When the TEDx Memphis
team, who work with TED
to set up locally-focused TED Conferences, planned this year's roster of speakers, it's no surprise that one of them turned out to be James Dukes, aka IMAKEMADBEATS. For years, we've chronicled the work he and Unapologetic
, the collective he founded, have done in and around the city. Creating great music is what they're best known for, though they also have fingers in the worlds of apparel, journalism, and more. With Unapologetic's brand gaining wider attention, purely out of gumption and productivity, it's clear that they're a perfect fit for the TED aesthetic.
And yet, as Dukes himself explained, he never imagined he'd be embraced as a public speaker. Indeed, this observation formed the basis of his talk last Saturday at the Crosstown Theater. "I'm nervous as hell," he began. "But I'm gonna do this anyway. How does a black man wearing a mask, who's spent most of his life stuttering, mumbling, suffering from high levels of social anxiety, end up on a TEDx stage, talking to hundreds of people? Maybe thousands via the internet?"
What followed was his life in a nutshell, a troubled childhood that nonetheless taught him the power of hard work and empathy for others. And ultimately, those roots led him to the epiphany he communicated to the TEDx audience that day: that such empathy can in fact empower one's self to greater achievements.
If empathy is not what listeners are used to hearing from the Memphis trap music that's conquering the world now, it's understandable. But dig deeper into hip hop's diversity, and you'll see the genre is rife with literary character studies, from Schooly D, L.L. Cool J, De La Soul, and Busta Rhymes, to Kendrick Lamar, recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize. All are artists building from their empathy.
Many of Saturday's talks were focused on the power of unique visions and unorthodox approaches (this is TED, after all). The unique insight Dukes offered was how deeply intertwined our individuality is with empathy and the needs of others. It was an observation in which his own collective and the Memphis music scene in general, known for over half a century as oddballs, can take great pride.
To be sure, Dukes had the support of his crew to make the sense of community palpable. As emcee Eric Barnes introduced Dukes, who should appear onstage but Unapologetic singer Cameron Bethany
came instead. Sitting at the back of the stage, he began by singing "No matter what you go through... be you." Dukes himself appeared a moment later, setting up a sample board that he would use to underscore points in his talk. He might say the word "alienation" and then trigger it as an echoed kernel of meaning that reverberated over the speech that followed.
Such theatricality was a new approach for this longtime fan of TED Talks. Indeed, while TED Talks are often punctuated by visual cues on a slideshow screen, Duke's presentation, though sporting a few visual markers, brought a more sonic orientation to the proceedings, which in turn, through the amorphous, immersive qualities of sound, drove home his points about nurturing individuality in a nest of social interdependence.
This was further emphasized when Aaron James and A Weirdo From Memphis (AWFM) also joined Dukes onstage, sitting unassumingly on stools, silently dramatizing certain moments from Duke's life, or simply bearing witness to his words. When James removed his shirt, you could say that TEDx had been officially "DisrupTEDx," as Duke's T-shirt proclaimed. At that moment, the audience could viscerally feel the vulnerability that Dukes was speaking of, best expressed in some of his closing thoughts on the how pursuing your uniqueness can feed the needs of others:
"Framing it as for someone else gives me purpose, and I can't let that person down. Secrets don't start movements. Uncovering them does. Someone is waiting on you to be you. Extremely you. Awkwardly you. Effortlessly you. Vulnerably you. Unapologetically you."
Dukes concluded his talk, and the applause was thunderous, the cheers ecstatic. I guarantee that every audience member exited out into the world more ready to be their own bad self, and get on with something big.
Watch this page for a link to TEDx Memphis' video of his entire presentation, when available in the near future.