Chelsea Young, assistant program coordinator, helps Jeanthony Rice, F.L.Y. Zone Academy member, with his lyrics during a Healing With A Groove session at the Robinson-Carpenter Memorial Library in Cleveland.

CLEVELAND – What began in 2013 as an effort by Delta State University to promote racial reconciliation through music and songs for young men in the Delta region has since made a difference in the lives of countless youths and is now expanding to include the voices of young women.

From Hip Hop to Rock: Healing with a Groove – now Healing with a Groove 2.0 – is a six to eight week program dedicated to promoting racial healing through creating and producing original songs in addition to helping young people to connect with their community and each other.

“With young men and women, there are common issues they face and gender issues they have concerns about,” said Tricia Walker, director of the Delta Music Institute, singer/songwriter, and project director of Healing With A Groove.

“So we’re using music production and songwriting to give young women a voice, too, with identity and how they relate to their peers and communities,” added Walker in a telephone interview with Mississippi Today.

The project, which began in Bolivar and Sunflower counties, is presented by DSU’s Delta Music Institute and DMI Mobile Music Labs and is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Between 2013 and 2016, the Kellogg Foundation awarded the institute a $150,000 grant, and in 2017 funding increased to $528,000, according to Delta State’s website.

Until last Fall, Healing With A Groove was a mentoring program exclusively for young men – teaching them how to write resumes, be professional, tie a necktie and build back hope in the community, said Laeitta Wade, project coordinator.

“I think the impact for those boys (at that time) was they don’t have a lot going on. Some of its good and some of it’s really hard and I think having that kind of outlet where they were talking about it in a positive way and be able to make some type of song where they can turn their experience – good, bad, hard – into something really creative was something positive and they were all really proud of themselves,” said Emily Wisseman, Youth Program Director for GRIOT Arts, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to fostering engagement with the arts in Clarksdale.

The focus of the program, which started with a group of seventh through 12th graders, is to engage in open dialogue about different issues, dreams, aspirations and more that would not only encourage racial healing but teach the importance of teamwork, learning about self and identity, community, diversity, and songwriting through audio engineering and production.

“Music is a universal language,” said Walker. “It’s a great way, it’s a safe way, it’s a nonthreatening way to have students come out of their comfort zones.”

Since the Kellogg Foundation liked the results they were seeing, the foundation wanted to expand the program by providing more funds, so more nonprofit organizations in Delta communities could find ways to participate, such as allowing young women to take part, Wade added.

The program aslo created a multimedia toolkit that includes lessons, guides and resources for other organizations who would want to incorporate the program into their weekly activities, said Chelsea Young, assistant project coordinator.

Students from GRIOT Arts Youth Program, Earlene Metcalf (left to right), Leo‘Nisisha Gilmore, and Princess McCray pose for a picture.

She said it’s amazing to see the change — adding input from girls and upping the class sizes.

The collaborations are ongoing with I Challenge You (ICY) in Greenville; F.L.Y Zone, Inc., in Cleveland; GRIOT Arts, Inc., in Clarksdale; and the Boys and Girls Club of the Mississippi Delta located in Itta Bena and Greenwood.

Mentoring more youth meant hiring more staff, allowing the DMI to hire college student workers who are enrolled at Delta State and employ trained alumni students of the program.

Participants learn about audio engineering and song writing, but they also learn about goal setting, being themselves, and building trust and teamwork with their peers and community.

“A lot of students have gotten to the point where they want to do things on their own and this program can’t work if it’s all about individuality. It has to be about teamwork. A sense of bond, a sense of trust … the program wouldn’t be efficient because most of our talks are in group dialogue,” said Wade.

She mentioned that the lesson that puts an emphasis on identity is one of their most important and longest sessions.

“Identity is kind of getting a sense of who they think they are, getting morals and viewpoints, stereotypes … trying to get them to see the native stereotypes they feed into as well, not only what society thinks and how you can change it,” said Wade.

Erie Stuckett, CEO and Program Director for I Challenge You, a mentoring program dedicated to advancing youth through high school and throughout their college years, said Healing With a Groove does a good job of helping the kids “find themselves.”

“It helps them to become more expressive because they are expressing themselves through a genre that they relate to, and they tend to be better able to express themselves after working with Healing With A Groove,” said Stuckett.

“The arts are just good for your soul and everything about the whole person, so having those kids we serve to have an experience like that, that’s important … When students get to a place where they are safe and trust their peers in the circle, it empowers them. And when they feel safe, they get to the core and really get deep into the real issues,” said Walker.

Mic Hargrove (left) and Chelsea Young (right) give students tips on how to improve their song lyrics at GRIOT Youth Program in Clarksdale.

Not only are the students learning, but DMI staff members are learning too, said Mic Hargrove, Delta State senior and DMI Mobile lab assistant.

Working with this initiative for three years now, Hargrove said he’s been finding his own identity as the kids are finding themselves.

“It’s a transparent situation. I’m looking in the mirror while looking at the kids,” said Hargrove. “I feel it helps all of us grow. It’s a constant reminder through our lessons that we have a purpose that’s a little deeper than the surface… that life is deeper than the surface.”

It allows students to be vocal and value their own voices while seeing the beauty in themselves and their community, said Wade.

“Clarksdale has such a rich artistic history in music and art and just for the students to be able to plug into that in a positive way (with this program) … it encourages them about their town, their experience, and works on a lot of those social and emotional skills because the arts are wonderful, but what are you really getting out of it? You get an avenue to express yourself. You’re learning how to communicate and be around other people and not just on your phones,” said Wisseman.

Students agreed that being able to express themselves without being judged was why they love the program.

Deranekia White (left) and Max Hall, participants in the F.L.Y. Zone Academy

“I like the conversations because they make us feel like we can talk about anything with them… ,” said Deranekia White, 7th grader and F.L.Y. Zone member. “I can trust them.”

Isaac Peppers, 12th  grader from I Challenge You and alumni, mentioned this program is an outlet to keeping students busy.

“All of the violence and crime going through the Delta, it helps get the children out the streets and stuff and get them out of this town from the violence and negativity so that’s a good thing.”

Isaac Peppers, Healing With A Groove alumni and member of I Challenge You youth program in Greenville

“It’s amazing to see how much knowledge the students have and how much they are growing,” said Young. She added that their job is to help put the arts back into the communities where they are being taken out of the schools.

GRIOT Arts Youth Program participant, Princess McCray, an 11th grader from Clarksdale High School, said this is her first year in the program and she absolutely loves it.

“It actually builds me up and gives me more experience in being a songwriter,” said McCray. “It’s a good thing because so many people hold in so much stuff and don’t really release how they feel and they don’t get the opportunity to.  This gives us an opportunity to open up. You can be yourself and not be judged.”

Wade added that when students are vulnerable and open up, it brings her to tears sometimes.

“They’ve said, ‘If I never see it in my community, why should I believe it is for me?” and ‘Don’t tell me these resources are for me, if you don’t never make them actually available to me.’ It takes time to make it positive. It allows that wound to stop bleeding when they open up,” said Wade.

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.