Speech (Arrested Development) on His Commitment to Recording Artists Behind Bars

still from "16 Bars"

still from "16 Bars"

+ 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 to stay informed about all of our online learning programs.

If the name of the group Arrested Development feels like a throwback to the good ole days of ’90s hip-hop, then you’ve probably been missing out on all of the essential music and community-building efforts that founding member Speech (Todd Thomas) has been putting out in recent years.

Speech’s commitment to social justice and exposing racial inequality in media can be seen and engaged with via his web docu-series, Hoodwinked (The Ni@#a Factory). He also works closely with The Kennedy Center’s Turnaround Arts program to transform struggling schools nationwide with powerful arts education initiatives. And his continued work amplifying the voices of the voiceless behind bars is on full display and yet only the tip of the iceberg in the feature-length documentary, 16 Bars.

I watched this film a few months ago, and was moved to tears. 16 Bars covers four talented individuals in the Richmond City Jail who are able to use a makeshift recording studio set up by the prison in collaboration with Speech, to record and produce their songs, and share their creativity with the outside world. The film also follows their life as it intertwines with — and is inextricably affected by — the prison itself.

Ava Duvernay’s crucial documentary, 13THwhich masterfully connects the infrastructures and strategies of our modern prison industrial complex to the entire history of the American slave trade, and showcases the racist and colonialist means by which this system operates, came out four years ago. As I watched this new film, directed by Sam Bathrick, I was filled both with a sense of exhilaration in witnessing inmates express themselves in pure, powerful ways, and the hope of seeing change happen in real time, as well as a sense of dread that this system keeps failing these individuals. We keep failing them.

In the documentary, Speech urges the viewer to think of our country’s prisoners as “our community,” because they are. In 2020, imprisoned individuals make up close to 0.8% of the United States’ total population. We need to reframe the ways in which we engage with this population, to empathize with prisoners, and listen to what they have to say.

The film provides a start in that direction for us, and in return, I wanted to hear what Speech had to say.

In this interview, you’ll get to hear tracks recorded by inmates during the making of 16 Bars, which have since been released as singles. Lastly, we at Soundfly will be offering a free digital screening of the film between August 11 – 13 for subscribers only, with an open discussion to follow on our community Slack forum. If you’re interested to participate and benefit from unlimited access to all of Soundfly’s music courses and more, subscribe here and join Slack right away!

still from "16 Bars"

Jeremy: What is the goal of the recording project in the Richmond City Justice Center, and does the program still exist today?

Speech: The goal is to give residents (inmates) of the jail a productive outlet for their frustration and expression. And me coming in there with my team was to expose these talented and complex voices to the world. I didn’t create the program; we were simply blessed to help bring more attention to it. Richmond’s former Sheriff CT Woody and Sarah Scarborough started the program and once Woody was voted out, the program unfortunately stopped as well.

“Prisons have primarily left the “corrections” mission, and have become engaged in the business of disappearing members of our community.”

There’s a short scene in which you’re seen calling your wife, Yolanda, on the first day after arriving at the prison. You’re expressing gratitude, nervousness, and a feeling that you’ve just been given access to a reality that’s hidden from so many Americans. How else did this project in general enlighten you to things you weren’t expecting to see, hear, and feel?

The sheer talent and degree of knowledge of the residents was a surprise to me.

We all are conditioned to believe prisoners are “less than,” or deserving of inhumane treatment, deserving to be “locked away;” to be made invisible to society. We are also conditioned to believe they are incapable of critical thinking and that’s why they are in jail. But all those positive attributes were there in high amounts, which only highlighted the atrocity of prisons in America.

Prisons have primarily left the “corrections” mission, and have become engaged in the business of disappearing members of our community.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Thinking Inside the Box: “16 Bars” Director Sam Bathrick on Producing in a Jail”

This project started in 2017, are you and the film’s producers keeping in touch with the participants of the program now?

We have fortunately gotten the work out to the world and it’s being received well. The full soundtrack is on all streaming platforms and the movie is on YouTube, Amazon, etc. We all have kept in touch and even become intimately involved with all of the men of our documentary.

Fans of the film have also donated upwards of $30k to Teddy Kane’s rehabilitation; through proceeds from the album, Garland Carr bought his girlfriend a ring, and has since gotten married to her. Devonte James (who is again incarcerated) has been given special privileges as well.

Speech, you’ve done an incredible thing here. You’ve amplified the voices of less than a handful of talented individuals, in one city, one prison, in order to share with the world something much, much larger, and push a conversation that too often gets shoved under the rug. Can you talk a bit about the universality of this project?

Slavery never actually ended in the United States of America. Through the 13th Amendment, there is an allowance for prisoners to be used as slaves by private and government businesses. Drug addiction is being treated as a “violent” crime instead of a public health disease. And disparities between Black, white, poor, and rich are blaring.

We need to overhaul our prison system, so we can make a better country for all of us collectively. This all originates from Americas original sin: Slavery. It set into motion generational curses among Blacks and whites and our collective nation suffers as a result.

How did you make your beats in advance? And how much did you find yourself altering them after you recorded the inmates?

I brought my laptop and I bought the jail a ProTools license. That way I could record them in the makeshift and sparse spaces provided in jail, and then add and fill out the instrumentation later. The residents gave all the inspiration for each song, I just wanted to enhance that. We added everything from strings, horns, bass, and guitar after the fact, and then mixed and mastered it all.

+ Read more on Flypaper: Check out our full week of content on music in, about, and from prisons here.

This project takes “recording with limitations” to a whole new level (concrete walls, limited gear, limited time, etc.). How did you overcome the hurdles of producing music like that?

It was very tough to record under these conditions, because jail by nature is a “transitional” location. People are either getting free, or getting more time in an actual prison. I didn’t know who I was even going to be recording with on any given day because a resident’s privileges could be taken away at any moment (which you can see examples of in the film).

These limitations and uncertainties definitely had an affect on the music.

Was it tough to mix the tracks (both group singing and individual lead vox) because of how and where they were recorded?

Because the songs were not recorded in a proper music studio, the sound quality was limited to whatever we could accomplish in that space. We tried to create makeshift sound insulation to prevent a reflective sound problem wherever possible.

How did your years of experience with Arrested Development support you in producing this project?

I wanted to make sure the men shined through and not me. I actually had to make sure I down-played myself and my music credentials in order to make the men feel important and free to truly express their truth.

What’s next for you and for this project?

I didn’t want this momentum to stop at one film. I decided to go deeper into the numerous causes of our criminal culture that attracts so many youth, and made a mini-documentary series called, Hoodwinked (The Ni%#a Factory). I also have a new podcast called Speech’s Everyday People Podcast.

On a personal musical level, I just released a new project called EXPANSION. Here’s one of the first singles, “Just Too Cold.”

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