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The Hardships and Rewards of Making Music in Prison

Why one of the most powerful things an incarcerated person can do is pick up an instrument.

Reposted from Jacqueline Kantor (words) + Annie Flanagan (photos), Topic

June 2019

Formerly incarcerated musician Vernon Cook pauses while loading gear for his band 2nd Lion in New Orleans’ French Quarter, May 2019.

VERNON COOK SPENT EIGHT YEARS of his incarceration in a mixed-security prison counting things around the facility. He counted bricks in the wall. He counted the turns of the ceiling fan. He counted the four hours between check-ins. When Cook wasn’t counting, he was recording his observations in his journal. When he wasn’t writing in the journal, he was working as an electrician. Counting and writing and working, however, were simply rote distractions to help Cook make it to 5 p.m., when he would flee to a nearby sanctuary filled with donated instruments and a rotating cast of musicians, with whom he would practice music until it was time to return to the dorm. For the few hours each week when Vernon Cook—an inmate at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, Louisiana—entered the makeshift practice room, he felt blessedly free.

“It was our haven,” Cook says of the 500-square-foot space. “It was the place where we created, the place where we weren’t in prison for an hour.”

Cook wearing a T-shirt for his band, 2nd Lion.

Lawrence Ussin, bassist in 2nd Lion, wears a bass charm around his neck.

Cook wasn’t a serious musician before his sentencing in 2008. He played music as a hobby, but mainly worked as an electrician and as a bartender, which led to drug dealing, which led to a 22-year sentence for possession and intent to distribute cocaine. (Cook was a first-time offender.) Early on in his sentence, he learned about the Hunt Music Association, a prisoner-led group of about 30 inmates with a variety of musical backgrounds and prison sentences. Inmates have practiced music at Hunt in some capacity since the 1950s, Cook says. Sometimes this has taken the casual form of musicians visiting the “band room” to practice solo, but, during Cook’s sentence, the music association evolved to feature bands playing across multiple genres. In the early years of his time at Hunt, Cook, a vocalist and percussionist, and about five other musicians formed one of the preeminent prison bands, which was never identified by a specific name, only by genre: reggae. Beginning in 2009, they performed annually at the prison’s Fourth of July celebration for nearly 2,000 inmates, some of whom might never hear a live music performance outside of a prison yard again. Cook’s specialty was Bob Marley covers.

“Music is needed when you have 22 years hanging over your head,” Cook says. “It was a godsend for me. In the band room, we became like brothers.”

BEN HARBERT, AN ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR of music at Georgetown University, began studying music at prisons while earning his PhD in ethnomusicology at UCLA. His research eventually centered on three Louisiana prisons: Hunt, the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW) in St. Gabriel, and the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the largest maximum-security prison in the country (nicknamed “Angola” after the former plantation the facility now occupies and the town where it is located).

But he also spent time at penitentiaries in California, including the California Men’s Colony state prison in San Luis Obispo. One night, after dinner and during free time, he looked out at the field where the inmates gathered and was struck by the presence of guitars—more, he says, than he’s seen in any one place, with the exception of a music school.

Scene from Follow Me Down: Portraits of Louisiana Prison Musicians (2012).

Courtesy of Benjamin J. Harbert.

Whether it takes the form of band rooms at Hunt or guitars in Southern California, music exists in prisons for the same reason it exists anywhere: it is a salve, a rescue, a motivator, a reward, a connector, and a reminder. In prison, it takes on an added weight, because the conditions at hand afford so little individuality and creativity in everything from dress to schedule. Music is a medium with the capability to transcend every religion, culture, and country. Its presence varies by penitentiary, just as it does by country, but its importance—as an outlet, as therapy, as a tradition—does not. It manifests in the form of donated instruments, church choirs, visiting artists, informal rap cyphers, and a cappella performances, and it was a part of prison life long before America’s boom in mass incarceration began in the 1970s.

In the South, music was originally used as an agricultural tool at many institutions, Harbert says. In the early 20th century, prisoners who worked on the plantation-style farm at Angola often sang songs their grandparents had sung while cutting sugar cane or picking cotton, just as chattel slaves had done a few generations prior. John and Alan Lomax—a father-and-son team of folklorists—set out to document the music found in American prisons in 1933. At Angola, they found a variety of songs that had been preserved for generations and encountered Huddie Ledbetter, also known as Lead Belly, a singer and guitarist from northwestern Louisiana. The Lomaxes recorded Lead Belly’s work, which was mostly folk and blues music. In 1934, they left a recording of Lead Belly’s song “Governor O. K. Allen” with the governor’s secretary. Lead Belly was released the same year, but whether or not the governor ever listened to his song is unclear. Lead Belly went on to accompany the Lomaxes as they traveled the South recording folk songs in prisons.

In prison, music takes on an added weight, because the conditions at hand afford so little individuality and creativity in everything from dress to schedule.

In the 1950s and ’60s, popular genres of music in the country shifted from folk and blues to R&B and gospel, and within Angola, the direction of the musicians did as well. Charles Neville, who would go on to become one of the Grammy award-winning Neville Brothers, entered Angola in the early ’60s and began collaborating with fellow New Orleans musicians James Booker and James Black. The post of “musician” became an actual job at Angola, and bands made up of prisoners, such as the Cavaliers, the Nic Nacs—which included Neville—and the Westernaires, traveled to local festivals, proms, and, at one point, the governor’s mansion, thanks to donations and funds pooled by the prisoners or provided by the venues. Prison administrators managed booking, and wardens provided support and served as security staff. The departure of individual wardens who were invested in supporting such performances spelled doom for the traveling prison band in the ’70s. Nowadays, the biggest performance venue for bands operating out of Angola is the prison’s semiannual rodeo, and opportunities to practice with a full band come via religious or inmate-organized groups. The latter allow prisoners to decide what and when to play once they complete a day’s work.

“It’s such an expression of your individuality,” says James Marsh, an inmate at Angola featured in a 2016 short documentary, Get Your Burdens On, about the 2016 Prison Music Symposium at Angola.

“Anything else that we do is pretty much formatted,” Marsh continues. “You’re told, ‘This is when you get up, this is when you count, this is when you work’ … But the music gives us the freedom to do what we want to do. They don’t police our music.”

Scene from Follow Me Down: Portraits of Louisiana Prison Musicians (2012).

Courtesy of Benjamin J. Harbert.

VERNON COOK CLAIMS that some of the “best bands” within the Louisiana Department of Corrections—an entity made up of 13 prisons that, along with parish facilities, house approximately 37,000 prisoners—can be found at Hunt. (He adds that inmates who have been transferred to Hunt from Angola claim that the former’s musical offerings are just as advanced as those of Angola.) Hunt’s reputation for top-level inmate musical performances is likely due in part to the influence of Cook’s frequent collaborator and the most famous member of the Hunt Music Association: McKinley “Mac” Phipps Jr., a rapper who signed to Master P’s No Limit Records in 1998.

Mac was a burgeoning artist in the crowded New Orleans rap scene when he was sentenced to 30 years in prison for manslaughter, for the 2000 murder of 19-year-old Barron Victor Jr. at a nightclub where Mac was promoting an open mic. There were gaps in the case that prosecutors brought against Mac: no physical evidence linked him to the murder; one of the two eyewitnesses to the shooting later claimed she was coerced into identifying Mac as the shooter by investigators; and, nine days after the shooting, another man confessed to the crime, but prosecutors claimed he was an employee of Mac’s intent on covering for his boss. In the courtroom during Mac’s trial, the prosecutor quoted a song on Mac’s second album—“Murda, Murda, Kill, Kill”—to build the case against him.

In 2010, Mac began teaching himself how to play the piano using a keyboard in the band room, and he continues to write music. In 2014, during the final months of Cook’s time at Hunt, Mac and Cook began to collaborate on original songs, songs they were only able to document in paper notebooks because recording equipment isn’t allowed in the prison. One song, “22 Years,” references Cook’s original sentence: “Lock me up and throw me away,” he sings. “You lock me up and throw away the key / 22 years is my reality.” Another, “Someday I’m Gonna Be Free,” includes the lines: “Even though I’m locked up my mind is free / I need your angels near to me to strangle this fury, this star-spangled theory.”

MUSIC MADE IN PRISON is not often recorded or released. But when it is, it can make a splash.

Previously incarcerated rappers with whom I spoke explain that music created in prison is often recorded using contraband cell phones. Doing so can be risky: a suspiciously timed internet release can prompt a Department of Corrections (DoC) investigation, such as in the case of C-Murder, another No Limit artist sentenced to life in prison at Angola for the 2002 murder of a 16-year-old. Most albums that are considered “released from prison” include songs made pre-incarceration and verses recorded by friends and family via phone calls or handheld recorders during visiting hours. While in prison in Atlanta’s Fulton County Jail for probation violation, Gucci Mane rapped a capella over phone calls; the resulting song was released as part of the 2010 Burrrprint (2) HD mixtape. In 1991, the Lifers Group, an early-’90s rap group whose founding members are incarcerated at East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, New Jersey, made both a record and a long-form video with the help of a producer at Hollywood Records who brought a camera and portable recording studio to the facility.

One of the most famous recordings to come out of an American prison, Johnny Cash’s 1968 live album At Folsom Prison, was, of course, headlined by a man who wasn’t incarcerated, and even today, it often takes a person with Cash-level celebrity to bring a microphone or recording equipment through a prison’s front gates.

There are exceptions, though. At New Folsom Prison, adjacent to the site of Cash’s performance, there’s the Prison Music Project, an initiative started in 2010 by visiting artist Zoë Boekbinder, who volunteered at the prison for more than four years teaching workshops and playing music. She is working with nine artists who are currently or previously incarcerated on an album to be released this fall.

Scene from Follow Me Down: Portraits of Louisiana Prison Musicians (2012).

Courtesy of Benjamin J. Harbert.

“Whenever they dance, whenever they move, whenever they do poetry, whenever they perform, they actually elevate. They transcend the prison.”

Then there’s Die Jim Crow. It began as a concept album project started in 2013 by New York–based artist and activist Fury Young. He sought to draw attention to mass incarceration using music written and performed by current and former inmates at US prisons. Young had a difficult time gaining prison approval to record: over the first two years of the organization’s existence, he spent innumerable hours struggling to find any prison in the country that would permit recording. In the winter of 2016, a mutual colleague introduced him to Justin Jones, the former director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Jones praised the project’s ability to channel raw energy and offered to send letters of introduction to DoC state commissioners around the country. By 2016, Die Jim Crow had released a six-song EP on vinyl, Bandcamp, and SoundCloud. Over the past five years, Young has recorded music written and performed by inmates in five prisons in South Carolina, Ohio, Colorado, and Mississippi. At each prison, an inmate musical director/talent scout helps him to identify talented and interested artists before Young and the project engineer and coproducer, Dr. Israel, transform classrooms in facilities into temporary studios for three to four days.

In May, Young sent me an unreleased track called “SHU”—the title is a reference to the word used to describe prison units where inmates are put into solitary confinement—and recorded by Michael Tenneson, an inmate serving a life sentence for the 1987 murders of five people. At first, Young says, Tenneson’s original attempt at recording felt forced and unnatural, so he pulled the inmate out of the recording booth, which was set up in the prison band room at Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, and gave him different directions: this time, he said, don’t sing, just talk.

The result is three-plus minutes of Tenneson, over the sounds of eerie instrumentals, unloading decades of guilt and expressions of trauma in a cadence somewhere between spoken word and rap. Though it’s a difficult listen, “SHU” provides a perspective on guilt regarding crimes committed that is so raw I felt uneasy pausing it, as if to do so would be to silence someone’s long-suffocated voice. Tenneson speaks of shock at seeing his face on the news; of taking medication for his mental illnesses; of his survival of childhood sexual assault.

“I’m still a man, dammit,” he barks into the microphone. “I’m not an animal, take me out of this fucking cage.

“I’ve got 30 years of remorse for every single tear I’ve made a victim’s family cry,” he continues. “It was I that should have died.”

Tenneson, Young says, emerged from the vocal booth bawling.

“That moment was like … ‘Fuck, this man is having a catharsis,’” Young remembers. “To think about having done such a heinous thing … it’s almost like music is this way to take yourself back to the moment and come to terms with it. That’s what art does.”

Ausettua AmorAmenkum at Tulane University in New Orleans.

AUSETTUA AMORAMENKUM, a Tulane dance professor and artistic director of the Kumbuka African Drum & Dance Collective, first experienced music in prisons when visiting Angola with her group to perform for the inmates. Gary Tyler, a black Angola inmate who was sentenced to death by an all-white jury at the age of 17 for a 1974 shooting, had long led the drama club at Angola, and his attorneys were part of AmorAmenkum’s collective. The group began a long relationship with the prison, coming in to perform for inmates. The turning point for AmorAmenkum was Tyler’s production of The Passion, based on The Passion of the Christ. He cast women from Louisiana’s only female correctional facility, LCIW, to play certain parts. AmorAmenkum was shocked by the resources provided to the men’s club just because of the presence of the church: high-tech microphones, camels, and donkeys.

“The bottom line is, they had everything,” she says. “They didn’t provide the same support for the women, and that’s consistent throughout the whole criminal justice system. The men have more programs in prison than the women have; when they get out, they have more support programs than the women have. So it’s not surprising they don’t have the same opportunities.”

One of the few available outlets for LCIW inmates was the drama club, which had been started in 1996 by Kathy Randels, a theater artist and activist. Four years into the club’s existence, Randels reached out to AmorAmenkum, explaining that she was concerned she had exhausted all her resources and that she was looking for someone to join her in the work. AmorAmenkum, who has a background in criminal justice and psychology, saw it as a way to get back into the prisons to help, this time with women. For nearly two decades now, she and a group of up to 35 female inmates have been meeting in a prison classroom to reflect, discuss, dance, and sing with each another for about two hours every Saturday.

Early drama club meetings began with a “story circle” in which inmates shared experiences, past and present; the technique was popularized by John O’Neal, cofounder of the Free Southern Theater. It quickly became clear that one woman’s story begat another, and AmorAmenkum noticed that the women were more eager and comfortable to share stories via song, as opposed to in discussions with a social worker or psychologist.

AmorAmenkum, left, with other members of The Graduates during a Juneteenth performance at Tulane to raise awareness and money for Gloria “Mama Glo” Dean Williams, June 2019.

“Art opened up this portal in your soul that allows you to express yourself because there are things that you can say with [art and music] that you can’t articulate [otherwise],” AmorAmenkum says. “Whenever they dance, whenever they move, whenever they do poetry, whenever they perform, they actually elevate. They transcend the prison.”

The drama club mined common themes that surfaced in the story circles—life, beauty, race, and God—and put the narratives to dance, poetry, or song for annual productions. About five years ago, for a production focusing on beauty, club members composed an original song called “I Love Myself,” which featured a lilting call-and-repeat chorus with refrains like: “I’m priceless, I’m special and unique, from my head to the soles of my feet. When God made me, he made me complete.”

A group of formerly incarcerated drama club members known as “The Graduates” now perform original work at events such as Columbia University’s Beyond the Bars Conference to raise awareness about life in prison, the inconsistency in criminal justice sentencing, and the stories of individuals such as Gloria “Mama Glo” Dean Williams. Williams, one of the club’s founding members and mentors, has spent 48 years in prison, longer than any other woman in the state. Williams is up for clemency on July 22 of this year.

IN JUNE 2015, after eight years of incarceration, Vernon Cook was released from prison for good behavior. Now 48, he currently runs a small art gallery in New Orleans, Crescent City NOLA Creations, in the corner of a sprawling mall abutting the Mississippi River and blocks from the French Quarter. Gregarious and engaging, Cook is a natural salesman whose offerings include vintage photos of Bourbon Street enhanced with color. Occasionally, he hooks up his phone to the speakers on the store’s tiny desk as he works and plays one of the songs from his current band, 2nd Lion Band, which performs originals and Marley covers at venues around the city. Music, he explains, is a way to share his story, including the injustices he witnessed while incarcerated—ranging from the treatment of mentally ill prisoners to the quality of the food.

“The human being in me could not come home and not talk about what I saw,” he explains.

On a recent Sunday night during one of Cook’s first gigs at a new spot on Frenchmen Street, tourists followed the sound of Damian Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock” into an ivy-covered courtyard, where 2nd Lion performed under strands of multicolored string lights. During the performance of an original composition, “Someday I’ll Be Free,” Cook called out Mac’s name during an instrumental break, and “rising out of the penitentiary,” then transitioned seamlessly into Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.”

2nd Lion performs “No Woman No Cry” at NOLA Cantina in the French Quarter.

Though some audiences at 2nd Lion performances may not expect to end up dancing to lyrics about a prison dorm, the blissed-out crowd on this particular evening, subdued by dense humidity and strong margaritas, appeared unfazed by Cook’s invocation of prison. (Cook has drawn ire from musicians who urge him to avoid touching on these sorts of difficult subjects, especially in front of tourists looking to enjoy the brass-heavy jazz that reflects the frivolity of New Orleans—not the carceral system that undercuts the state in which it is located.) Though he enjoys performing fan-favorite songs like Trenton and Free Radical’s “Mr. Mandela” and Shaggy’s “Sexy Lady,” Cook explains that part of his mission as a musician is to highlight inequalities in criminal justice sentencing and to warn younger generations of musicians about the price of incarceration.

“The anger part is over,” he says, in reference to his past in prison. “My job now is to enlighten. I’m around these young guys, some of them doing stupid shit, and I’ll say, ‘You’ve got a lot of talent, but if you keep that up, you’re going to be singing in the Music Association.’

“I tell them to share your gift on this side,” he adds. “It’s much sweeter.”

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