For the past five months, next to the storied Hitsville, U.S.A., house where stars were born, some new artists have been singing and dancing their way into the Motown family.
Selected as finalists for the latest edition of the Motown Museum’s “Amplify: The Sound of Detroit,” 10 singers have been working through the paces of artist development — vocal coaching, choreography, media training and more — in the spirit of Motown’s classic system.
Rapper Doug E. Fresh, who is soon joining the Motown Museum board of trustees, will serve as emcee, alongside a judges panel that includes Spotify executive Justin Norman, record producer Che Pope and artist manager Toya Hankins. Contestants will perform with a band led by decorated bassist Kern Brantley, vying for a $5,000 cash prize, studio time and mentoring from industry professionals.
The contestants, ranging in age from 19 to 39, will perform Motown classics that have been stylized to show off each singer’s musical personality, from swing to rock to gospel-blues. Their song selections are handpicked from Motown’s sprawling catalog. Among them: the Miracles’ “Ooo Baby Baby,” Rare Earth’s “I Just Want to Celebrate,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie on Reggae Woman.”
Onstage Wednesday, the 10 singers may be going head-to-head, but since embarking on their “Amplify” journey in November, they’ve become a tight-knit group training together several times a week. That bond will be showcased at the Gem in a new “Amplify” feature: choreographed group performances of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and DeBarge’s “Rhythm of the Night.”
“While this is a competition, it’s also important to our mission to build a community,” said “Amplify” director Tristan Andrews. “We want to keep instilling what was part of that original Hitsville foundation.”
The singers also embody the aspirations of Hitsville Next, the Motown Museum’s growing body of programs devoted to youth, and educational and community work. Based in a newly refurbished space adjacent to the museum — part of the organization’s ongoing $65 million expansion — the Hitsville Next portfolio includes summer camps, music-industry workshops and the annual “Motown Mic” spoken-word contest.
On a recent weekday, sunlight streamed into the Hitsville Next atrium as Andrews led the “Amplify” singers through steps and cues in one of the final rehearsal sessions ahead of Wednesday’s show. Their voices bounded off walls lined with vintage photos of artists at work in Studio A next door — the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5.
“Being in this space is really motivational and inspiring,” said 19-year-old contestant Tavion Knight, of Detroit. “When I’m here, the creative juices pour out.”
Seasoned Detroit musicians including Brantley, Beth Griffith-Manley and Curtiss Boone have been mentors alongside Andrews, a Detroit native who once worked as a Motown Museum tour guide.
An actor and choreographer whose resume includes MTV, Andrews had just moved back to Detroit from L.A. when he had a chance encounter last summer with museum chief Robin Terry while attending the Temptations musical “Ain’t Too Proud.”
He was soon hired as program manager for Hitsville Next.
“It literally feels divine to me because it’s important to have a purpose,” he said.
“Amplify” is the first big project in his new role, and he has embraced it with relish, applying his years of work in theater and dance. He has been thrilled watching the contestants’ progress, including introverts who have blossomed into confident performers, asserting themselves with their personalized Motown interpretations.
“We’re giving (participants) the experience of what it’s like to be a professional artist, which is a lot of hard work,” Andrews said.
For the 10 singers, Wednesday approaches with a mix of nerves and excitement — the culmination of a special five-month adventure.
“The ‘Amplify’ team really cares,” said Jannah Garback, 29, of Fenton. “They treat you like a Beyoncé, like a superstar. To get that training, that Motown experience, has been magical. It’s hard work in the spirit of that Detroit grit. That’s something I’ll take with me.”
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