Show Us Musical Instruments: How Searching for Hip-hop Influences in Prison Revealed a Racial Justice Cause Hiding in Plain Sight

Portable MPCs are centerpiece beat-making production tools featured within Radical Reversal’s in-prison studio installations throughout the country. Photo courtesy of Big Noise Radio.

By Ghostwrite Mike and The Mundo Press

CHOWCHILLA, CA – In California, slightly more than 90,000 adults occupy the carceral state. Being incarcerated, they are limited to the possession and use of defined personal property items outlined in the Property Matrix (PM), a categorical list of items one can purchase and maintain in their cell.

Everyone is permitted one musical instrument item. However, the possession of the musical instruments used to produce contemporary hip hop are not included in the PM. We spoke to musicians participating in the Valley Adult Music Program (VAMP) at Valley State Prison (VSP) to get their perspectives.

“An acoustic guitar, harmonica and a violin are the only items I’ve ever seen permitted,” says Finesse, a 52-year old black bass player serving an indeterminate life term who has resided at nine different prisons.

Finesse added, “Music has no color, but these old school honkey-tonk instruments don’t translate to the youth here. These kids need keyboards, MPCs, drum machines, synthesizers and groovebox instruments – the gear that creates all the modern sounds you hear in today’s music.

“When I see these kids having to beat on their chests or the tables just to make a metronomic beat to rap or sing over, all I see a racist system that has forced them to have to do that, because these items I’m talking about cost less than a guitar, make no noise at all by being headphone-capable and are portable. So, if it’s not an ethnocentric policy posture at work, what is it then? The BIPOC community here feels like black music doesn’t matter,” Finesse continued.

Yolo, a LatinX youth offender enrolled in the audio engineering vocational class offered through The Last Mile Program at VSP, told us, “it makes no sense to let us use a Mac computer workstation to edit audio files which contain the sorts of sounds made by the very types of instruments they won’t allow us to use here.”

Max, a white youth offender enrolled in Merced College’s Music History class said “It’s great to be in a class taught by a classically trained musician who actually plays notes for us on a digital piano right there in the class and (that) has inspired me to want to learn that instrument – but it sucks that I can’t acquire that instrument as my own in order to develop that skill for myself. Why tease us like that? It’s backwards.”

Jonah, a Black youth offender who played drums in Bay area based hip-hop bands and jazz before coming to prison, said he is being denied the opportunity to develop not just his passion for the arts, but his actual vocation.

“I already know how to play drums, but my instrument is large, loud and incompatible for cell living within a prison landscape. I get that. But (with) these hands and this brain understand syncopation, ya dig? I’m not just a drummer – I am a music producer. I need to be able to harness my gift, loop these beats, layer them, preserve them and monetize them according to the vocational standard that the music production trade allows for. Why is the prison industrial complex preventing me from acquiring agency?” Jonah remarked.

“I need that MPC. They cost under $300, make no audible noise (with headphones) and some are even battery operated, so what’s the issue? Seems to me like the only things they prohibit are all the things they know young urban men of color either love or need. This is a legit racial justice issue that nobody wants to acknowledge, but is hiding in plain sight – you just gotta love music enough to pay attention to it,” he continued.

The acclaimed rapper, actor and prison reform activist Common announced online through his nonprofit organization Imagine Justice Now that VSP would be the site of his Rebirth Of Sound (ROS) music program, a recording studio experience that will deliver to residents a ProTools-based curriculum.

Members of the Broken Soulz, a spoken word poetry collective of artists who regularly perform at VSP events and facilitate the Barz Behind Bars (B³) poetry workshop, have met with the ROS organizers about program logistics and tell us learning environments need in-cell affirmation.

Kamakazi, a multi-instrumentalist music producer, poet and spoken word vocalist for the Broken Soulz, advocates for portable digital music tools, noting, “Whatever we learn in a classroom or studio setting, within reason, needs to be replicated in the cell where we live, so that we can practice, become proficient, and develop our artistry.”

Kamakazi added, “The instruments we want comply in every way with the safety and security concerns of the prison, except for the fact that angry men of color know how to create evocative messaging and I think that is what the apparatus is trying to avoid.”

“They won’t admit it, but this is about racism and censorship. They don’t want these young, angry, disenfranchised Black and Brown men harnessing that rage and conveying it out loud to a public that, for the first time in a long while, are paying attention,” he added.

Last year, when camera crews accompanied the Anti-Recidivism Coalition into VSP for an all-day film screening and music event, they captured Kamakazi and members of the Broken Soulz performing a live music reggae anthem protesting police brutality, called “Dirty Cop.”

The song was published online by Columbia University’s School of the Arts, in commemoration of the fourth annual edition of Exchange magazine, published by the Incarcerated Writers Initiative at Columbia’s MFA program.

The rendition of Dirty Cop performed by the Broken Soulz relies on guitar, drum and analog instrumentation alone, but could be better, according to Kamakazi.

“Maca and the engineers at The World Famous COIN in Pasadena gave it a little reverb in post (production), because the performance audio was captured on a GoPro inside of a gymnasium. But, if we could recreate that sound using digital drums? Synth? On Fruity Loops? Man, ‘Dirty Cop’ could be a legit hood slapper. It’s in that guitar driven reggae category right now only because that’s the sound we are limited to, performing live, (because) we can’t even get the twang of the funk era without some synth help,” he explained.

The Broken Soulz is a nondenominational spiritual ensemble comprised of multi-ethnic Christian, Muslim and Buddhist artists focused on unity, inclusion and mentorship.

“We know this is exactly the type of instigating content they will say they don’t want to allow us to create, which will let them point to events like Attica to justify their obstructionist policy practices,” Kamakazi observes, adding, “but that only reveals their true motive for suppressing us by prohibiting the tools that make these culturally relevant sounds. The more they obstruct us, the darker these anthems will become.”

This post was originally published on this site