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Michigan Humanities Council Newsletter

Grand Rapids Youth Celebrate Michigan’s Musical Heritage

Michigan beats to its own drum, but few realize that Motown isn’t the only major musical influence to come from the Mitten State. A large number of A-list Michiganians have graced the Top-40 charts over the years in a variety of genres.

In an effort to enlighten listeners about Michigan’s diverse and extraordinary musical heritage, the North American Choral Company (NACC) will host a series of student-based concerts highlighting Michigan vocalists of various genres outside Motown.

This project, Michigan Sings!, is made possible through a $15,000 major grant from the Michigan Humanities Council. All events will be held in Grand Rapids.

“We wanted to present Michigan as having a unique and vibrant music culture beyond Motown,” said Mark Jackson, NACC music director and project director for Michigan Sings! “We’re presenting Michigan’s fabulous music culture as pure Michigan culture.”

Michigan is a melting pot of genres, including early punk-rock, techno, classical, soul and hip-hop. While scholars from NACC, Western Michigan University and Michigan State University researched artists to explore, it was Michigan’s industrial past that first stirred the pot.

“We found it was all about Henry Ford,” Jackson said. “He drew workers from all over the world to this corner of the state, and even the outlying areas. And the Detroit industries drew families. They drew this collection of people because most had come here to work in the industries.”

Following research, 10 Michigan artists were chosen to be featured in the concerts, including Betty Carter (jazz), Eminem (rap), El DeBarge (R&B), Al Green (gospel/soul), Aretha Franklin (soul), Diana Ross (Motown) and Madonna (pop/rock).

Students from Grand Rapids’ Montessori, Sherwood Academy, East Leonard Elementary, Palmer Elementary and William C. Abney Academy will participate in the project, each focusing on one or two artists. An after-school group of high schoolers will perform the song by Eminem.

 “It’s giving the kids a chance to perform dialogue really, and the program notes are really detailed,” Jackson said. “They give information and present in the context of being pure Michigan.”

Each concert will vary based on the artists to be highlighted that night, and in addition to student performances, dialogue will be used to educate the audience on those artists. Sunny Wilkinson, a jazz artist and assistant professor of vocal jazz at Michigan State University’s College of Music, will also be performing at the concerts.

Concerts are free admission and open to the public. The first concert was held Dec. 2. Additional dates include:

January 13, Creston High School at 7 p.m.
February 19, Grand Rapids Public Library at 1:15 p.m.

The final performance is held in conjunction with the Taste of Soul event. For any questions on attending a performance, call the NACC at (616) 774-9268.

A publication will also be available soon on the NACC website to assist teachers in presenting Michigan’s musical culture. A DVD of the performances will also be distributed.

 “We really feel humanities is what we do,” Jackson said. “We always present historical and educational content in what we do. … We always intend to entertain and educate our students and audiences alike.

“No matter what the NACC does, no matter what program it is, we’re about vocal music, teaching students and adults sound fundamental vocal production techniques,” Jackson continued. “After you’ve mixed a healthy tone with the right breathing and right production, you can do any style of music you want. It’s fundamental to teach kids vocal skills for life, and it’s part of our Michigan culture.”

To learn more about grant opportunities from the Michigan Humanities Council, visit or call (517) 372-7770.


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