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Students from the legendary Stax Music Academy traveled to Washington, D.C. to perform during the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s “Freedom Sounds” celebration Friday.
Jarrad Henderson, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Brenae Johnson and the other young musicians with the Stax Music Academy considered it the honor of a lifetime to bring Memphis soul to the National Mall.

But performing as part of the grand-opening festival for the Smithsonian’s new Museum of African American History and Culture makes the musical experience even more meaningful.

“It’s way more than just a performance,” said Brenae, a 17-year-old singer.

The festival, which began Friday and goes through Sunday, is a celebration of the nation’s African-American musical heritage, the long struggle for social change and the many men and women who led the way.

A dozen young members of the Tennessee academy, which provides after-school music education for teens, gave their first performance Friday and will perform again Saturday and Sunday as part of “Freedom Sounds: A Community Celebration” on the National Mall. The festival features African-American music traditions such as jazz, R&B, gospel, folk and hip-hop.

The highlight comes Saturday, when President Barack Obama dedicates the new 400,000-square-foot museum, which traces African-American history from the days of slavery and the civil rights movement to the present.

On Friday, a small crowd gathered beneath a clear-blue sky to watch the Stax Academy’s young musicians work their way through a set list of classics made famous by the Staples Singers, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Prince, Queen and others.

A young blue-haired woman danced. An elderly woman in a floppy red hat swayed to the beat. A photographer, camera in hand, stopped shooting long enough to show off his dance moves.

“Well done,” a woman shouted, as applause and cheers rose from the crowd, which grew bigger with each new song.

In addition to appearing at the festival, the Stax musicians will be profiled Sunday morning in a segment on NBC’s Today show.

The invitation to perform at the National Mall celebration arrived in June. The academy picked a dozen of its “all stars” for the performances and began prepping a 16-song set list culled from Memphis’ rich music tradition and other influences.

In addition to rehearsing, the students spent time talking about the museum and the long, sometimes tortured history it preserves, said Adrianna Christmas, the academy’s director.

The festival is expected to draw thousands of people to the National Mall, so getting chosen to perform is a powerful reminder of the legacy of Stax and Memphis music in general, she said.

“Out of all of the acts they could ask for, they asked for the Stax Music Academy,” she said.

Jadan Graves, a 14-year-old piano player, said it’s fitting that music is a big part of the festival. During segregation, people often came together to make music about love and peace in a time when blacks weren’t allowed to sit with whites in public, he said.

“To me, it’s an honor (to perform),” he said. “Everything we are part of – being soul communicators and the legacy of the great leaders of social change – it really shows me that it’s real and that we’re not just saying it. We actually mean it.”

Singer Kyler Gilkey, 17, made a Spotify playlist of the songs the students will perform. He’s been listening to it nonstop for weeks to prep for the performance.

Being chosen to represent Memphis’ musical legacy in Washington – “that’s a lot to carry on our shoulders,” he said.

But, “I’m just ready to have fun and experience DC and let DC experience Memphis,” Kyler said.

The young musicians understand they’re not just honoring history, they’re making history, Brenae Johnson said.

“Not only am I representing myself, I’m representing my family, my neighborhood,” she said. “When I tell somebody where I’m going, they are not only proud of me, they are proud for themselves. It’s almost like me going is like them going as well. All of us are knowledgeable of this event and how big it really is.”

She’ll celebrate a personal milestone in Washington when she turns 18 on Sunday.

“I don’t think I could spend my birthday doing anything better,” she said.