If in the days to come you see a bespectacled woman pacing near the Fox Theatre with a camera crew behind her, let me introduce you.
It is (probably) Allee Willis, and she is coming to Detroit in a flourish of activity. She will be delivering a keynote speech at the Rust Belt to Arts Belt conference. She will be conducting her beloved Mumford high-school marching band playing a medley of her greatest hits before a performance of her musical, The Color Purple. (The event is a benefit for the marching band, with proceeds after expenses going for new uniforms.) Oh, and in between, she’ll be going to her aunt’s memorial.
Hence, the cameras. Willis figures with so much going on, high comedy should ensue. And she wants to capture all of it on film. That way, when they finally make the story of her life and her long Detroit love affair, the best parts will be right here in the city.
Some background: Willis is a Grammy-winning and Emmy- and Tony- nominated composer whose hit songs – including Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September,” The Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance,” Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield’s “What Have I Done To Deserve This,” and The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There For You (Theme From Friends)” – have sold more than 50 million records. Oh, and she cannot read a lick of music. Yup. Weird. But true.
More background: The Rust Belt to Artist Belt III conference is coming to the city of Detroit April 6 and 7. Artists, creative business owners and practitioners, educators and designers just like Willis will meet in Detroit “to explore how post-industrial Rust Belt cities are being shaped by creative individuals in the areas of economic and community development, entrepreneurialism and land use.” This year’s theme is Cultivating Talent and Innovation to Transform Post Industrial Cities.
As an aside, Willis said she has filmed literally every significant moment of her life since 1978. So she can remember when she first left the city of her birth to go onto fame and fortune. Or almost.
“If I look at the trajectory of Detroit, my own life looks the same. My life is about constantly having to reinvent myself,” Willis said. “Everything will seem so big, but then I have to go back to the drawing board.”
Willis said she plans on coming in a few days earlier than she is scheduled. The goal is to just drive around, remember her old haunts, drive by her old houses (until someone threatens her) and find every great soul-food place in town.
“This is a city trying to resurrect itself,” Willis said. “To get a clear picture of this city, you have to see it as an artist. And an artist is someone who is fearless, who executes a vision no matter what the price. When the stakes are high, so are the rewards.”
So what will she talk about in her speech? “It feels like the city is at a great galvanizing point; there are people around now who are thinking and doing the same things,” Willis said. “Everyone is thinking on their feet and making it work.”
Ultimately, her goal is to “have some kind of fun and, hopefully, do some good,” Willis said. Sounds like a plan.
To see Willis’ speech, get to the conference by 3:45 p.m. Thursday, April 7. To attend Willis’ pre-play performance called “Allee Willis Marches on Detroit,” go here. The event is at 11 a.m. Saturday, April 9, in the lobby of the Fox Theatre. If you cannot attend, make a donation or sponsor a Mumford High School student so they can go to the play afterward. A ball-park themed lunch (in honor of the Tigers’ opening weekend) will be served.