A Promising Voice

From Memphis to Fayetteville, Dekarius Dawson Inspires Changes about Diversity. View the trailer for the film below.

When Dekarius Dawson started singing, he was only 3 years old, and almost everyone was quickly convinced of his vocal talent.

As he grew up, he nurtured this gift by performing in church choirs, attending music summer camps, and competing at talent shows. ”I knew he was going to do something involving music, his father, Reginald Dawson, said.

Pursuing higher education in music was indeed Dekarius Dawson’s greatest aspiration, but he did not know the path to get there. The blueprint for applying for college, which is only one small part of the story, did not even exist in his family of three boys, of whom he is the eldest. Neither his father nor his mother attended college. Dawson described his family as a stable household but they didn’t have “a plethora of money…If you don’t grow up with money, then you don’t have the finances to do what you just want to do.”

In a sense, Dawson had to invent the wheel.

While in high school in 2013, Dawson’s path crossed with Jeffrey Murdock at the Stax Music Academy, an after-school program that aims to ”instill soul in the next generation of Memphis artists.’.  Murdock became a mentor who believed in Dawson’s potential. After being hired as an associate professor of music at the UofA, Murdock recruited Dekarius in the music program in fall 2016.

Dekarius Dawson looking off into the distance
Dawson worked four jobs during his studies at the University of Arkansas. Photo by Obed Lamy.

A cultural shock 

The college experience is typically stressful and challenging for first-year students. Being a first-generation student made it more difficult for Dawson to navigate the complex student loan system, apply for scholarships, and balance living expenses. ”When you move off-campus, everything is on your own: rent, gas, groceries, light bills, water bills,” he said. He then had to work four jobs, while enrolled full-time, to make ends meet.

Dawson also encountered his first cultural shock upon arriving at the University of Arkansas. He found himself a minority in a predominantly white campus. ”How do you handle being the only black student in a class where the topic of discussion of the day would be civil rights? I was the stereotype they would discuss,” he said. The weight of responsibility laid on his shoulders to ”educate people about my race” was enormous, he added.

A Catalyst for change 

The lack of diversity is a problem faced by many campuses across the nation, and the University of Arkansas is no exception. In the Fall 2019, Black students made up 4.4% of the UofA population.

The lack of diversity posed a number of structural problems. Murdock said the design of college music programs can pose a barrier to black students’ admission. College music programs typically offer classical music. White students who have developed these skills from a young age, through piano or flute lessons, have a head start. Students of color and those from low socioeconomic status often have a different music literacy, such as blues and jazz. These genres were not the focus of instruction at conservatories, and so Black and lower-income students face a challenge when they audition for a collegiate music program, Murdock said.

Dawson’s journey has brought to light these disparities and offered insights on how to make changes to accommodate Black students.  Murdock says the University of Arkansas music department now has a viable jazz program. The audition and grading processes have also been refined to meet the requirements of diversity.

”I think a lot of that came because Dekarius,” Murdock said. “When he got here, (he) decided that he would be a catalyst for change in our department. And I think we have all become better because of him.”

Dr. Jeffery Murdock speaks on camera in an interview
Jeffrey Murdock, Ph.D., a music professor at the University of Arkansas who served as Dawson’s mentor. Photo by Obed Lamy

A Role Model

This diversity of voices is a source of enrichment, and Murdock believes it should be represented not only in the classrooms but also in the main stages of music. ”As the United States becomes more diverse, it is important that our students, the future of this country, are able to see folks who look like them and who represent them. If I aspire to be a musician and all I see is white men, then I think that only white men can do that,” Murdock said.

Dawson completed his studies and earned a bachelor’s degree in music in three years and half years. For his commencement ceremony, on December 19, 2019, his entire family traveled from Memphis to attend. They shouted out his name in joy when he received his diploma.

Dekarius Dawson looks toward the stage at his graduation
Dawson’s 2019 graduation was a historic moment for his family. Photo by Obed Lamy.

It was a historic moment for the Dawson family. The way to college is now paved for the younger brothers and the next generations. ”I expect Dekarius to teach other children what he learned in college and to be their role model. You know, to be their figure that children would look up to and to continue to shine,’’ Rita Dawson, Dekarius’ mother, said.

Dekarius Dawson is ready to take on this role. ”I would like the younger people, the youth and young adults of Memphis and the surrounding areas, honestly, to see that your background doesn’t define your destination,” he said. “Hard work really does, in the end, pay off.”

After graduation, Dawson moved back to Memphis and joined the Shelby County Schools public school system to start a teaching career this fall. Eventually, Dawson wants to enter school administration so he can have more leverage in raising money to help students with similar backgrounds: “If I have my hand in education funding and the planning, I can be more impactful to not only one school, but all the schools within the district.”


Obed Lamy is a Fulbright Scholar and a graduate student at the School of Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Arkansas. He has produced a film about Dawson’s journey called “A Promising Voice,” set for release on 2020.