Eric Robertson is a busy man. By day he works as the housing and community service coordinator at LeMoyne-Owen College, and on nights and weekends he's one of the guiding lights behind Tha Movement, a well-structured outlet for local artists and musicians.
The native Memphian -- a graduate of Hillcrest High School and the U of M -- has long been a presence on the local arts scene. Along with Reco Coleman, Robertson hosted the weekly poetry series Melt Da Mic at Precious Cargo on Monday nights, where they befriended a bevy of up-and-coming musicians and artists. After six years, the two ended the open-mic nights and returned to college.
It took a conversation with vocalist Valencia Robinson to motivate Robertson's return to the performing-arts scene: "We talked about the fact that there needed to be more outlets for artists to showcase their work," Robertson says. "Valencia gave me this great quote, which has always stuck with me. She felt like a plug that was running low on energy, but there were no outlets around to recharge her. She felt so limited by the local options at the time. She had so much original material but couldn't find a venue to support and nurture her craft. I played with that idea in my head, and over time, it evolved."
The idea for Tha Movement sprang from that conversation and conversations with friends who were artists in their own right -- musicians, painters, dancers, poets, and others. "I didn't want to go back to poetry, because I'd already done that," Robertson says. "I wanted to focus on music but also incorporate other arts under the same roof. I wanted to make this a whole celebration of the arts. We'd thought about calling it Melt Da Mic again -- it had name recognition, and it wouldn't be difficult to start back up -- but Reco and I realized that there was no way we could accomplish what we wanted to do on our own. We had to be more organized, and so we reached out to our friends."
The core group behind Tha Movement includes Patience Lewis, who runs the business side of things; Ermyias Shiberou, a DJ with Melt Da Mic who books the events; and Latisha Alexander, a local promoter who handles PR for the organization. "It took a lot of networking and a lot of work to get started," Robertson says. "We met for four months before we ever did a show. Everyone brainstormed, and we grabbed some friends and put together our first event, which featured Valencia Robinson, Bella Sun, and Afrodesia."
"Right now," Robertson says, "I love the energy level in Memphis. There are a lot of young people who are starting to take action, creating the Memphis they want to see. I find that very exciting. I just feed off the energy of new ideas. Memphis is in a funny place. Anytime you have young people suppressed for so long, they're gonna organize to get their voices heard. Folks are saying 'I've got something to say, and here it is.' And whether it's art or poetry or music or whatever, they've gotta let their light shine."
Tha Movement's biggest challenge? According to Robertson, fighting through old biases and stereotypes. "Our shows are diverse but not as diverse as I'd like them to be," he says. "That's a big obstacle. We do manage to get white and black people under one roof, but we can't get them to mingle. We've accomplished the first step but have to take it to another level," he says with a sigh. "Through good music, I believe we'll start breaking through those barriers."
"When whites and blacks can come to an event and see that people don't necessarily live up to their racial stereotypes -- whether it's a girl worrying about her purse getting stolen or a guy worried about getting called 'nigger' behind his back -- things might change. But it takes interaction," Robertson says.
Tha Movement has just barely begun to realize its potential. In Robertson's mind, an ideal event would include an art exhibit, vendors selling their wares, and interpretive dancers to open the show. "We haven't been able to achieve our entire mission, because clubs aren't willing to go that far," Robertson says. But he's quick to add that "every venue we've done a show at has loved us. We pack the house out, and we introduce their business to a whole new market. They've really felt our message of getting new Memphis music out there and giving people an opportunity to perform their original work."
Robertson envisions CD releases, music-industry seminars, quarterly shows featuring national recording stars, and a coalition with the Stax Music Academy in Tha Movement's future. But, for now, he's focusing on the next Movement, which will be held at the Hi-Tone Café on Saturday, November 16th.
"Soulville Prophets consists of some guys from the Young Avenue Deli Quintet, Chad Weekley from Memphix, and one of the singers from CYC," Robertson says. "They're gonna do an acid-soul set, which should be really interesting." Next up is Rare Elements, featuring rapper MC Fathom 9, another longtime friend from the Melt Da Mic scene. Also performing is the neo-soul band Ascension. "We went to go check them out and we were just blown away," Robertson says. "They have back-up singers, the whole nine yards."
"Producer Carlos Broady came to our last show at the Lounge, and he loved it. He was so surprised to see people show up for an event like that," Robertson says with pride. "Tha Movement has taken up a lot of my time," he concludes, "but it's a real joy."
And it's obvious that he wouldn't have it any other way. For more info, go to ThaMovement.com.
At The Lounge Friday, November 15th, Ardent Studio's Jody Stephens will be presented with the Heineken Ampt/ASCAP Recognition Award for his work in the local music community. The awards ceremony will be part of the Heineken Ampt Music Showcase, featuring Snowglobe, Retrospect, and Scott Sudbury. The free concert will begin at 9 p.m.
Stephens, an A&R man at Ardent, is perhaps best known as the drummer for the seminal power-pop group Big Star. Coincidentally, British music scribe Rob Jovanovic is currently working on a book documenting the rise and fall -- and subsequent resurrection -- of Big Star, to be published by HarperCollins in 2003. Jovanovic was recently in Memphis conducting interviews with Stephens, Ardent's John Fry, and other luminaries, including Big Star producer Jim Dickinson, popsters Van Duren and Tommy Hoehn, and promoter John King.
Those with a Big Star story to tell can contact Jovanovic via his Web site, Jovanovic.co.uk.
Andria Lisle writes about the local music scene. You can e-mail her at email@example.com.