Prison Music

Music and imprisonment

Certainly the only good thing to have come out of the entrenched culture of imprisonment that surrounds African Americans is the rich musical legacy that’s evolved ever since slavery. It’s impossible to do justice here to the horror of a people who were enslaved, systematically ridded of their religious and social beliefs and values and then ‘freed’ only to be locked into concrete ghettos and denied anything but the right to perpetuate their own plight.

Ever since the days of the chain gang, music and imprisonment have been central to African America; ‘snapping,’ or the practice of singing witty one-liners with fellow inmates, can be traced all the way to the hip-hop of today. It’s a rich musical seam that is criminally under explored, which is why I was so excited at the prospect of an album promising to bring prison-related Black music into the light.

“It became obvious to me more and more that prison is a determining factor in understanding hip-hop culture,” says Jonathan Fischer, the man who painstakingly compiled ‘In Prison: AfroAmerican Prison Music from Blues to Hip-Hop’, the latest in the Trikont label’s series of ever-interesting concept comps. “And actually the whole history of black culture,” he continues, “after interviewing Akon, dealing with records that were recorded in prison or came out of prison experience, like Shyne, Beanie Siegel, some Tupac songs… and hearing about the statistics.”

And the statistics are certainly shocking. Nearly half of the 2.2 million prisoners in the US are African American. One out of every 8 black men between 20 and 35.

Fischer travelled to the notorious Angola prison in Louisiana twice to research the album. “I watched the annual prison rodeo and interviewed its (white) warden Burl Cain. When I asked him about his caretaking for the prisoners, besides offering them bible classes and a 24 hour-a-day gospel radio, he called one of his “housekeepers”, who had just served lemonade and self made cookies: ‘That’s Howard, a convicted murderer,’ he said. Then he asked him: ‘Howard, here is a journalist who wants to talk to you: Do you like it in here?’ Howard, an old black man, just nodded and muttered, ‘Yessuh!’ Obviously this was still very much plantation-style.”

The compilation’s stand out recording is Big Louisiana, Rev. Rogers and Roosevelt Charles’ ‘Berta’, a genuine chain gang recording punctuated by the ‘drums’ of 16 hammers falling in near-unison as the men worked, and haunted by the growled, melancholic but very beautiful melodies of the singing. I wondered if there was still a culture like this in the US today. “Not to my knowledge, but even at the time that Dr. Harry Oster, the musicologist, recorded the work songs in the 50s, it was a genre on the verge of disappearing. Only the older prisoners would still sing them.”

The album also includes blues; Robert Pete Williams ‘Pardon Denied Again’, Billy Boy Arnold’s ‘Prisoner’s Plea’, soul; Nina Simone’s ‘Work Song’, and hip-hop of both the new and old schools; Brand Nubian’s ‘Claimin’ I’m A Criminal’ and Akon’s ‘Locked Up’. I admit to being disappointed with some of the latter genre’s offerings. 2-Pac is represented here by ‘16 On Death Row’, surprising given his largely imitative living of the thug lifestyle, a sea-change from his early conscious rap and ballet school training. Why is he included? “Because of his divided soul, the openness with which he embraced intellectual, socially conscious topics and gangsta culture (often even at the same time), he seems to be the most genuine representative of male black culture of his generation.”

Nearly half of the 2.2 million prisoners in the US are African American. One out of every 8 black men between 20 and 35.

It’s a thoroughly subjective view, but this compilation is a labour of love, so each to his own. It is a shame though that more of the genuinely striking, actual prison music recorded by the aforementioned Dr. Oster can’t be found here. “We had decided to put out just one CD, which means limited time. If we wanted to there would be enough worthy material for a follow-up though…” Much of the music here is about prison however, not actually made by prisoners or recorded in jail. Does it really qualify? “In my eyes it does, because I don’t think you need to have been in prison to know about it. If you’re a part of the African American community you will have your dad, your uncles, brothers, relatives or friends in prison – everybody knows somebody with prison experience, so it’s part of everyday life, whether you were there or not.”

The importance of music as a living vernacular, an oral tradition existing necessarily in the minds and voices of men and not in history books, is something we definitely agree on. “I think music has been very important as a means of comfort, like the blues

already was in slavery times. So the functional aspect of the blues was perfectly fitted for prison experience.” As ‘Prison Music’ shows, as much music is being made about, because of and during internment in US jails as ever before, with the statistics seemingly only getting worse. Whilst these lives behind bars are lived out by one in every eight black males, the individualising power of music obviously remains as well documented, and as necessary as ever before.

In the grand scheme of things, great music becomes a small comfort in the face of an ever-present tragedy.

Join the Clash mailing list for up to the minute music, fashion and film news.