The Gift of Access
Most career success stories don’t begin with bubble wrap. But soon after Tanisha Hall finished at Berklee with a degree in music business/management in 1998, she landed a job working for Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds and his wife, Tracey Edmonds. One of Hall’s first tasks was to deliver a gift on behalf of Edmonds. Eager to show her level of care, Hall padded the gift with extra bubble wrap to ensure a safe delivery. Edmonds later asked, “Did you gift wrap it?” and Hall had to admit, well, no, but hey, it was really well protected. “Presentation is everything,” Edmonds countered.
Something clicked then and there for Hall: Once you have something worth protecting, you have to learn how to share it. Her course was set, even though she didn’t yet know that in 2011 it would lead her to found White Hall Arts Academy (WHAA), a music and performing arts education nonprofit primarily serving South Los Angeles communities. In the last few years, WHAA expanded its programming to virtual communities worldwide.
“In one of the wealthiest cities in the world, where people are coming here and making their dreams come true, people born here are not being set up to participate in the creative economy.”
The academy was recently awarded a $50,000 grant from the Lewis Prize for Music, on the heels of receiving a $25,000 COVID-19 Community Response Fund award from the same organization in 2020. News of the latest grant raised the academy’s profile, and Hall has since been a featured guest on local news outlets and The Kelly Clarkson Show, helping extend WHAA’s reach considerably further. The increased exposure caps off a decade of constant growth, and Hall cites her combination of business savvy and musical skills as critical to the organization’s flourishing. “My business is not successful [just] because I’m teaching music; my business is successful because I have a degree in business,” Hall says. “I probably use what I learned from my marketing and accounting and economics classes more than anything else.”
While this year’s grant will allow Hall to continue expanding the virtual programming, the heart and home of the project remains on West 54th Street in L.A., in a building that once belonged to her grandparents. Considering her significant experience in the music world as well as having had mentors and colleagues such as Chaka Khan and Babyface, Hall could have continued climbing the music industry ladder, but she recognized an educational need in South L.A. and knew this is where she needed to root herself. “You have these kids growing up in this city where we’re literally 10 miles away from Hollywood,” she says. “In one of the wealthiest cities in the world, where people are coming here and making their dreams come true, people born here are not being set up to participate in the creative economy.”
Her list of past and current students speaks well of the work she’s done to boost that creative economy. Students range from a local beginner to a vocalist with a Netflix contract to singer and songwriter Ant Clemons, WHAA’s first Grammy nominee. “It’s great because we do get both sides coming together. You know, students coming from Beverly Hills, or celebrities coming, and then I have, like, the kid from down the street.”
Hall says that she’s carried Edmonds’s advice into all aspects of her professional life. Still, back in 2020, she considered not applying for that first Lewis grant, worried that the time it would take to apply could all be for naught if she didn’t win it. By that point, she’d taken what started as weekend music lessons she’d given in her home and turned them into a robust curriculum at an academy with international reach. She had her gift all bubble-wrapped. The opportunities made available by the grant turned out to be the perfect bow.
This article appeared in the spring/summer 2022 issue of Berklee Today.