In the late 19th century, the genre of blues music was born in the Mississippi Delta. The music, which evolved from African spirituals, field hollers, rural life and other influences, served as an outlet for African Americans experiencing adversity. Generations later, through the Delta Music Institute’s Mobile Music Lab, a community is building off its musical roots and channeling contemporary beats to overcome the modern challenges they face.
Launched in late 2013, the Mobile Music Lab’s Healing with a Groove program from Delta State University promotes racial healing among young men of color in the Mississippi Delta by teaching them how to use music, basic audio engineering, music technology and songwriting to produce original songs that articulate their worries and dreams while also inspiring them to excel. The program connects young men of color with their peers and mentors, so they have the support and tools to shape their own identity and future, despite their existing challenges.
“Racial healing takes place when we come together as a people to break through fear and address it head on. And we’re starting the conversation here through music,” said Travis Calvin, program coordinator for Healing with a Groove.
The Mississippi Delta is culturally rich, but impoverished socially and economically. Thirty five percent of the population lives in poverty, and opportunities can seem bleak. The Delta Music Institute’s Mobile Music Lab at Delta State University started five years ago with the intention to bring music and digital music technology into the region’s K-12 education system. Healing with a Groove, funded by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, was launched to help youth feel a sense of connectedness among their peers and mentors in facing their obstacles.
“Our mentees have the opportunity to see guys that look like them, that come from similar backgrounds and that are able to excel at the next level,” said mentor Jacory Pulliam. “I believe it gives them hope, and they’ll keep striving to be better for themselves.”
Each month, about seven to 10 young men of color ages 12-19 primarily from Bolivar and Sunflower counties attend a four-week session. While students are eager to dive into making music, mentors from Delta State University first focus on building relationships. “The first week of icebreakers is important,” said Jarrick Finkley, a mentor in the program and student at Delta State University. “It lets them know that there’s support in the room and allows them to see what they have in common and open their eyes to similar struggles and obstacles they all face.”
Mentees Jalen Gooden and Friday Holmes recall their first week in the program. One of the most basic rules in the program: “Everyone has to speak, and everyone has to be heard.” The act of putting their guards down and opening up to one another is the first step of the music making process. From there, students work together to create their song. Gooden and Holmes’s group wrote a song titled “Dream Bigger” about their notion of the American Dream – rising from their current situation and achieving a dream greater than what they had originally aspired for themselves.
“We were all excited about writing the song, but we had to get to know each other and brainstorm ideas before we could start writing,” said Gooden. “We decided that we wanted to become more than the lifestyles we saw people in our neighborhoods lead. The lyrics of our song, ‘Dream Bigger,’ discusses what bigger things we want to achieve.”
In the program’s first album, comprised of songs from the program’s six months of sessions, students wrote and sang about topics such as overcoming neighborhood obstacles, family life and their future goals with song titles, like “Success Doesn’t Come Easy,” “Don’t Blame It on Race” and “Together We Win.”
Through the program, the students articulate their vision for their futures, each other, their families and their communities. Holmes said, “I already write music and the program gave me even more practice so I can pursue a career in music. In the future, I want to go to college to become a nurse, so I can help others.”
The mentees agree that the best part of the program is how it allowed them to expand their vision and disregard what they previously thought were limits to their dreams.
A verse from their song, “Dream Bigger,” encapsulates this desire for more, “Let’s work hard to reach success / Let’s be the best / And settle for nothing less... Dream bigger, bigger, bigger.”