You still cannot take away the energy of the people…when I take my friends there, they think they are going to be murdered as soon as they step off the plane and within a half a day, they want to go look for a place. It’s an unbelievably friendly city, if you’re a friendly person. If you smile, you get a smile back. They are so grateful for anyone…who shows them the love.” —Allee Willis, about Detroit and its people
There is a creative crusade happening in Detroit right now. What started as a whisper, is now becoming an increasingly loud movement. Its artists, the people, are rising the Motor City from the ashes of a failed local economy by creating a beautiful, revised version of its city.
In its heyday, Detroit was globally recognized as a powerhouse of innovation but over the years, due mainly to the fall of the auto industry, its (mainly middle class) population fled in staggering numbers. Political greed and corruption added insult to injury to the situation and drove the city to file for bankruptcy in July of 2013, making it the largest U.S. municipality in history to do so.
In December 2013, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes ruled that the city had met the required legal criteria to be protected from its creditors, which is estimated at $18 billion. At the ruling, he stated, “We have here a judicial finding that this once-proud city cannot pay its debts. At the same time, it has an opportunity for a fresh start. I hope that everybody associated with the city will recognize that opportunity.”
Many residents, a mix of native Detroiters and newly transplanted ones, have already recognized this opportunity and they aren’t asking for permission from officials to give this “fresh start” to their communities. They are doing it for themselves. Jeanette Pierce of D:hive, gave a nod to the strong DIY culture of Detroit in a recent New York Times article, unequivocally stating it is “not a top-down city.” There is still tremendous hope amongst its people, despite the dire economic situation, and they are figuring out how to take back their city on their own terms, from the “bottom up.”
There are few more suited to be a leader in this “bottom-up” revival than Detroit born-and-bred visionary and multi-media artist, Allee Willis. A model of reinvention herself, credits Detroit for giving her soul. Despite being an unschooled musician who never learned to play any instruments, Willis has had great success in the music world. She has written popular songs, like Earth Wind & Fire’s “September,” and “I’ll Be There For You” (aka the “Friends theme”), that collectively have sold over 50,000,000 records and she lists Motown as her primary influence.
Now, in collaboration with musician Andrae Alexander, she’s not only written “The D,” the “official unofficial theme song” for Detroit, but asked its citizens to join her in singing it. And they did, thousands and thousands of them, in an incredibly ambitious project of the same name. “The D” is described as a “joyous citywide singalong tribute” about the “human spirit as exemplified by the people of Detroit” and it will result in a record, video, and a feature length documentary film. Since last year, Allee and her 15 person crew have recorded and filmed at many locations (75 at this writing) around the city, capturing Detroiters from all walks of life “singing, playing, dancing, clapping, whistling, juggling hubcaps and showing their spirit anyway they can.”
I recently had the opportunity to interview Allee, who has been a resident of Los Angeles for many years now, about “The D” and she reports, “When I was doing those sing-alongs, every single person who was singing felt like as much as a musician as I was. They all felt they earned the right to be there and they are proud of their city and they don’t want to take the shit anymore. You may give it but it just bounces off of us. Because we have spirit and we have soul.”
“I feel that every Detroiter feels that. I feel that’s what came out of these sing-alongs, that Detroit, the main two things it’s known for (and certainly in the years I was…growing up, when it was in full force): automobiles and music. Two things that make you move. Two things that are ubiquitous around the world. It’s all based on rhythm and life is based on rhythm and harmony and balance. You get that living in that city, it exudes out of the asphalt. People there feel it. It like rises up through the souls of your feet and kind of gets in your blood and it’s there forever.”
“Spirit’s somethin’ that lives inside.
Ain’t nothin money can buy.
Hope rise up from these city streets
that once were burning with pride.” –lyrics from “The D”
Allee and her dedicated crew, which includes actor Daniel Franzese (Mean Girls), are currently busy editing “miles” of footage in her home studio. She estimates the project, which she describes as “mammoth,” will take well into 2015 to complete.
In the meantime, primarily in an effort to generate interest from gain financial backers, Willis and her creative team have put together a sneak peak video trailer that presents a solid “proof of concept” of “The D”:
“The project is so massive. The amount of material that there is to go through and working on a record, a film, and a video at the same time. No one does any two of those things in combination, let alone three. So, there is still no funding…that’s the piece that was left out of the trailer which is absolutely crucial to what the concept of the whole thing is…I have 4,000 vocal and instrument tracks, sorting through it is one thing, mixing it up altogether when you may have 300 people doing 300 different things, let’s say for certain ad libs, and you may like all 300 of them, how do you arrange that sonically so it doesn’t just sound like one big roar? Do you know what I mean? Where do you place that in the sound perspective? It’s the blessing of it and the fantastic part of it is the exact same thing as the horrendous pit of Hell that it puts you in. You are doing things you have never done before, that you know have no idea how to do or pull off,” says Willis, who has funded the costly project herself up-front to this point.
“Because you know, it isn’t ‘I wrote a song for Detroit’ –that is so not what this thing is about. It is about ‘you can do anything you want to do if you just have the balls to go for it.’ And you need a modicum of talent but you know if you really have passion for something and believe in it and have enough an artistic way of doing things that is not necessarily accepted by the mainstream, as an artist, you just do it. You know?”
She really does!
GET involved in the project: FOLLOW its progress at its website. DONATE $$. TELL your friends about it. Most importantly, if you are part of a company or brand, especially a Detroit-based one, that wants to SPONSOR the film, CONTACT Allee HERE.