Neosoulville?
It’s a two-part business. It exists online to support and promote black arts in Memphis, particularly revolving around the genre of soul. You had all these little pockets that existed, so I created Neosoulville to be that connector. It’s a collective platform that really showcases all the cool stuff that’s going on in Memphis.
The live version of Neosoulville consists of me actually creating and curating events, doing concerts and bringing in different artists that people here love. I also partner with organizations and work with different festivals to curate music and make sure line-ups are diverse.
How have you been impacted by your work with the Memphis Music Initiative?
They had this opportunity for a pilot program where they were bringing in 10 working artists to shape the program and go in the schools and teach kids based on the knowledge that they had acquired. I was sent to Treadwell Middle School to start a choir. I had to start this music program from scratch, working with middle-schoolers. It was new to me; it was new to them — so we were all learning together.
As a prime example, we had this thing called an Artist Tree, and cut out faces like Héctor Lavoe, Aretha Franklin, Prince, Fleetwood Mac, Nina Simone, all these different artists, and the kids were researching them. I saw they were on the Weather Channel site, and I asked them why, and they said, “We’re trying to figure out what kind of storm creates purple rain.” Right at that moment, I realized, okay, maybe this is what I’m supposed to be doing, because just to be around that type of creativity and that type of curiosity — it’s been a life-changing experience.
Do you have a process for your own songwriting?
I’ve been working with the same producer for the past 12, maybe 13 years now. He sends me music, and I just start with a blank sheet of paper and I write down how the music makes me feel – is this a happy song, is it a sexy song, is it supposed to be inspirational or an “I’m over the world right now” song?
After I determine how the song has made me feel, I start humming different parts, whatever parts of the song hit me. Usually I go home and get alone to myself and pull the words — do I have any experiences of my own that relate to this song? Or are there any situations that my friends are in, that I read about or anything that I can shape into a story?
What inspired you to create the Soulsville USA Festival?
We have these wonderful museums and wonderful places where you can come and read and hear about the legacy of soul music, but what about the “soul children”? What are we doing for the actual legacy, making sure it continues on? So I wanted to create this platform for artists to showcase their original soulful selves — and to actually get paid and promoted. It’s also a way for artists to come together at least one time a year and see each other, support each other and feel the love from the neighborhood.
What changes have you seen in Memphis’ music community over the past decade?
You’re seeing so many young people coming here for college and staying afterwards, or they’re being born and raised with this new idea of Memphis. I think Memphis gets a bad rap because you hear people talk about all the negative aspects of this city, but you have this creative class that came out of these situations — out of the poverty, out of the crime — and they’re showing that, yes, this does happen in Memphis but there’s so much more beauty. They’re seeing Memphis as a city of possibilities. They’re looking at these voids that were seen as negatives and saying, “We don’t have it? That’s great for me. I’m about to create it.”
What’s your best piece of advice?
One of my favorite quotes from Nina Simone is, “Learn to leave the table when love is no longer being served.”
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Music, incense and love
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