For the past few years, Dr. Addell Austin Anderson has been trying to put on a symposium about Motown Records. This July, it’s finally becoming a reality.

“It’s almost as if, if it has to do with popular culture, it’s not worthy of being treated in a serious, scholarly way,” said Anderson, the education director at Plowshares Theatre Company. “That was disturbing to me that it seemed like we would lose out because of this.”

After applying for several National Endowment for the Humanities grants—all of which were denied—Anderson applied for one with the Michigan Humanities Council, which she received.

“Of course, Motown is known globally,” Anderson said. “You can go anywhere and people know Motown, but there haven’t been a lot of opportunities for people to actually come together and talk about it.”

Motown 2From July 6-8 at the Michigan State University Detroit Center, guests will get to do just that, discussing everything from the greatest performers and musical hits from 1958-1972, to legacy interviews with former Motown musicians and people who worked for Motown Records. Anderson hopes that the symposium will allow guests and speakers to discuss Motown in a scholarly way.

And there is plenty to discuss when it comes to Motown Records. Like its distinct sound, which mixes soul and pop. Or the fact that within four years of its founding by Berry Gordy in 1959, it became the largest independent record company in the United States. Motown Records also became the largest African American-owned business by 1973.

“What I liked about the Supremes, the Four Tops, and the Temptations was that culturally, it was meaningful,” Anderson said. “Being an African American, that very distinct Motown sound was definitely a sense of pride.”

Motown 1One of the timeliest sessions during the July symposium will focus on Motown music in 1967 in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the 1967 Rebellion. Anderson said the symposium plan has always included this section as a connection to the events that occurred in Detroit that summer, but doing it this year, with the groundswell of community programs commemorating this historical occurrence, holds extra significance. 

This session, led by Plowshares Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Gary Anderson, will discuss the records and spoken word albums produced that year. But it will be about much more than just the records sold.

“The poetry and spoken word records that deal with the social/political scene at the time were a really great contribution that Motown gave during that period,” she said.

“We’re hoping for a mixture of generations so people can remember back,” she continued. “We’re going to provide a list of the major records during that period...how that informed their view of what was going on during that time in Detroit. We hope to have that kind of discussion.”

The Motown Symposium is one of many events this summer hoping to spark discussion about the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Rebellion. The Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Project has been hosting events since May and will continue to do so throughout the rest of the summer. 

Along with collecting hundreds of oral histories, the Detroit 67 Project recently opened Detroit 67: Perspectives. The exhibit examines metropolitan Detroit from 1917 to the present, and then 50 years into the future, allowing guests to get a better understanding of what led to the 1967 Rebellion and what they hope for the future of Detroit.

Neither the Motown Symposium nor Detroit 67 Project will simply be a bunch of talking heads.

“Our symposium isn’t one where you’re just going to come and sit there,” Anderson said. “What we’re promising is a chance for the general public to interact and actually be as much a part of the symposium, the learning, as the scholars themselves.”

Many of the lectures will have interactive elements, such as demonstrations and a chance to interact with the music. The last day will focus on digital storytelling in hopes of spreading the word about Motown’s importance. Speakers include Motown musician Paul Riser, Motown Museum trustee Allen Rawls, and professor of musicology and jazz studies at Michigan State University, Dr. Kenneth Prouty.

For K-12 educators attending the symposium, they will be able to earn SCECH credits and hopefully bring back some of what they learn to their classroom. And beyond.

“We hope that the learning goes beyond these few days and reaches—we hope—literally thousands of people,” Anderson said. “We hope it inspires them to embolden in the legacy, to keep the legacy alive.”

Photos courtesy of Allen Scott, Plowshares Theatre Company.

Although the event is free, registration is required here. Only 50 spaces are available per day.

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