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Grammy-nominated musician won acclaim in LA. He left to create new vibe in Kansas City

Platinum records line the walls of this Kansas City Crossroads studio, collaborations with the likes of Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber.

Grammy Award-nominated Joseph Macklin — known as Jo Blaq in the music world — once lived the life of a Los Angeles musician and a producer for such megastars.

Now Macklin, 42, has a different mission.

“I was a kid who had big dreams and was introduced to the power of giving back to the community at a young age by my mother and father,” says Macklin, who grew up in Kansas City, Kansas. “I am blessed to be a part of the change happening in the city now.”

His new direction started with weekly open mic nights to showcase up-and-coming talent. It spread to semester-long courses for teenagers to learn all facets of the music industry. And, most recently, he has opened a restaurant, a showcase for the quality of Black business talent.

“I would like my legacy to be looked back on as someone from the community who gave back to the community. I want my work to speak for me,” says Joseph Macklin, seen here in his Crossroads studio.
“I would like my legacy to be looked back on as someone from the community who gave back to the community. I want my work to speak for me,” says Joseph Macklin, seen here in his Crossroads studio.

Samuel Watson IV, known to fans as rapper and producer Krizz Kaliko, is thankful. Like Macklin, Watson also moved to LA to pursue music before coming back to Kansas City in the mid 2000s.

“I think he is a super smart guy who has been nothing but resourceful and kind,” says Watson. “I am proud to see someone that is from Kansas City have those kinds of accomplishments that he has. I think it is really dope when people like myself and Jo are able to leave out of Kansas City and obtain that knowledge to bring back.”

Macklin’s musicianship began early. His father was a preacher, and Macklin played in the congregation’s band. He attended Washington High School, and as he got older, he began to take more interest in popular music, beginning the long journey of learning what he would need to do to make it in the music industry.

Macklin’s mission now is rooted in this need for guidance and opportunities. If not for the older generation of music producers and artists who took him under their wings, he does not know how far he would have gotten.

Macklin moved to the West Coast in 2008 to break into the big time. But on occasional trips home, he began to see Kansas City’s potential. In 2017 he began splitting his time, spending the first half of the week in LA and the last part in Kansas City. He wanted to give artists and patrons alike a venue for talent in a town once known for its legendary music scene.

“In LA, since I had some success with big artists, I always wanted to work with and meet them. But when I came home, I started to see the change happening. So many people come back to take, but I wanted to come back to give,” he says.

As he was splitting his time between LA and KC, Macklin faced a dilemma. Do you stay in the entertainment capital, where you work with some of the biggest names in the industry? Or do you come back to the Midwest and try to pump new life into a struggling nightlife?

He worked it out, moving back full time in 2020, and establishing The DistrKCt, his record label and entertainment group.

“I would like my legacy to be looked back on as someone from the community who gave back to the community. I want my work to speak for me. I don’t want my work to be about fake action. I am really in the trenches,” he says.

Joseph Macklin, left, replays an audio recording to students Ajahnae Henderson, center, and Antonio Bly during a music class at Distrikt Studios. Macklin mentors students from DeLaSalle Education Center, teaching them how to compose and produce music.
Joseph Macklin, left, replays an audio recording to students Ajahnae Henderson, center, and Antonio Bly during a music class at Distrikt Studios. Macklin mentors students from DeLaSalle Education Center, teaching them how to compose and produce music.

Teaching the next generation

One of Macklin’s missions is to inspire youth to look at music and the industry as serious occupational paths that could lead to lucrative careers. Last year he created a music production and engineering course to teach students the ropes in the studio as artists as well as in overlooked technical occupations.

Such courses were common in schools on the West Coast, and he wanted to give Kansas City kids similar opportunities, to pinpoint a child’s talents and provide onsite training and skills.

He partnered with DeLaSalle Education Center to locate a dozen students interested in music who would benefit from hands-on experience. Some came to learn about making music for the fun of it. Others are there, like Macklin, because they want to be a professional in the industry.

“I wanted to build something for kids here like me that didn’t have a path and who knew nothing about audio engineering, music producing or a songwriter,” says Macklin. He developed a curriculum, taught a few classes “and I thought it was beautiful.” This semester is the first time it’s been a full-fledged school course.

The students are bused from the school to Macklin’s studio in the former Kansas City Star building on McGee Street, where he helps each with their study area. Some focus on singing and rapping, others on creating music and graphic design. All are happy to be there, and the weight and privilege of the experience are not lost on any of them.

“It’s all love. Joe accepts everybody. He has taught me to just be me, not let anyone take me out of my comfort zone and keep pushing. And he tells us how to weigh our options and never to settle,” says student Antonio Bly.
“It’s all love. Joe accepts everybody. He has taught me to just be me, not let anyone take me out of my comfort zone and keep pushing. And he tells us how to weigh our options and never to settle,” says student Antonio Bly.

Antonio Bly, a senior, thinks the course is an amazing opportunity to learn a different side of the music industry. Bly is a rap artist, and a teacher told him he should take advantage of the course.

“She knew I rap and said it would be a good opportunity for me, so I just started doing it,” says Bly.

Like many of the other students, he has formed a tight bond with Macklin.

“It’s all love. Joe accepts everybody. He has taught me to just be me, not let anyone take me out of my comfort zone and keep pushing. And he tells us how to weigh our options and never to settle,” he says.

Macklin wants to expose students to more than just being a voice on a song.

“They are working, and we are all learning. That is the win for me, seeing these kids walk in and start to believe in the dreams that people told them was impossible,” says Macklin.

Ta’Rajah Robinson, a 16-year-old junior, has many relatives in the music industry and sings herself, but she never expected to have the hands-on opportunity to perfect her craft.

“I appreciate the program. It is a good opportunity for people interested in music to explore and see what all goes into it,” says Robinson. When people hear you say you make music, they just think I mean, I go in and sing. No, there is so much more that goes into it.”

Robinson and her fellow students have become a tight-knit group, with Macklin as a father figure. Each student notes the amount of respect Macklin shows and the trust he has built.

“He pushes us to put our everything into anything we do. It gets tough because once you show him what you are capable of, he will continue to push you until you raise the bar,” she says.

Macklin takes pride in the lessons he has instilled into his inaugural group of students. Kids in the program will walk away with audio engineering certification, and the course has already ballooned to 30 kids for the next semester.

“I want them to learn skills in the studio, but I also want them to learn life skills,” Macklin says. “I think it is really important for them to come into the studio because most of them have never been in a real studio. That is the in-the-field real-world learning experiences that change their outlook.”

“In LA, since I had some success with big artists, I always wanted to work with and meet them. But when I came home, I started to see the change happening,” Joseph Macklin, who now runs a weekly open-mic night.
“In LA, since I had some success with big artists, I always wanted to work with and meet them. But when I came home, I started to see the change happening,” Joseph Macklin, who now runs a weekly open-mic night.

‘Creating a safe space for artists’

For the past three years, Macklin has been hosting a series of open mic nights every Thursday at Parlor, 1707 Locust St.

He wanted to create high-quality shows like he saw in LA and other entertainment hot spots. As he began to find partners and bring together a co-host, band and DJ, all that was needed was the support of the people.

“I started it so people can say, ‘I have a place to come.’ A place where we can be proud. Never an issue, never a fight. Just a good time,” says Macklin. “It is an organic vibe. It is where you come and get away from whatever is going on throughout the week. A place to come and decompress with the energy and dynamic of the artists we have come through.”

Joseph Macklin performs during his open mic nights held Thursday evenings at the Parlor.
Joseph Macklin performs during his open mic nights held Thursday evenings at the Parlor.

Marquez Beasley, who hosts his own weekly open mic, Soul Sessions, as well as a monthly brunch show, welcomes adding more such opportunities for the Black community.

“He is a phenomenal producer, artist and entertainer,” says Beasley. “His open mic nights bring a different feel to the Kansas City music scene and give artists a space to be artists. These open mics are a safe space to practice their craft and develop their style.”

Beasley, who hosted the KC Pride parade last year and will be hosting the upcoming Juneteenth celebration on 18th and Vine, hopes other Black creatives follow Macklin’s example and return home to help the Black arts.

“He is a big brother to everybody in KC. He came back home. He decided to come back and do work to build up the scene. We all need to work together if we want to see Kansas City’s open mics reach a new level and status,” he says.

“It is an organic vibe. It is where you come and get away from whatever is going on throughout the week. A place to come and decompress with the energy and dynamic of the artists we have come through,” says ​Joseph Macklin on his Thursday open mic nights at the Parlor.
“It is an organic vibe. It is where you come and get away from whatever is going on throughout the week. A place to come and decompress with the energy and dynamic of the artists we have come through,” says ​Joseph Macklin on his Thursday open mic nights at the Parlor.

Macklin believes the more avenues for performing, the more of an opportunity to be discovered and make it big.

“Watching this generation come up together and collaborate, the support in the community is on the rise,” says Macklin. “That energy is the game changer in the city. The KC music scene is in a beautiful place. The next thing that needs to happen is a local artist gets signed to a major deal and did it all from here.”

Any given Thursday night at Parlor is home to talents ranging from singers and rappers to spoken word poets and musicians. The atmosphere is a cool, laid-back vibe.

He and his co-host, Cherayla Haynes, are an amazing duo who, through musical talent and comedic chemistry, keep the crowd entertained between acts.

“There is just a feeling from the type of performances people come and give here. Music of all kinds, genres and generations, so there is always something for someone here,” says Haynes, who left KC for the East Coast and then returned as the landscape improved.

The event has also become a home for local small business vendors who set up booths lining the walls to sell their goods, ranging from jewelry, candles and body creams to credit repair professionals.

“People are anxious each week to see who is going to perform,” Haynes says. “We have so many talented people who come out, so you always get a little bit of everything, and that way, you get to see what all the city has to offer.”

“We are growing and growing rapidly. I have been receiving a lot of amazing feedback. People are telling me this is the place they want to be,” says Joseph Macklin, owner of new restaurant Boho Sway.
“We are growing and growing rapidly. I have been receiving a lot of amazing feedback. People are telling me this is the place they want to be,” says Joseph Macklin, owner of new restaurant Boho Sway.

From music to fine dining

With the countless hours he pours into his music, Macklin still manages to squeeze in new endeavors to make the community a better place.

A friend approached him about partnering on a restaurant, Boho Sway at Canary, 3835 Main St., and he knew it was the next logical step in his plan. Only open a few short months now, the location has been praised on social media as one of the new premier eating locations within the Black community with its upscale Caribbean-inspired menu.

“We are growing and growing rapidly. I have been receiving a lot of amazing feedback. People are telling me this is the place they want to be. Once they come through those doors, they know this is a place for us to come together and enjoy our time,” says Macklin.

To create his team’s vision of the menu, he turned to one of the top chefs in the community, Anita Moore, owner of Soiree Steak and Oyster House. Together they created a menu equipped with daring items that mix island dishes with fine dining, such as lemongrass wings, salmon tacos, surf and turf and much more.

Joseph Macklin opened his restaurant late last year, Boho Sway at Canary, 3835 Main St.
Joseph Macklin opened his restaurant late last year, Boho Sway at Canary, 3835 Main St.

Macklin and the team plan to open the rooftop area this weekend, equipped with plastic igloos to protect against the elements until the weather warms up.

“The vibe is an incredible experience,” says RaShidah Farnsworth, a server there. “We have amazing food. My personal favorite is the salmon tacos. There is something here for everyone. We have vegetarian and vegan options on the menu so that everyone can have a meal they love.”

In time Macklin hopes to bring the open mics into Boho Sway. Currently, the restaurant hosts a weekly Sunday brunch event.

Macklin wears an assortment of hats throughout his week, but the most important role he must play is that of husband and father. Though his home life may suffer from him constantly being out accomplishing his dreams and helping others find theirs, he knows it is all so his son will grow up in a better KC.

“I give much love and respect to my family because they understand what I am doing,” says Macklin. “If anybody suffers, it’s them, and I am so thankful to have that space with them, allowing me to do what I do. I am thankful they know where my heart is and my love for the community.”

Grammy Award-nominated musician, producer and songwriter Joseph Macklin has worked with music megastars but has returned to Kansas City to help build opportunities for new artists.
Grammy Award-nominated musician, producer and songwriter Joseph Macklin has worked with music megastars but has returned to Kansas City to help build opportunities for new artists.