Memphis Music Feature: Tonya Dyson
Ed. Note: October is Memphis Means Music Month, so each week I’ll bring you a post about a current Memphis musician. Today I’m happy to present this Q&A session I had with Tonya Dyson, soul singer and President and founder of Neosoulville and the Soulsville USA Festival (save the date! Oct. 22, 2018).
Follow Tonya on her website.
Holly: Are you from Memphis?
Tonya: I’ve been in Memphis since ’96. I came here to go to school, started at University of Memphis and finished at LeMoyne-Owen College. I grew roots and found a place to be, and that place is championing for soul music.
Holly: How do you do that, exactly?
Tonya: I have a company called Neosoulville where we promote the new sound of Memphis. We kind of use soul music in an holistic way to talk about everything from music to literature to film to theatre to health and style. We center it all around music. Soul is more than music, it’s a way of life.
Holly: What prompted you to start Neosoulville?
Tonya: A few reasons. At that time, it was hard to get exposure as an artist. Isaac Hayes was still alive, Al Green, The Soul Children, The Bar-Kays…and they’re walking around and doing gigs in Memphis like I’m trying to do. It’s hard when you can actually pick Ann Peebles or Carla Thomas to do a gig versus me, being a ‘nobody’. It’s like, if you can get Carla Thomas you’d rather do that.
Another thing is, when you’re traveling, people are like “Cool, I already know about the history of Memphis music, but there has to be some good music going on in Memphis right now, right?” and that’s what we don’t hear about enough. We wanted to gear Neosoulville towards – not neglecting the past because that’s definitely a legacy that we’re all standing on – but building the present and looking to the future, highlighting the artists that are gigging and writing and putting out good music right now.
Memphis’ biggest export is music, but that’s a lot of old albums and albums that have been reissued. What is Memphis doing to ensure that that legacy continues twenty years from now? Twenty years from now, who will be the artists creating the music to export? That’s basically where it started.
Holly: How has it grown?
Tonya: It turned into a whole thing of its own. It transferred me into this whole new realm into, social activism, I guess? because that was something that needed to be championed here. It’s like a voice for other artists here in the city.
We’ve had tons and tons of different concerts with neo soul artists, a lot of big name hip hop artists, and music showcases. We’ve worked hand in hand with people at the River Arts Fest, the Downtown Commission, different organizations to make sure they’re plugged in to the new soul sound of Memphis. That whole movement has been going on for ten years now. 2015 is the tenth anniversary.
Tonya: Thank you. One of the main events that I’m really proud of is called The Word. We do it every Monday down at Slice of Soul Lounge. It’s an artist showcase. It gives you a perfect sample of everything cool that Memphis has to offer in terms of music. The Word has served as a spring board for many artists. A lot of artists new on the scene can find a place, make friends, make collaborations.
Holly: So, is The Word an open mic night?
Tonya: It’s open mic with a live band. It helps artists, particularly singers, who don’t have any connections with musicians. If you want to do your stuff, you don’t have to pay a band, you can come down here and they’ll learn your song and you can get up and perform.
Whether you’re reading or reciting, or reading from your phone, you can feel confident to get up there and say your piece. It’s kind of a training ground. I’m really proud of what it’s become. We just celebrated five years of The Word, so that’s a major feat as well.
Holly: You recently got back from working as a singer on a cruise, what was that like?
Tonya: I left in February and got back two months ago. I left [my job at] Memphis in May to go sing on a cruise ship. I got to travel the world. We were in the Caribbean for a week, we went to the Baltic for two months, and then went to the Mediterranean for two months. That was a really cool experience. I took the time to participate in a lot of cultural events, a lot of concerts and things like that.
There was something about telling people that I was from Memphis. It was like I didn’t even have to sing and they thought I was good. Folks were just so excited about me being from Memphis, and the whole entire band was from Memphis as well. People were just so excited, really.
Holly: So being from Memphis really means something?
Tonya: If you’re in music and you tell somebody you’re from Memphis, they instantly put you on a pedestal. Internally, it’s not always that way. If you don’t get out [of town] a lot, you may start to down yourself, and say “maybe I’m not as good as people think” and that stuff and that’s not the case. There’s just so much talent here that people are used to it.
What’s the saying? Familiarity breeds contempt. I don’t know if it’s contempt, but just being used to it. It’s like “oh my cousin can sing like that”, so you don’t really take it seriously. But if you were to take Memphis’ talent pool and put us into a whole other city, it will just blow everything out of the water because we’re so amazingly talented.
The creativity that flows here, it’s almost like water. It’s like, “Oh lemme go get some water…” [laughs].
People should travel more so they can see what’s going on in the world and kind of juxtapose what’s going on there versus what’s going on in Memphis. They may realize that Memphis in some aspects is a whole lot more fun than Atlanta or New York or these other cities. We have a lot going on especially within the artist community, it’s amazing.
Holly: Thanks Tonya!
Some important links:
This post was originally published in October 2014 as a part of a Memphis Music Month series on local musicians. I’ve made a few updates as of May 2018, but keep in mind some information may be outdated.