When students come to Stax Music Academy, they come with the intention to receive top-tier instruction and gain confidence in their musical abilities. No matter where they were before they came, and no matter where they go once they leave, Stax Music Academy leaves a lasting impression on their drive to make their dreams a reality—and that rings true for two past students in particular, among many others.
“I am living proof that it’s a good investment in the future,” Stephani Brownlee said.
For Stephani Brownlee, Stax Music Academy was a passport to a new life. Growing up in Memphis, Stephani’s mother died when she was young, and she was raised by her grandmother who was fighting a battle with cancer. It was a very difficult time in her life, to say the least. She wasn’t like most kids. Not only did she have to take care of herself, but she worked hard to take care of her grandmother, too.
But music kept Stephani going. And the instructors at Stax Music Academy believed in her and encouraged her when everything felt so lost. They pushed her to reach for dreams that seemed impossible at the time, and they gave her opportunities that she could never have imagined. She was featured with Stax Music Academy on the NBC Today show, she visited the White House and met Michelle Obama; they even helped her get into a summer program for music production at Brown University, and it was there that she finally felt free to dream of what could be.
It was so hard for her at first, though. Her everyday reality was tough to escape:
“Coming home from Brown University that summer as well as returning from SMA each night was painful,” Brownlee said. “To go from clean, safe, state-of-the-art facilities to my neighborhood – trashed and full of abandoned houses – was depressing. I could not reconcile how I could be so inspired and talented in one physical space and then feel so uninspired and lacking in another. But the [Stax Music] Academy kept encouraging me not to give up and to go for my biggest dreams in life.”
Stephani eventually earned a scholarship to Brown University where she received her bachelor’s degree in forensic science and went to work for the United States Department of Justice. Today, Stephani is working on a second master’s degree at Harvard University while working for the Department of Homeland Security in Washington. She started her own branding and marketing firm, MoKup, and she plays music every chance she gets.
“I always encourage everyone to support the Stax Music Academy. I am just one of thousands of young people who have benefitted, and continue to benefit from their work. They need support so they can continue to support people like me. I am living proof that it’s a good investment in the future.”
Next up is Mikaela Allen.
As a student of the Stax Music Academy in 2007-2009, Mikaela began to see the world open up for her. Whether it was playing the flute, singing, or studying, she was inspired by her instructors to always challenge herself. She fell in love with the rush of performing music on stage and, in 2008, she had the opportunity to travel. She went all the way to Australia and performed with the Stax Music Academy Summer Soul Tour. This trip made a permanent imprint on her life and she knew that music, and travel, would be her future.
After graduating from the Stax Music Academy, Mikaela went to Berklee College of Music in Boston and attended graduate school in Valencia, Spain where she had the time of her life—studying and once again performing music live with a funk and soul band. She toured throughout the country and earned a master’s degree in Global Entertainment and Music Business.
Mikaela landed her first job in the music business as an artist support specialist at a distribution service in New York City. Soon, she was working for Jay-Z and his new streaming service, TIDAL, as a digital marketing manager. Her time working for Jay-Z was exciting, but she knew she wanted to keep moving forward into new opportunities. Eventually, she was named Marketing Manager for DistroKid, an independent digital music distribution platform in New York.
Stax Music Academy has meant so much to Mikaela in her own life, she’s been inspired to make sure that it provides the same opportunities for other young Memphians. When she heard that Stax Music Academy was launching the #MusicMustContinue campaign to pay for young people’s tuition, she knew she had to get involved. She reached out to her company, DistroKid, and asked them to sponsor the campaign and match donations. They said yes!
“I always visit Stax when I’m able to come home to Memphis, and I see the young students and get flooded with memories of the incredible time I spent there,” Mikaela said. “I was so happy to be able to give back by arranging this sponsorship with DistroKid because music is such an important part of life for so many young people. In the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic and all of the hardships it is causing so many families, I am grateful for the opportunity to help ensure that music education and youth development continues, regardless of students’ financial situations.”