Drumming to a New Heartbeat: JSU Department of Music Awarded $50,000 for cardiovascular study through African-influenced arts

The Jackson State University Department of Music is bringing African dance and music to the community through a $50,000 grant funded by the Mississippi Department of Health via the Jackson Heart Study. The grant comes from the proposal of demonstration projects sought after by the MSDH that would address health disparities in underrepresented communities.

The study is an eight-month program, scheduled to launch sometime in November, designed to introduce community members to a new way of living through African dance, drumming, and more. 

The Chair of the Department of Music, Lisa Beckley-Roberts, Ph.D., credits this opportunity as a “great multidisciplinary approach” with the goal of reframing thoughts and interest in movement while tackling “populations who are disproportionately impacted by heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes.”

“It was a really long process, but luckily, we’ve had the support of our administration,” said Beckley-Roberts, who is also an associate professor of ethnomusicology. “In the arts, we don’t often get these types of large grants, so we’re really excited.”

Twice a month, community members will participate in African drumming paired with African-informed yoga, nutritional counseling, and food journaling. With the help of the Jackson State University Health Center, participants will have access to scales, heart rate monitors, and a library of workouts to practice independently in between in-person classes. Classes are scheduled to happen every other week and feature guest presenters. 

“They’ll commit to a three-month cycle. We’ll be tracking them throughout their time in the program to see if it impacts their weight, mood, blood pressure, and all of the things that are risk factors, particularly for African-Americans for heart disease,” said Beckley-Roberts. “We’ll do an initial health screening, and then we’ll begin working with them, so it’s a really exciting thing because it hasn’t been done here.”

Phyllis Lewis-Hale, Ph.D., is the assistant professor of music voice and director of opera and musical theater. She is another key part of delivering the benefits of the arts to the community. 

“It feels great to be a part of such a relevant study that will provide our local African-American communities with opportunities to use common practices that are often taken for granted but can aid in enhancing their quality of life,” said Lewis-Hale.

Hale and Roderick Little, Ph.D., director of bands, will be working hands-on with community members throughout this program by utilizing their music expertise to shape participants’ experiences.  

“This is an excellent way to teach our community and students about what they need to do overall to be healthy and live healthy lives. Having a conduit to do that through music is always a good way to connect the arts and overall emotional, social, and physical health together,” Little said.  

The study will include people of various ages and gender backgrounds and are open to Jackson State students, faculty, staff and surrounding communities. JSU’s African Drum & Dance Ensemble students will be a part of the study, Alkebulan Music Philosophy, a local African music arts collective, and a number of guests spanning beyond the Mississippi borders. 

“I’m not a doctor, but I know what African music and dance have done for me in terms of my health. So I’m really excited about the opportunity to demonstrate how that could work on a larger level, and hopefully begin some of the work, or contribute to the ongoing work, of improving our communities’ health outcomes,” said Beckley-Roberts.