This year, Harlem Week celebrated the 200th anniversary of Memphis by putting their unique cultural connection on display.
Harlem and Memphis have both been landmark cities within African-American history. In 1865, Memphis’s Beale Street provided shelter for rural freed men and women similar to how Harlem provided a refuge for people escaping the south during the Great Migration. Both cities have been the homes of influential African-American writers such as Alex Haley, W.E.B DuBois, and Langston Hughes. And both Harlem and Memphis have made their mark as key cultivators in the history of jazz, soul, and R&B through the work of B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. Among the 110 events planned for this year’s Harlem Week, “A New Century of Soul” paid particular attention to how the past musical and culinary connection between the two cities has manifested into today’s creatives who call Memphis their home.
Sylvia’s Also hosted the “New Century of Soul” celebration on Tuesday, August 13, featuring classic Memphis cocktails made with vodka from Old Dominick’s Distillery, which is currently run by the Alex Castle, the first female Master Distiller in Tennessee. Fried catfish, black eyed pea fritters, and BBQ rib hors d’oeuvres were passed around, courtesy of Chef Eli Townsend. As guests mingled throughout the venue, acts from James Dukes’ Unapologetic label took center stage.
Dukes, known within the music industry as IMakeMadBeats is a Memphis native, but no stranger to the city of Harlem. He spent six years living in New York City, pursuing his music career, before his father’s illness brought him back to Memphis. As a child growing up in a rough area of Orange Mound, Tennessee, he saw many of his peers grow up without fathers and vowed never to take the close relationship he has with his own father for granted. Although the amount of exposure that living in the Big Apple offered him is difficult to find in Memphis, his personal values put family and community first. Ever since, Dukes has cultivated his own mark and musical influence within the Southern city he grew up in.
Throughout his time in Memphis, Dukes gained even more momentum in his career as a music producer. He opened a recording studio called Dirty Socks, released an EP, “Better Left Unsaid” and became involved in the Memphis Music Initiative. Throughout his busy schedule, he maintained close relationships with the artists on his label–three of whom were present at the event–PreauXX, Cameron Bethany, and A Weirdo from Memphis (AFWM).
As a homegrown project, Unapologetic features many artists who have a close connection to Memphis, and who have been specifically selected for representation by Dukes himself. Prior to meeting AWFM, Dukes described how he was explicitly looking for “an artists who just did not give a fuck,” and embodied the “unapologetic” label name within their work and their style. AWFM, often seen sporting bright, neon contacts with a hat to match, fit the bill. AWFM draws his motivation as an artist from the powerful energy that musicians like Kid Cudi and Tyler the Creator generate at the shows, and the creativity they are able to maintain within their music. That same creativity and lack of apologies for who he is carries over into his music, as his lyrics “You ain’t gotta fuck with me ‘cause I fuck with me a lot,” would suggest in his single “FYM”, featuring labelmate PreauXX.
As anyone who has frequented performances from some of the rappers that have made appearances on the charts will admit, energetic performances and a diverse array of song lyrics can be hard to come by. When both come together, they can make all the difference. Rapper PreauXX gave a performance that was exponentially larger than the small venue he had to work with, and gave a glimpse into what New Yorkers might be missing out on in Memphis. Although Sylvia’s Also was absent of a true stage, lights, or special effects, it wasn’t hard to imagine how much more memorable a PreauXX performance would be if they were there. If history sets any precedent, perhaps a future musical crossover between Memphis rap and Harlem is imminent.