Soul Deep: Climbing in the Heart of Soulsville with Memphis RoxThursday, November 12, 2020
Taking a break from his daily training session, Aden Conrad stopped to chat with his friend Malik Martin. A talented athlete, this aspiring sport climber needed just a few minutes to rest and allow the lactic acid to ease its way out of his powerful forearms. As they casually spoke, Malik took a quick succession of pictures of Aden with his Nikon camera. Just a few clicks of his shutter and the photojournalist captured a moment in the life of a young man transformed by the power of a thriving community centered around a local climbing gym called Memphis Rox.
As the social media manager for the gym Malik was interested in learning more about Aden’s passion, why he enjoys rock climbing so much. “It’s a good sport that I’m good in,” he says simply. “I used to have friends playing outside with, but I don’t like them anymore. I don’t want to play with them.”
Though big for his age Aden is a sweet and gentle soul, soft spoken and a bit shy. In the rough neighborhood of south Memphis, Tennessee where he grew up Aden was often picked on and teased by the other kids. They made fun of his unhurried disposition and measured manner of speaking. But the climbing gym established just two years ago, now provides a place where Aden and many other young people in the community are made to feel safe and just be themselves.
It makes me feel normal and happy,” he said.
Everyone should have a place where they feel safe and happy, a secure environment where he or she can not only be who they are, but where they are encouraged to become the person they most want to be. In the community known as Soulsville that place is Memphis Rox. Though nestled in a most unlikely location, surrounded by low income housing and dilapidated buildings, this state-of-the-art rock-climbing facility is the home to an emerging generation of young athletes who aspire beyond the heights of the walls they scale with harnesses, chalk and ropes.
“While a sport such as climbing has considerable power to change, that power is rarely harnessed where it is needed most” said documentary filmmaker Dominic Gill. “So when I became aware of an organization in South Memphis making meaningful change in an often-forgotten community and using climbing to help push against an age-old status quo, I realized it was a story that needed to be shared.”
Sponsored by Black Diamond, Gill and a small production crew spent a week in Memphis to explore this remarkable establishment in the heart of an historic enclave better known for Soul music, Blues and BBQ than bouldering. Less than 5 miles from the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Soulsville lies at the crossroads of the last Civil Rights movement and its modern expression known commonly as Black Lives Matter. In the same city where a monument to Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forest, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, was removed by public demand in January, photographer Malik Martin turns his lens toward an entire social framework defined by White supremacy now in the midst of a massive transition. For a group of young climbers, this gym is the center of that change.
“We’re a pillar of the community,” Malik says in the new film, Soul Deep. “We’re not for profit. We’re for people.”
Run as a charitable enterprise Memphis Rox is unique for more than being set in an economically challenged, predominately Black American neighborhood in an urban town of the deep South. Particularly in the time of the COVID-19 Pandemic, this “pay-what-can” operation has also stood as a de-facto community center providing more than a few essential services for area residents, many of whom were put out of work due to the closure of nearby businesses.
“At the height of the pandemic we were giving away 600 meals a day,” said the gym’s operations manager Jon Hawk. “Around here there aren’t a lot of choices. But we did what we could from our kitchen and even invited local chefs to prepare special dishes whenever possible.”
More than just a climbing gym Memphis Rox is a focal point of culture and social interaction. Though young people like Aden and his older brother Armani were first attracted by the challenge of climbing, they soon realized that solving a boulder problem or an especially complicated line on a route could help them to build the skills and resilience within this community to tackle other more pressing difficulties in their daily lives. Many have come to understand that they are not defined by the circumstances of the neighborhood in which they were born and raised.
“Memphis Rox is a place of hope. It’s a safe haven,” Malik said. “Your bank account doesn’t matter. When there’s a wall in front of us we usually have a common goal…When you know the beta you can break down stereotypes through interaction.”
Right: Q in his studio PC: Andrew Lenz
The gym offers members of the community opportunities to see a wider world beyond Soulsville. Among the many high-profile athletes who have visited the space is professional climber Kai Lightner. Having taken a particular interest in the progress that Aden is making in the sport, Kai makes himself available to give support and encouragement. “When I walked into the gym for the first time there was this immediate recognition of experience,” Kai said. “It was like, ‘you’re Black and you climb like I do.’”
In a sport dominated by White athletes the representation of Black climbers is critical. To see a person of color from a similar background excel at the levels of skill and proficiency required to be a national champion like Kai provides a positive role model that young people can emulate. It’s from these interactions at the gym that people in the neighborhood can begin to expand their thinking beyond what is around them.
As it happens in other urban communities around the country, climbers at Memphis Rox are also learning an appreciation for the world outside. The gym staff periodically takes its members to remote climbing destinations like Horse Pens 40 in St. Clair County, Alabama. In the natural areas away from their neighborhood, impressionable youths like Aden, Armani and a bright character in the film named Quantas Seaward, also known as “Q”, have the chance to directly relate the talents they practice in the gym to become part of an outdoor environment. “What made me start caring about rock climbing,” Q says, “I had to firsthand experience that this is what mother nature gifted us.”
The personal stories of the Memphis Rox community reveal much about how we can change the world around us for the better. As a rising photojournalist Malik Martin shows us the many faces of Soulsville and the lives of those who climb up from challenging life experiences while lifting others up along with them. “Mankind bends the will of everything around it to whatever we want it to do,” Malik said. “I think every human needs to understand the circle of influence of the things you can impact.” And for aspiring climbers in the heart of Soulsville at the center of that circle is Memphis Rox.
--James Edward Mills