‘You Are Here for a Reason’: African American Alumni Share Career Insights

By 
Padriac Farma
March 11, 2019
Marchánt Davis, Ebony Williams, Jemila Dunham, and Kevin Ross
From left: Marchánt Davis, Ebony Williams, Jemila Dunham, and Kevin Ross
Image by Padriac Farma

The Berklee Summer Initiative (BSI) was launched in 2017 to foster a strong sense community, support, belonging, and cultural understanding for entering students of color. Four College and Conservatory alumni were invited by the BSI to discuss their careers and offer advice to incoming students, sharing insights on confidence, patience, and finding success. 

Ebony Williams (B.F.A. '05, contemporary dance): “Don’t lose your flavor.”

Ebony Williams
Image by Padriac Farma

Conservatory alumna Ebony Williams was a longtime member of the renowned dance company Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet. She was one of two dancers who starred with Beyoncé in the artist’s hit music video “Single Ladies,” and she later performed with Beyoncé at Super Bowl XLVII and on her Formation World Tour. Her resume also includes work with Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, and Ciara, among others.

Growing up, Williams was often the only woman of color in her ballet classes. However, with the support of her instructors and her dedication to the artform, Williams flourished while a student at Boston Conservatory. When asked about dealing with intimidating situations, Williams attributed her success to knowing herself and her style. “Throughout my career, I always said if I was to do a piece in silhouette, I still want [the audience] to pick out Ebony Williams on that stage. So walk in there and know who you want to be, and don’t lose your flavor.”

Marchánt Davis (B.F.A. '13, musical theater): “Be louder than your fear and faster than your worry. Moving at the speed of fun!”

Marchánt Davis
Marchánt Davis
Image by Padriac Farma

Conservatory alumnus Marchánt Davis is an actor, singer, and writer. He received an M.F.A. in acting from the New York University Tisch School of the Arts, and is also a children’s book author. Recently, he was cast in The Public Theater’s production of Ain’t No Mo’ and landed the lead role in the upcoming Chris Morris film, The Day Shall Come.

During his time at the Conservatory, Davis had a role in a restoration comedy in which he felt he had failed in the performance. “There was something about failing in that moment that was really exciting to me. I said, ‘If I’m going to fail, let me fail up. Let me keep failing until I’m the best.’ You’re here to put yourself out there.” He encouraged students to remember that there are experiences beyond those moments of failure, and to “look for the fun” of addressing challenges and growing from them.

Jemila Dunham B.M. '13: “You are here for a reason.”

Jemila Dunham
Jemila Dunham
Image by Padriac Farma

Berklee College of Music alumna Jemila Dunham is the bassist for Betty Who (Jessica Newham B.M. ’13). She has worked with violinist Mazz Muze and singer-songwriter Grace Gibson, and is an instructor and organizer for the New Orleans chapter of Girls Rock Camp Alliance.

Dunham discussed the insecurities she felt early in her career. “It was intimidating. But there were things that I could do that other people couldn’t. I had to really focus on that, because otherwise I would have drowned in comparisons.” She also shared how embracing her unique identity shaped her style. “Everything about my identity is coming into how I’m playing,” she said. “The bass guitar wasn’t built for a woman, so even physically, I’m playing it differently.” Dunham concluded that a musician's opportunities are shaped by the blend of their ability and identity. “Everything about [who you are] comes out when you’re creating. You’re going to get a call because that person saw something in you that is going to work with what they’re doing.”

Kevin Ross '09: “Your blessing could be right around the corner.”

Kevin Ross
Kevin Ross
Image by Padriac Farma

Berklee College of Music alumnus Kevin Ross is a singer, songwriter, and producer who recently moved on from his contract with Motown Records to start his own label, Art Society Music Group. He has worked with artists including Trey Songz, Nicki Minaj, Jamie Foxx, and Lil Wayne, and has built a significant following with his YouTube channel, which features multitrack vocal performances of popular music mashups.

When asked about staying motivated while pursuing a music career, Ross talked about the struggle of balancing creative passion with a day job. “You have to embrace it,” he said. “You have to endure and keep going, because [the inspiration] might not be there everyday.” He also discussed his experience watching others turn away from their musical pursuits, saying, “I think a lot of people give up too early, too fast. It’s like seeing people jump off the train five minutes before their stop.” Even the most successful musicians have peaks and valleys, Ross concluded, but those ups and downs are “necessary for the process” of writing and performing.