Where there is joy, there is music. Frustration, music. Hope, music. Love found, love lost, music and more music. It expresses emotion when words alone are inadequate and provides a soundtrack for our lives.
In the Mississippi Delta, the cradle of the blues, the black experience has been chronicled by enduring and endearing songs that lament racism, relationship problems, social inequity, and the aggravation of being broke. The blues are a gift to the world, one that the Delta is best known for. The music spills out of unassuming juke joints that come alive after dark and that have produced more GRAMMY Award winners per capita than any other region of the country.
The blues is not necessarily the preferred language of the young men coming up now, though. They speak hip-hop and make personal heroes out of Southern-born rappers like Lil’ Boosie and Yo Gotti, artists celebrated for their lyrical realness and rags-to-riches success. The issues that both genres address are the same, but the stories born out of them are set to a different beat.
It’s fertile ground for Healing With a Groove.
Launched in 2013 at Delta State University and funded by a $150,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the program introduces 12- to 19-year-olds to both the cathartic art and technical science of creating their own music. It gives young black men a constructive platform for self-expression — no previous musical ability required — and a chance to hear, see, and feel the entire song-making process.
“Healing with a Groove grew out of a discussion program that I was a part of when I was a professional singer and songwriter in Nashville,” says Tricia Walker, director of the Delta Music Institute (DMI) and entertainment industry studies program at Delta State.
“The Country Music Hall of Fame developed a curriculum on lyric writing for elementary school students. Volunteer songwriters would then put music to the lyrics and the singers, songwriters, and children would come to the museum on a field trip to hear their songs recorded. That was one part of it,” she explains. “The other part was a dialogue group that would facilitate a discussion about issues of race and diversity. They created a safe environment to talk about the questions that sometimes make people uncomfortable.”
Walker used the model to mold Healing with a Groove as a response to some of the specific concerns in Bolivar and Sunflower counties, two of the eighteen counties that comprise the Mississippi Delta, where the population is more than 65 percent black and 34 percent of residents live in poverty. The program gives boys instruction in songwriting, audio engineering, and music technology, which is the fun part, and outfits them with the additional support of college student mentors who look like them, which is an essential part.
Breaking Down the Black Boy Bravado
In the center of a relatively empty auditorium inside the Delta Music Institute, a cluster of teenage boys sit in a circle of hardback chairs. They’re quiet, slouched in the way that teenage boys slouch to demonstrate their resolute kind of cool. It’s the first day of Healing with a Groove and they are, for the time being, a band of same-age strangers sizing each other up.
The atmosphere is subdued but without tension until Travis Calvin, the project coordinator and a Delta State alumnus with a fresh degree in music industry studies, cuts into the silent posturing with an ice breaker. He asks each of the young men to introduce themselves — name, school, what they like to do in their spare time — and then to strike a pose at the end of their spiel. The next person up has to repeat the information of the boy beside him, he explains, with the onus on the last man standing to rattle off all the names and the distinguishing details of those who went before him.
The first boy stands. “My name is Shawn. I like to play ball and pull girls.” He whips out his cell phone and places a pretend call as his pose. The ring of new compadres nods in agreement and everybody laughs, including Calvin and his staff. They know this guy because they essentially are this guy, and the room comes alive with easy familiarity. They’re warmed up now as another boy stands. He says his name and adds offhandedly, “I like to trap.”
“We gonna change that,” someone shoots back. “Trap” is slang for hustling, more often than not drugs, and it’s claimed the lives of far, far too many black boys seduced by instant financial return. Still, no one in the group judges, no one lectures, no one delivers fire-and-brimstone damnation upon him. The certainty that he will be positively influenced and perhaps reach a whole new level of decision-making is enough for now.
Everyone having been given a chance to learn a little bit about the others, the boys sit quietly for a moment. Then someone starts to beatbox, and instinctively every head in the circle starts bobbing. The music — even more organic than the harmonicas and cigar box guitars that produced the music of their blues-singing grandfathers — is one of the shared loves that knit black men together. This group is no different. The brotherhood is the beat, the camaraderie is the bass line.
Although the program is designed around racial reconciliation, the initial self-discovery has to begin here in this ring of brown boys, before integration is even introduced into the conversation, Calvin explains. “Right now, to deal with race relations, we talk with the guys based on perception and identity because I believe that in order for us to come to the table and communicate, we have to address issues with ourselves first. We have to build confidence in ourselves and learn who we are.”
In its first year, the program served seventy-five young men. This year, it has enrolled twenty students in its first month. Each participant has been referred by an educator, not necessarily because of their stellar academic performance or model behavior in school. “Every teacher says their child needs it,” says Calvin. “So far, the struggle has been to get them to recommend students who are not as well-groomed, not your ‘A’ students.” Those aren’t the kids the program is primarily trying to reach. Instead, they boys are chosen because the folks who refer them see their promise and believe they’ll benefit from the unique mix of candor and hands-on learning that is the hallmark of Healing With a Groove.
For the next three weeks, this particular group will meet to discuss what it’s like to be them, to be young and black and male in Mississippi, in the South, in post-Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown America, and the challenges they experience — within themselves, their households, and their communities. Based on those conversations, they’ll write lyrics and create music. In the closing phase of the program, they’ll lay down tracks in a DMI Mobile Music Lab, a recording studio and production room housed in the high-tech splendor of a customized bus that travels from partner site to partner site
The Healing Place Is the Place That Needs to Be Healed
There are no actual signs barring anyone from being or going anywhere they please in Cleveland or its neighboring Delta communities. Those relics of the Jim Crow era have long since been removed. But their social imprint lingers, and the area remains largely segregated, mostly out of antiquated convention. It’s not difficult to imagine that black boys coming of age on the margins of their own community would feel unheard.
“There were areas that certain people were restricted to and over time, even though those boundaries were no longer there physically, they remain mentally. We want to eliminate that. If a person feels like certain parts of the county are not available to them, that’s a problem,” says Will Hooker, the administrator for Bolivar County. He is a homeboy by definition, born and raised in the area, and knows firsthand the conditions that exist because, before he was an elected official with a title and an office in City Hall, he experienced them like most other young, black men in the Delta. His involvement with Healing With a Groove dates to its inception; he now serves on its board of advisors.
“When this program came about, we found that we still have some mental barriers that we need to identify. There are those who sometimes feel like they don’t have a voice. We want their feedback. If you take time to hear what they’re saying, there are still areas that we have to tackle because young men growing up in this community will never reach their potential if they place limitations on themselves. We want to free them up,” Hooker says. “This program is that bridge, that common ground where we can communicate, hear each other, and then move forward.”
As it stands, the area is partitioned, like many working-class towns, by a set of railroad tracks, dividing the black side from the white. Two high schools — East Side High, with its nearly all-black student population, and Cleveland High, integrated but seemingly more privileged than East Side — exist just barely a mile from each other, still symbols of the bad old days of segregation.
The district has been under pressure to be more intentional about blending the two populations. Its proposed solution is to turn East into a magnet school to attract whites. Until then, two high schools means two different homecoming parades, two different athletic programs, two different everything. That duality is symbolic of the area itself, one side silently tolerant of the other but real community eluding it because talking race, really talking race, can get messy and hurtful and ugly.
Healing With a Groove fortifies the students growing up in this atmosphere with programming that breeds honest dialogue accompanied by personal revelation. So while the racial dynamics may not change in Bolivar County any time soon, the young black men who live here hopefully will. Mic Hargrove, a junior at Delta State and a mentor with the program, has seen it happen. “We did a workshop in Meridian, and one guy we were working with asked, ‘Do you know what it’s like to be invisible?’ That’s how he felt. But by the end, he was one of our main participants. He was the one who recorded the ‘Rise’ verse,” Hargrove says, referring to a song the group recorded together.
“We give people a chance. We choose which person is going to actually put their voice on the song. Everybody collectively helps write it, but then we choose one person to actually record. The invisible guy was the person that ended up recording the song. It was cool.”
Activities like the one Calvin led with the young men in the circle help to lower defenses and machismo. Maintaining that forgiving attitude throughout allows them to feel at ease enough to share their stories, experiences, concerns, and realities.
“When we tell about ourselves and are open with them, when they see that we are real and that we are there for their benefit, then they kind of open up. Once we open up, they open up,” says Hargrove, an artist in his own right who describes the message in his music as “hope and faith and progressive thinking.” That, whether in song or in spirit, is exactly what the young brothers under his tutelage need.
Taking the Music on the Road
A state-of-the-art production studio inside a 26-foot-long bus would intrigue the average adult. It downright thrills the Healing With a Groove guys. The DMI Mobile Music Lab is indeed impressive: it’s dark, cool, an environment conducive for creating. A shiny wood-grained doorway in the back leads to the booth where the boys will record the songs they’ve written. The production workspace featuring four big-screen Apple monitors mounted flush to the walls and lighted equipment tucked under the desks looks like the control panel for something really great. For the boys, it is.
When Calvin’s latest group climbs into the bus for the first time, they are all visibly and audibly wowed, transformed for a moment into wide-eyed kids. Vickie Jackson, the lab’s project coordinator, never tires of that reaction. Then she puts them to work. She admits that she loves a self-aware a-ha moment, but her strategy is to engage the group with the nuts and bolts of music production, then covertly slide in as many teachable moments — about race, women, themselves — as their time together allows.
“The whole process, from songwriting to recording, is important. I want to provide them with a platform to speak honestly about themselves and race relations. Once you develop self-esteem, you’re saying, ‘I know who I am. Now I can figure out who I am with you’,” she explains. “But I also want to teach them about the science, the art behind creating music.”
Jackson isn’t necessarily trying to churn out the next generation of great American artists and music producers. She does hope that navigating the music-making process will expose the boys to the college experience and encourage them to continue their learning. “I tell them, if this is something you really like, you can come to a university and study more about this. There are other opportunities out there for you.” Sometimes they become interested in the production side of things and consider, maybe even seriously, a career behind the scenes. It does happen, Jackson says, but she’s happy just to broaden their perspectives in general.
There’s a line in a song titled “Trying to Make It” on the seventeen-track CD produced by the young artists at work that is profound:
“The more I learn, the more I understand where I’m coming from” — which, as grown folks who have lived a little bit of life know, is just as important as being clear about where you are going. There’s tremendous power in storytelling for both the person weaving the tale and the people who have the pleasure of hearing that tale. For their part, the architects and organizers of Healing With a Groove have done a beautiful thing simply by introducing dozens of young men to themselves and their community’s greatest legacy, music.