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Marcellus Barnes , center, hugs Jessica Newby as he talks with Kalisha Evans before leading students in a choir lesson at Orchard Knob Middle School on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Barnes is hosting his 10th annual Sounds of Unity concert in recognition of Black History Month at Abbas House on Feb. 27.

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Local musician launches arts program for youth

Sounds of Unity

› What: The 10th annual Celebration Concert

› When: 6 p.m. Feb. 27

› Where: Abba’s House at 5208 Hixson Pike.

› Admission: $10.

› More info: Call Unity Peforming Arts Foundation of Chattanooga at 423-305-8335.

As one decade-long tradition celebrating black history comes to an end, a new project is about to launch that will focus on teaching arts to inner-city youth.

"There's a void between the arts and athletics," said local musician Marcellus Barnes. "I just want to help fill that gap and give kids an opportunity to not just hang out at the rec center and watch everybody play basketball. They may be dancers. They may be musicians. They may be poets or creative writers. So I wanted to create Unity of Performing Arts to give those kids opportunity to shine, like the athletes, but in the arts."

It was 10 years ago that Barnes performed his first "Sounds of Unity" concert in recognition of Black History Month, an event that has brought blacks and whites together to sing. The annual concert recognizes community leaders like the Rev. Paul McDaniel and civic activist Franklin McCallie, who will be honored this year.

Barnes, an artist-in-residence with Hamilton County Schools, will host the final celebration at 6 p.m. Feb. 27 at Abba's House church in Hixson. Proceeds from the concert will fund Barnes' Unity Performing Arts Foundation of Chattanooga, a nonprofit he hopes to start in area youth centers in March.

The goal of the program is to keep youth out of gangs and away from negative influences by encouraging them to explore their talents in the arts.

"I'm going into the schools finding little Marcelluses that are probably at risk like I was, hanging around the wrong crowd," he said.

He charges youth $300 a year to participate, but uses projects like the "Sounds of Unity" concert to offset the cost so low-income youth can participate for free or at a reduced rate.

"This is my passion. So whether I get a check or not, I'm going to do it," he said.

Starting in March, Barnes plans to teach youth choir at Washington Hills Youth and Family Development Center on Tuesdays, Carver Center on Wednesdays, and at the Avondale Center on Thursdays. He will meet at the centers from 4:30-6 p.m.

He wants to get about 30 youth at each center participating in the Unity Performing Arts Foundation.

Barnes knows first-hand how the arts can keep youth out of trouble, because they helped him.

He considered himself an "at-risk" youth. He sometimes associated with the wrong crowd, but he excelled in music and that kept him away from negative influences.

"One thing that saved my life was the arts," said Barnes, the first in his family of seven brothers and sisters to attend college. "I found I could play piano, and so my friends thought I was super cool."

And he wants to provide that same opportunity for other youth.

On Monday, Barnes divided students in his class at Orchard Knob Middle School into tenors, sopranos and altos to sing Kirk Franklin's gospel song, "My Life Is in Your Hands," in three-part harmony.

"Reach deep," he told Traviun Bowens, one of three boys making up the tenor section against a classroom full of female altos and sopranos.

Travium, 14, said he appreciated Barnes' efforts.

"People in the community are dying," he said. "But he's showing that instead of joining gangs, you can go to school, finish what you start, and get an education."

Fourteen-year-old Jessica Newby agreed. "This gives something to do. It's about being active, getting involved in something else."

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or 757-6431.

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