Third grader Donavon Thigpen was having another ordinary day until his father showed up to his elementary school and pulled him from class. The student met with his father, Don Thigpen, in the hallway.
“I want you to come with me to Philadelphia, (Pa..), because I don’t know if Benny is gonna show up,” the senior Thigpen explained to him.
Don worked as the music director for soul singer Dorothy Moore. At the time, her drummer Benny was battling drug addiction, and Don was uncertain whether or not he would show up to their gig. The duo immediately left for Philly to meet up with the rest of the band. There, Donavon’s father was constantly fielding off questions from Dorothy regarding Benny’s absence.
Dorothy Moore kept asking, “Hey, where’s Benny?” In response, Don Thigpen told little white lies. “Yeah, he’s coming; he’s coming.’”
But he didn’t show, so Don Thigpen put his son on drums.
Thousands of people filled the baseball stadium, but the crowd did not intimidate the younger Thigpen in the least. In fact, he was more excited than anything to play in front of a large audience, he said. His time playing piano for various churches in Jackson had prepared him for this moment.
“We played for this Pentecostal church, and I don’t know if you know much about Pentecostal churches, but sometimes they will shout,” Thigpen told the Mississippi Free Press in a recent interview. “And we would be shouting in there for like hours at a time. It was just a training ground.”
‘Yeah, I Think I’m Ready’
Donavon Thigpen comes from a musical family. His father is a musician. His mother is a choir director. He and his siblings play instruments, and some of them can sing. As a family, they attended various church events, sometimes three to four times a week.
By age 12, Donavon began making money from playing piano, which he learned to play by listening to songs on top of the few lessons he acquired from his father.
“My dad asked me if I wanted to play for a church, and initially, I told him no,” Thigpen recalled. “I said I didn’t think I was ready. He said, ‘Well they’re gonna pay you $40 a week.’ I cleared my throat, and I said, ‘Yeah, I think I’m ready.’”
Since then, music has been Thigpen’s full-time job. Early on, he used the money he made to buy his first car in cash at age 15 and to put himself through college. His journey in music led him to travel overseas in Europe with the Mississippi Mass Choir.
Donavon helped host gospel-music workshops in Poland with Bishop Keith Butler, who led the Word of Faith Church. While there, he played a B3 organ piano, one of only three organs of that variety in the entire country at the time.
“They had gospel-music choirs singing all of these American gospel contemporary songs,” Thigpen described. “They would sing songs, and if you closed your eyes, you wouldn’t even know. You would think it was the (original recording) artist.”
Donavon Thigpen’s experiences and connections have culminated into the Academy of Performing Arts, Entertainment and Drama School and Rental Space, a new nonprofit arts program he is spearheading to create a space for students to freely discover their purpose through performing arts. The academy will offer workshops and curriculum in voice, drum, guitar, bass and piano.
“I was grateful that my dad kind of lined us up one day, and he just said, ‘Donavon, you gonna play keyboard piano.’ He said, ‘Nic, you’re gonna play bass guitar.’ He told my brother, ‘Dathan, you’re gonna be my Michael Jackson,’” Thigpen recalled.
“He just kind of helped us identify our purpose. I want to be there. I want to be able to recognize the gifts in certain people.”
‘What Do You Want Me To Do?’
Donavon started pondering the idea of a music academy around age 20 when his wife was pregnant with their daughter, Genesis. Although he enjoyed traveling and playing for various artists, he concluded that he needed to do something more serious with his life and career.
He prayed for an answer: “God, what do you want me to do? What am I supposed to be doing with life?”
The Lord, he said, shared three things with him: becoming a pastor, starting a production company through which he would write music and open a performing-arts school. He wrote and produced a lot of music, including some for his brother, and he pastored One Church in Jackson for more than eight years. The musician thought he would establish his performing-arts school through his church, but his vision did not go as planned.
“Anybody who knows me knows that I’ve talked about this school for years,” Thigpen said. “I knew that when I did it, I wanted to do it right. But I feel like the season is now. It was just on my mind, real tough and hard about two years ago, and so I just decided to go for it, and that’s why we’re here.”
He met with a friend, who is a developer, and threw out the idea about starting a performing-arts school in Jackson. His friend suggested a Fondren location, when Donavon saw it, he could immediately visualize the school operating from there.
“I saw how it would be designed; I saw the students being there, and I saw where the guitars would be hanging from the ceiling and where I would have all my music books (as well as) where we would do choreography classes,” he said. “It just came to life once I saw that building. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
Thigpen said he scribbled notes about the academy everywhere around his house, developed a curriculum plan, and dreamed about the teachers he wanted and the types of productions he wanted to arrange. He wants AMPED’s foundation to be performance-based, similar to how he learned his crafts.
“I think the pivotal moment in my career was when my dad put me in a church at age 12 and had me start playing for churches,” the musician said. “That’s when my playing took off—because each week I had to know that music, and I had to perform in front of people. And that’s how I want to train my students.”
Participants can sign up for an emphasis in piano, but their training will not begin and end there. Students will enroll in an ensemble with a bass guitarist, a drummer and another instrumentalist, and the school will schedule them to play in coffee houses and other venues around the Jackson area, he explained.
In addition to developing skills in music and performance in his students, Thigpen hopes that the AMPED program will mitigate the odds that young Jacksonians get caught up in illegal and sometimes dangerous activities. It will offer them an alternative means of spending time and teach the ropes of an industry they may wish to pursue.
“I grew up in Virden Edition, and (it) was a neighborhood full of great kids. I have great friends who came from the neighborhood, but back then, your only way of making money was primarily selling drugs,” the musician explained. “I was in middle school (and) most of my friends sold drugs. I didn’t have to do that because since age 12, I was making money.”
Thigpen’s best friend entered into a life of crime as they grew older, robbing people and going to jail on multiple instances while the musician was on the road performing. Having grown up in a religious household that emphasized putting in hard work to earn one’s money, Thigpen doubts he would have entered a lifestyle of selling drugs or crime. And he had a path to earn money, legally, he added.
“I just felt tremendously blessed that I had a way to make income, and it was legal,” he said. “The last time (my friend) got arrested, I was in Chicago playing for Hinds Community College Choir in Utica. … He got locked up for 20 years.”
‘Appetite for Entertainment’
AMPED Project Manager Paul Anders learned piano under Donavon Thigpen at Gisele’s Studios. They forged a relationship that has developed within the arts and church. Anders left Georgia and returned to Jackson after the pandemic started. Once Donovan saw the work he was doing around the city, he offered him an opportunity with AMPED.
“I’m an artist. I sing myself, so (Thigpen) was just like, ‘I know your heart and passion for music and art. Come jump on board.’ Literally, that’s what it was,” Anders told the Mississippi Free Press. “It’s for our community. It’s for the kids. Let’s help it out. … That’s what I’m about. I’m all about giving back to the community resources that they’re not usually able to obtain.”
As project manager, Anders is overseeing the completion of this project from start to finish, and he is marketing and fostering new partnerships with universities and public schools. One challenge he has faced in his new role is securing confidence from people to get behind the program and the work they are trying to do.
“I think (the confidence) is shaky for people because it’s African Americans who are providing this resource, and our community questions us and our ability,” Anders said. “We have a panel of doctors and lawyers that sit on our board to make sure that we are going to change anyone’s appetite for entertainment here.”
Although the program is open to people of all ages, AMPED primarily targets younger Mississippians. The program already has a class of students eager to learn all they can and prove themselves, Anders said.
“They’re little superstars. One of the groups went on to compete in the Mississippi State Fair Talent Show, and they placed third, and they’re 9, 10 and 11 years old,” Anders said with excitement. “It’s just incredible seeing a young group of people who’ve never done that before go out and then place against older high-school students.”
AMPED is one of many artistic programs on the rise in Jackson. Actress Amia Edwards has started her acting program with Jackson Public Schools. Last summer, the City of Jackson’s Human Cultural Services, PEG Network, hosted an acting program for Jackson youth in partnership with Maximus Wright Productions and Might Mississippi Films. Maximus Wright, himself, is helping to foster the local film scene with the Jackson Film Festival.
Thigpen has confirmed that his team has already made verbal partnerships with the Judah School of Performing Arts in Ridgeland, Miss., to send instructors to the academy to teach choreography. AMPED is working on a collaboration with Victoria Cross McNeil so that participants can go through her vocal-coaching studio’s program.
“I’m bringing back innovative ideas; I’m bringing back innovativeness to our city, to the arts,” Anders proclaimed. “I’m trying to curate it. I have taken on the role of saying I will be the next Tyler Perry for our state of Mississippi.”
‘Building My Curriculum, Making It Palatable’
Donavon Thigpen said the academy will offer a portion of classes dedicated to keys, drums, bass, guitar and choreography. In the future, he hopes to expand the curriculum to include music production, studio engineering, sound engineering, lighting design and many other aspects of entertainment.
“In five years, I pray to have started at least a kindergarten program for AMPED,” Thigpen said. “It will be a K through 12 (institution) at some point. That’s a 20-year endeavor, but I at least want to get started with kindergarten and become accredited as a performing-arts K through 12 (school).”
“And by the end, we would definitely have applied for certain after-school grant monies to be able to offer after-school programs Monday through Friday for students in addition to the private instructions that’ll be going on in the evenings,” he continued.
The AMPED program is not free, but Donavon is working on raising money so that he can offer scholarships based on financial need as he does not want to turn anyone away. The program has already received donations ranging from $1,000 to $5,000.
“The quality of our program will cause it to be a little expensive, but I think it’s because of the caliber of the teachers that we’re going after,” Thigpen said of the nonprofit. “I do think I’ll raise a certain amount of money a year where we’ll be affordable to all.”
The musician said he wants to create opportunities in Jackson that some people think primarily exist in cities like Atlanta.
“When people come out of our performing-arts school, I want them to be fully prepared to be able to go to any one of those schools: Juilliard, Berklee, wherever they want to go and be totally prepared,” Thigpen said.
“So I’m building my curriculum off of a Berklee curriculum,” he explained about the Berklee College of Music. “That’s how I’m developing my curriculum. I’m studying the curriculum that they offer to their students, and I’m making it palatable to a younger audience, but with the same standards of qualities.”
To learn more about AMPED Performing Arts School and Rental Space (3220 N. State St., Jackson), visit ampedms.com.