Interview with Community Records founder Jesse Morgan

We’re fortunate in the Ypsi/Arbor community in that we have several great non-profits serving kids. To name just a few that are actively working in the area of creative expression, we’ve got 826 Michigan (creative writing), The Wild Swan Theater (theatrical performance), FLY Children’s Art Center (visual arts), and Community Records (musical performance). I believe, in the past, I’ve written about most of these groups, their programs, and why it is that they feel passionately about what they do. I haven’t, however, until recently, had an opportunity to speak with anyone from Community Records. Fortunately, though, I just did something about that… What follows is my brief interview with Jesse Morgan, the founder of Community Records L3C.

MARK: What’s Community Records?

JESSE: Community Records is an organization dedicated to bringing diverse populations together through music. Why? To increase quality of life by helping to create friendships, better understanding of people who may have a social culture that seems different than one’s own, and to shore up more social capital for all involved. Why music? Art is the most powerful transformer of all. Music is what we do most, but our ends could be accomplished through most art forms/other disciplines.

MARK: You mention bringing people together across divisions, whether they be cultural, racial, class, etc. Was that the impetus behind the whole thing in the first place? Or is that a direction in which things have moved since launching?

JESSE: For me, personally, founding CR was my response to the question, “The world is messed up, so what are you going to do about it?” I’m using my two greatest skills: 1) music & 2) perseverance to do what I can.

For the past five years, we have been running social-justice-oriented music programs for mostly at-risk youth throughout Michigan, including Youthville in Detroit, SEEDS in Traverse City. Here’s a full list of past and current partners. We’ve had a positive impact on youth we’ve worked with, but we’ve rarely met our mission to the degree I’d hoped. I’m amazed at how much we’ve accomplished and how many lives we’ve touched with our message of inclusion, of “what you have to say is important.” Also, I’m grateful for all of the talented, big-hearted, principled & socially-conscious artists I’ve been able to work with, incl MC Invincible, MC Kadence, & L3C co-founders Akili Jackson & Justin Fenwick. The list is long. These are all people who are dedicated to the cause of righting social wrongs. And their main tool is music. Music is CR’s main tool, as well.

We are now in a position to meet our mission to a greater degree than in the past. With the new space that we have, we can host shows, offer lessons & classes and generally have a greater presence in the community.

MARK: I had the opportunity to see your space (above St. Luke’s Episcopal Church) on Halloween, and it’s incredible. Can you tell us a little about the space, how the deal came together, and how having the space opens up other opportunities for the organization? [note: Photo to right.]

JESSE: The open auditorium and stage are what caught my attention the first time I wandered upstairs, carrying my fussy baby that was not appreciating the priest’s homily, however erudite. My wife, Amy, is the music director at St. Luke’s, and I often find myself wandering around the church with a fussy or chatty baby. I’m still excited by the large, open space with a stage. It’s like a large blank canvas. I’m most excited about facilitating–and participating in–collaborations among musicians and other artists, dancers, visual artists, performance art, etc. I have been studying Meredith Monk’s work lately and I’d love to open up the space to performance art that marries music, movement, drama, politics, etc. The fact that nothing is currently planned for the stage makes me uneasy. I want to get some projects going! But we need to choose carefully, and music will be an integral part of these projects, as well as community building, which is our mission… But, to answer your question, after “discovering” the open space, and the two adjacent rooms, within the sprawling church, I approached the pastor and it turns out they were looking for ways to increase their revenue and to move toward creating a community center there, as well. We use the small rooms to give music lessons and classes, and to hold community-building meetings.

MARK: It’s a wonderful space, with tons of potential. It reminds me of a place that I played in Ann Arbor a long time ago called Schwaben Hall. Probably like you, when I first walked in, I immediately started to think of ways to put it to use. I thought about shows that could go there, the possibility of using it as a venue for a small film festival, and any number of other things. And I sympathize with you, having to figure it out. It’s got to be hard, trying to come up with a plan for the space that both reinforces the mission of the organization, and doesn’t give the church cause to reconsider the relationship. What I mean is, you probably don’t want to have huge shows there. And, for that matter, you probably don’t want to be distracted by operating a live music venue. Given all of that, what are your preliminary thoughts on how the stage will be used over the coming year?

JESSE: I have started a Community Building Advisory Committee that will determine how to best use the space to meet our mission of building community through music, in particular, and the arts, in general. We have met twice now. Members include academic experts in community building, people with lots of experience putting on community events & local artists. We will cap the committee at 9 members. Currently, including myself, there are 5 members. I’m hoping to involve local artists representing a wide range of artistic disciplines, as well as community building activists. Personally, I’m most interested in all forms of improvisation. So I also hope we can incorporate improv into any future events… In a nutshell, I see community building as finding ways to maximize community assets (both non-monetary and monetary) to benefit the community as a whole.

As far as large events are concerned, the church will receive 10% of any proceeds gleaned from events held in the space. So, while we want to avoid chaos (at least off-stage), everyone benefits from a large turnout.

As for content, yes we want to avoid salacious, vulgar content. The Community Records brand is family-friendly. But not saccharine. In our songwriting workshops, we often encounter young men who are unable to show us their professed skill at rapping because all of their flows are laced with profanity. They are parroting the commercial hip hop they have been fed as young consumers. Our teachers work with them to determine what they want to express, and then how to express themselves to reach the largest possible audience. Saying “f” this and “f” that immediately shuts out a large portion of their audience. Plus, it is possible to express ones’ self effectively & skillfully, even with sensitive subjects, without indulging in profanity.

Not that I’m hopping on the PMRC train with Tipper Gore! I’m not an advocate for wanton censorship. The CR brand of community building, however, is focused on harnessing and maximizing positivity. Positive expression can be tough, in-your-face, thought-provoking, authentic & transformational. We are what we practice.

MARK: What kind of relationship do you have with Ypsi schools, if any?

JESSE: The main connection we had with Ypsi schools was our short, but fertile stint at Ypsi High School, hired as a vendor for the EMU Bright Futures program. We were there for about one school year. Some of our best songs come from that period, when we were also working with Willow Run High School students. The moment of truth was when we had the YHS students bussed –vanned, actually– over to WRHS to collaborate on a song that ended up, “Yin Yang We”, a song about reaching out, essentially. I’m pretty proud of that one, not so much because of the lyrical content as, or it’s epic 9 1/2-minute length, but because it really was a beautiful thing connecting the two groups of musicians at rival schools to collaborate on a piece of art about reaching out.

Ying Yang We, Ying Yang We
Both sides that combine
That’s all that ya see
Get up, give it up
And roll like the sea
Gotta throw your hands up
For the Y-town city.

The students also wrote a song called “Respect Me”, and one called “Keep Ya Head Up”. [note: A Community Records video that includes the audio track for “Keep Ya Head Up” can be seen at the bottom of this post.]

Unfortunately, this program didn’t continue, as the site coordinator decided he wanted to run his own recording classes.

MARK: Can you tell us about some of the new programs you’re working on?

JESSE: I’m really excited about some of the off-site stuff we’ve got planned. Here are a few examples.

• Working to increase diversity at the Toledo School for the Arts.

• Creating an after school program in partnership with the Toledo Museum of Art in which young people create original musical pieces based on the principles of design applied in TMA works of (visual) art.

• We are exploring the possibility of running an inter-generational songwriting program at the Parkridge Community Center in Ypsi.

MARK: What, if anything, does Community Records need need right now in order to continue the work that’s been done already?

JESSE: What we need most right now: help! We need volunteers and non-volunteers for everything from promotion and marketing to bookkeeping to people with experience in building community and working with all ages.

Full disclosure: our teachers are paid relatively well for the important work that they do. I’m am still volunteering after five years, but I can’t seem to stop doing this work.

MARK: I noticed, at your Halloween open house, that Fly Children’s Art Center was on-hand, doing projects with kids. I was wondering if perhaps you had plans to work together with that organization, or others, like 826 Michigan, in the future? It seems to me that there might be a lot of opportunity for those three kid-oriented organizations in particular to work together.

JESSE: I agree about the potential for collaboration between 826, FLY & Community Records. 826 has the most support & resources, given their national network & financial relationships. I will talk with Katie at FLY & reach out to 826.

MARK: Is there anything else that you would like for people to know?

JESSE: Yes, I should add that Community Records is currently in transition. There are some community members who will be joining the board in January, and my hope is that they will take over my responsibilities with regard to payroll, contracts & board leadership. This is especially important, as I have a new job at the Ozone House Drop-In Center in Ypsi as their Youth Employment Coordinator. I supervise a team of Peer Outreach Workers & help run a WorkZone program. I am currently planning a benefit concert for the Drop-In Center to be held at CR’s space in the spring. it will be held Saturday, March 10 at the Community Records home base (120 N. Huron, Ypsi). Any community members interested in participating, performing and/or donating, should email me at: And, in case it wasn’t clear earlier, Community Records is always looking for people to participate in our projects and to recommend how we should use our resources to benefit the community.

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  1. Edward
    Posted December 30, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations on the job at Ozone House, Jesse. You mention that you’ll be working with the Peer Outreach Worker program. If that’s the same program that we’ve discussed here in the past, I thought that funding had been cut. If funds were found to keep the program alive, I’m very glad to hear it. Good luck with all of your endeavors.

  2. Jesse
    Posted December 31, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the good wishes, Edward. My job duties for Youth Employment Coordinator at Ozone House do include supervising a group of six peer outreach workers. There are still grants available to support the POW program. The other half of the job is helping to run WorkZone, a job training and placement program. The large federal grant that previously paid for the Drop-In Center to be open from 4-8pm during the week has not been renewed for the second year in a row. Apparently, there are more grants available to support job training than there are for open drop-in/outreach. The drop-in hours/center/staff were awesome. Many youth no longer have a safe place to hang out during those hours after school. I am working with youth and community members at both Ozone House and Community Records to raise funds to support more open programming at the Drop-In Center in the future. Please come to, volunteer for or participate in the COMMUNITY SHOWCASE, a benefit for the Ozone House Drop-In Center, on March 10th, to be hosted by Community Records L3C at its Music Center at 120 N. Huron, Ypsilanti, MI, upstairs at St. Luke’s Epsicopal Church. We don’t expect to raise the $100,000 to replace the lost grant, but it is a way for the Ypsi community to show the youth that utilized the Drop-In Center that we care.

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