Soundfly

Home for the Curious Musician

Behind the Bars: A Week Dedicated to Music In, About, and From Prisons

+ This week on Flypaper, we’re exclusively featuring content that covers music initiatives and recordings from prison, in our editorial series, Behind the Bars: A Week Dedicated to Music In, About, and From Prisons. Follow along via this tag or sign up for Soundfly’s mailing list and stay informed about all of our online learning programs.

At Soundfly, we care a lot about fostering and strengthening communities. And our mission is to do that through accessible music education. We believe in the transformative power of music to help artists lift themselves and their communities out of struggle, shine a light on realities that have for too long remained in shadow, color and diversify people’s lives through entertainment, and help others heal through words of empowerment and encouragement.

But one community has been left without a voice, a toolbox, or a road map, for far too long. We as a people have failed them. It wasn’t until I started watching films like 16 Bars, and listening to collections of recordings from the Lomaxes or more recently, Drakeo The Ruler’s mixtape, Thank You For Using GTL, that I personally realized just how much incredible talent and how many earth-shattering artists are locked up in jail.

In those few specific cases, we’d never even have heard these songs if not for triumphant and often complicated efforts by people on the outside to venture into prison complexes to record them.

But then what about all the other caged voices, hidden behind a concrete wall of statistics that tell us there are 2.3 million people living in cell blocks right now in the U.S.? Or what about all the tragic stories, like that of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter who caught the attention of Bob Dylan in 1975, in need of a bard to tell them? And then what about all the inmates who are not artists, but for whom picking up a violin or joining a choir could drastically increase their chances of successfully reintegrating back into society, and potentially mean the difference between hopeful motivation and debilitating depression?

It seems we could be doing a lot more to help our incarcerated brothers and sisters express themselves, and we could be paying much closer attention to what they have to say.

And that’s how this project, Behind The Bars, came to be. It’s a start, for those of us who don’t really know where to start; but if you’re here reading this, it means you care enough to be curious. So here’s what to expect. Next week (August 10-14) we’ll be running nine pieces of free content right here on Flypaper:

  • A historical primer on music performed in American prisons (Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Dizzy Gillespie, etc.)
  • An interview with Speech (of the hip-hop group Arrested Development) on his continued commitment to social justice and recording artists behind bars
  • Audio, photo, and text content that explores the legacy of John and Alan Lomax’s prison song recordings (taken between 1933–1969)
  • Reflections on the social harmony created by a women’s prison choir in Israel
  • An interview with JoogSZN on how he recorded L.A. rapper Drakeo The Ruler over the phone from jail
  • A story on Decoda’s “Music For Transformation” chamber music project
  • A biography of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the wrongly convicted boxer and source of inspiration for Bob Dylan
  • A music theory breakdown of Michael Jackson’s controversial protest song “They Don’t Really Care About Us”
  • An OpEd by Sam Bathrick on directing his documentary, 16 Bars, which follows inmates at the Richmond City Jail as they record in a makeshift studio

For the Soundfly subscriber community, we’ll also be featuring a free digital screening of the film, 16 Bars, for 72 hours between August 11-13 and discussing our thoughts on the film together over Slack on August 13. Look out for our posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, as we’ll also be opening up conversation prompts and discussions about these topics beyond our community.

We’re really excited about everything that’s to come next week, but like I said, it’s just a start. One of the best ways you can contribute is to donate whatever you can to wherever you feel will make the strongest impact. Here’s a handful of organizations we chose to highlight for you:

  • Center for Prison Reform – A lobby group and action-oriented network and media outlet for prison reform in America.
  • The Bail Project – Provides free bail assistance to low-income individuals who are legally presumed innocent, and whom a judge has deemed eligible for release before trial contingent on paying bail.
  • Ameelio – A platform for sending free letters and photos to loved ones in prison.
  • NAACP Legal Defence Fund – America’s top legal firm fighting for racial justice.
  • National H.I.R.E. Program – Helping individuals with criminal records re-enter society through employment opportunities and services.
  • Just Detention International – A non-profit health and human rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention.
  • Southern Poverty Law Center – An American nonprofit legal advocacy organization specializing in civil rights and public interest litigation.
  • CURE – Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants – Organizes prisoners, their families, and concerned citizens to achieve reforms in the criminal-justice system.
  • Color Lines – A daily news site where race matters, featuring award-winning investigative reporting and news analysis.
  • The Association for Cultural Equity – The Alan Lomax Archive’s foundation and rights organization.
  • Hip-Hop Justice – Radio hosts Dr. Scott Washington and Stevie Stylez discuss legal and justice related news with hip hop music.
  • LSPC (Legal Services for Prisoners With Children) – LSPC organizes communities impacted by the criminal justice system and advocates to release incarcerated people, to restore human and civil rights, and to reunify families and communities.
  • Global Youth Justice – Reduces the incidence and prevents the escalation of juvenile crime and incarceration rates around the world by advancing the global expansion of quality youth justice and juvenile justice diversion programs.
  • Coalition for Juvenile Justice – Building safe communities one child at a time by ensuring that all children and families are treated fairly and given the resources and support to be positive and productive contributors to society.
  • Justice Arts Coalition – A national network and resource for those creating art in and around the criminal legal system.
  • ACLU – American Civil Liberties Union

Thanks and see you next week!

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Jeremy Young

Jeremy is a Montreal-based musician, sound artist and improviser who loves giving advice to emerging artists on how to make their tours more effective. He writes, records and performs electroacoustic "concrète" music for tape, oscillators and amplified objects and surfaces, as well as solo guitar. He has performed and released material throughout Europe and the UK, Asia, the US and Canada, mostly with his trio Sontag Shogun.