Welcome to The Dean’s List! The Dean’s List will profile up-and-comers in Memphis who are certain to be the next group of leaders in the nonprofit, corporate, government, and faith communities. The Dean’s List is curated by Kevin Dean.
Tonya Dyson has shared the stage with artists like Justin Timberlake and Stevie Wonder, but you might not expect that a quiet, shy woman could be such an influential power player in the Memphis music scene. “People expect me to be an extrovert, but it’s a role I’ve gradually gotten better at playing,” she says. As a singer/songwriter, Tonya is preparing for the debut release of part one of the anticipated “Finding My Way” series.
Dyson, 38, is well-known for being an essential part of re-igniting the spirit of Stax and Hi Records by sharing her passion for music with others through her brainchild, neosoulville.com and live show production. Tonya is also cultivating that same love of music in younger minds through the Memphis Music Initiative where she teaches music appreciation at two schools.
With 13 years in music promotion and event marketing, Tonya has been a driving force in the Memphis hip hop/soul scene by producing shows featuring Chrisette Michelle, KRS-One, Dead Prez, Kindred the Family Soul, Corinne Bailey Rae, Robert Glasper, Foreign Exchange, Bilal, Floetry and several others. Most notably, Tonya is known for “The Word,” Memphis’ longest running open mic that has been featured on Vh1 & The Grio. She also launched the Soulsville Music Festival two years ago.
We chose Tonya for her important role in ensuring that the spirit of Memphis music lives on in our community!
First off, tell us a great story about your life as a musician in Memphis!
I met Issac Hayes my first few years in Memphis, and he told me that he hated the perfume I had on. I was angered and crushed. I saw him again and brought it up, but he still didn’t apologize. He just said that he noticed that I was wasn’t wearing it anymore and paused while looking at me. It was almost like he was implying that he did me a favor! That was so funny, and I couldn’t do anything but choose to let him have that one and walk away.
What’s the best part about living in Memphis?
I love Memphis because you can hear soul music playing everywhere! I really love that about living here. This is the only place in the world where you can hear Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” while waiting in line at the bank, shopping in Kroger, catching a flight, parking your car. I haven’t been everywhere but I’ve been alot of places and that’s truly unique to Memphis.
What is Neosoulville and why did you create it?
Neosoulville is like a one stop shop for all things soulful in Memphis, and it came from my senior capstone project during my undergrad years at LeMoyne-Owen College. On the web, it exists as a way for people to find out about the “soul culture” of Memphis and beyond. What is soul culture, you might ask? Its the entire way life of life built around soul music that includes other music genres like hip hop, jazz, reggae, and poetry along with visual & literary art, fashion, cuisine, travel, and health (mental, spiritual, physical). On the ground, we help to create events that cater to the aforementioned culture.
Neosoulville came about from a need to pick up the torch and cultivate a strong black arts scene using the foundation already set. Memphis is known all over the world for its soul music because of the magic made at Stax and Hi Records. We wanted to make sure that people realized how imporatant this city is to music. Not only that, we wanted to make sure we equally promoted the future along with the past by spotlighting those artists of today who draw direct influence from the legacy that was built.
As the founder of Neosoulville, what would you say is the soul of
The soul of Memphis is its ability to tell its story through music, from happiness to heartbreak.
Soul and jazz are the backbone of Memphis and an important part of African American culture. What is the most important thing Memphis can do to preserve our musical heritage?
One of the best ways is to invest in the future of Memphis music by patronizing current artists. Go to their shows. Buy their albums. We should also invest more into music education covering everything from basic music theory to Memphis music history. Its important that our future music makers know the greatness that they come from.
You are a phenomenal singer. Where’d you get those pipes?
Why, thank you! *blushes* I got my pipes from my mother, and I think she got them from my grandfather. I grew up singing gospel in the church & classical in school. I discovered jazz and soul somewhere in the middle of all that.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen in Memphis?
Manny the Manatee. End of story, sticking to it.
If you could only eat at one Memphis restaurant for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Can I offer up my dream meal in lieu of directly answering this question? I’d have salmon goulash from Abyssinia along with grilled cabbage from Dejavu, sauteed collard greens from HM Lounge, and mac-n-cheese from Mot & Ed’s. I’d top it off with Makeda’s banana pudding & a cookie butter vegan cupcake (because I’ve obviously waited until my gluttonous spree was completed before considering my weight)
What makes Memphis different from other cities?
Its good food & music and the ability to find those things (almost always paired) in this city.
What area of town is your favorite and why?
Midtown. I’ve lived here since 1999 and have seen the area grow. I love that I can walk or bike anywhere I need to go: the gym, the grocery store, tons of restaurants/bars, the zoo/park.
What can Memphians do to make a difference in our community?
I can’t say specifically say what needs to be done, but I can say to do what you can, whatever that is. Every little bit helps. That one dollar that you have to spare may be the one dollar needed to keep someone above water. That spare 15 minutes you have may not seem like much but just think about how life changing it could be when spent talking or listening to someone in need.
What is one thing you’re most excited about for Memphis?
I’m loving the energy of the arts scene right now. There’s so much growth happening! People are coming into their own and getting to witness that. It’s pretty inspiring.