Come on down, Detroit.
Motown has inspired so many artists, singers and songwriters. Anyone who has lived here understands there is a rhythm to our city – a music put together by a freighter horns, rushing traffic, office suites full of mortgage bankers (you get my point).
Willis gets it – she has a love affair with Detroit that started in her father’s scrapyard, took her through Mumford High School and landed her these days in Los Angeles, where the Grammy winner has a kitch museum and studio (where she makes music with performers ranging from The Pet Shop Boys to the Pointer Sisters to Earth, Wind & Fire).
Now, Willis is looking at a grand project that would create a song for Detroit. Yes, she’s even crowdfunding the “We Sing the D” performance she’s planning. And we’re all invited to participate whether you throw her a few bucks or not.
“I don’t want 10 people on this record. I want 100,000,” Willis said.
Her goal is to create an official-unofficial theme song for Detroit. The project includes putting together a song, an accompanying video and a documentary, outlining the month-long sing-along that will go with the record. Willis co-wrote the song with singer and musician Andrae Alexander. Think back to Willis’ first big single, “September,” and you’ll get the feel for this soulful tribute to all things Detroit.
The project will take over that same month – giving thousands of city and suburban residents a chance to sing, dance, juggle, crunk and boogaloo their hearts out throughout September. She will go to the everyday neighborhoods, checking out the tiny eateries and setting up a scene with anyone who will receive her. Ultimately, Willis wants the music and the movie to serve as a theme song to the city’s rebuilding, something she has long wanted to participate in and help.
“Detroit is reinventing itself at an incredible rate and I can’t wait to get here in September and throw a month-long party/sing-along and create, with the people of the Motor City, the theme song of the new Detroit,” Willis told me this week during her visit (one of many recently).
Some background: I first started talking to Willis about four years ago on this little blog I used to write for occasionally. She contacted me, wondering what she could do to get Detroit where it needed to be. She brought sincere love and interest to our conversations, taking whatever feeble advice I could give to heart.
And it’s a mighty big heart. Since her early forays into the city began those short years ago, Willis has done more to highlight the city, its potential and its people than some longtime Metro Detroit residents ever have.
Willis has been everywhere over the past week. And I do mean everywhere, camera in tow. She did a book signing for “Heart Soul Detroit” over at the Detroit Mercantile in Eastern Market. She was a special guest celebrity presenter at the 2013 Detroit Hair Wars event at Cobo Center. She appeared with the Mosaic Youth Theatre at their benefit (performing “The D” and “September.”)
Wait, there’s more. She ate “a dozen” Boogaloo Wondeland sandwiches at her favorite spot to eat, D’Emilis Cafe. (She also tried the The Telway Diner, Whitney and Vinsetta Garage, just for some balance.) She talked on the radio (hey, UDetroit/Harmonie Park). She hung out at D:Hive. She ate lunch with Tyree Guyton at a scrap yard. You can’t make this stuff up.
“I hope we can raise some money (thought her Indiegogo site) to make sure we can do this to the degree I want to do it,” Willis said, noting that groups like the Heidelberg Project will benefit from any proceeds. “One way or another, I’m doing it. I’m very excited.”
“It’s about the people,” she said. “I’m getting to know the city in a completely different way than when I lived here. It hits me every time – the energy of the people. So much of the world has written this city off. I’m trying to get across through this song the spirit of the city and how that hasn’t changed.”
She calls Detroit “a model city,” a place that deserves praise for its recovery. Sure, it is a dark example of how focusing on one industry can ruin you and how corruption and pride brought about a huge fall. But it also is about the effort, the time, the drive, the huge work that’s being done right now by so many to restore the glory.
I asked Willis to offer some final thoughts on her week here, and she never, ever disappoints. Via email (probably on the plane home, trying to think amid two screaming toddlers), she wrote: “As always, I had a ball in Detroit. The most soulful people in the world. Around every corner there’s a new surprise.”