by Melissa Wang, JAC Intern
Justice Art Coalition’s inaugural virtual exhibition is opening tonight, featuring over thirty incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, teaching, and independent artists. We invite you to join us for the musical launch of Inside & Out: Photorealists to Minimalists, tonight, February 26th, at 7 PM EST. Register for the event here.
JAC will be celebrating these artists and their work with pre-recorded musical performances from formerly incarcerated and allied artists including BL Shirelle, King Moosa, and the Prison Music Project. Ahead of the event, we spoke with BL Shirelle and King Moosa about their life journeys, inspirations, and musical careers.
Philadelphia native BL Shirelle is an accomplished musician, producer, and songwriter. In addition, Shirelle serves as Deputy Director of Die Jim Crow, the first non-profit record label in United States history for currently and formerly incarcerated artists.
BL Shirelle was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Growing up in a drug-infested household, she began selling drugs at around twelve years old. Arrested with her family members three times by the age of seventeen, at eighteen she was serving a twelve year sentence in Pennsylvania’s state correctional facility for a shootout with cops, in which she was shot multiple times and beaten.
Not long after getting out, she was reincarcerated for selling drugs again. However, this moment of darkness became the turning point where she broke out of the “treacherous cycle” she was stuck in. At that time, Die Jim Crow was just an album concept, and it was her first professional gig writing music. Through that opportunity, she was “able to get a better understanding” of her own capabilities, realizing that music wasn’t just a hobby but rather something she could make a living doing. Since then, she says, “I’ve been a professional musician.”
As Die Jim Crow built a network of musicians and music, they discovered that there were amazing pieces that didn’t fit within their album concept. So they expanded and became a nonprofit organization. “We’re all about freedom, and we’re all about freedom of the arts and creativity, and we stand on the side of the music. It’s not about getting the biggest hit and making millions of dollars. I mean, of course, that would be nice. But at the end of the day, the essence is about the music.”
Here, in Shirelle’s own words, she speaks on how her experiences of incarceration and music-making intertwine:
JAC: Were you engaged with music-making during the times that you were incarcerated or inside?
BL: Yeah. So I’ve been making music probably since I was seven, in my first rap group at seven. I got my first poetry book published by my teacher when I was eight. I was in poetry contests going up against college students when I was nine.
So, you know, writing has always been my thing, but it was more so like a therapy thing. And I was a super, super deep child. I used to write about some super dark and heavy things as a very young person. And that became my style for a very long time because I didn’t really write for public consumption. I wrote for therapy purposes.
When I reoffended and I went back the second time as an adult, I didn’t really write at all until I wrote for the Die Jim Crow Project. I had like a year left when I wrote for Die Jim Crow. But prior to that, I was totally uninspired. I was totally not in the space to write. I was in a really, really dark place going back to prison the second time. Even writing couldn’t help. Up until that moment of my second incarceration, I always used writing as a coping skill when I was incarcerated, but for some reason, the second time, I was beyond that.
JAC: You mentioned that you use writing as therapy or not for public consumption. So now that more people are listening to and looking at your works, is it more for public consumption now?
BL: No. So one of the songs that you guys are going to watch is called “SIGS.” And in the very beginning of the song, I say, I have to rewind the times before the rhymes…I’ll be talking about stuff that is very private. But, you know, my life is an open book. So when I write, I’m literally writing to myself, and then I just decide to share it with you. I don’t write for you guys…It’s almost like reading my journal.
JAC: Is there anything you want to add about your creative process?
BL: I mean, it all depends on the mood. Sometimes I start with a melody. Sometimes I start with words. Sometimes I start with a beat. Sometimes I start with no beat. Sometimes I play my guitar. It just all depends on the mood. You know, I don’t really have a set process. I just never know. I might end up writing on a brown paper bag, I might end up writing on the phone, you know, whatever. I just like to switch it up.
In the past year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, BL Shirelle hasn’t been creating as much. However, she describes the impact of the pandemic on her work as both positive and negative. “I say both,” she says, “because I’m not creating…as much as I thought that I would.” But simultaneously, the pandemic has allowed her and Die Jim Crow to truly make an impact on their communities and on the world.
At the beginning of quarantine, Shirelle thought she’d have a full album completed by now, but that’s “nowhere near the truth.” She, along with the founder of Die Jim Crow, Fury Young, was affected by COVID-19, especially as Young hails from New York. They couldn’t just sit around and watch the devastation unfold. So they put on benefit shows each week.
“It started as a thing like, ‘We’re going to do a show and just donate masks to whatever prisons we can.’ And it went from just a small idea to us raising over 30000 dollars and putting over 35000 masks into prisons across thirteen states.” Every single week, they were able to bring on new artists and share them with the world while contributing to COVID-19 relief.
Since then, these shows have evolved into the Die Jim Crow monthly benefit shows, the last of which was the previous Sunday. Although the pandemic has slowed Shirelle’s output, it has provided her a new way to make an impact.
Finally, when asked to tease her set for Inside & Out, she offered:
“Well, hopefully, I bring some real shit. I’m bringing some pretty great visuals as well. The videos that I sent you guys are like two of my favorites. They’re very deep and…I’m bringing super lyricism on a whole other level. And I’m also bringing in one of my favorites, Anthony McKinney, who’s incarcerated, serving a twenty-eight to life sentence for a crime he did not commit. He’s incarcerated in Ohio, and he actually arranged all the music on it. And when you hear it, you’ll understand why I’m saying this, because it’s amazing to think that he was inside when he created the sound…I sent [the words]. I was still in prison. It made its way to him, and he put the music to it, and he…sang one of the verses…so it’s amazing.”
To watch these amazing videos, register for the Inside & Out Musical Launch Event here.
BL Shirelle’s solo album ASSATA TROI was released with Die Jim Crow Records on June 19th, 2020. Shirelle’s new wave yet classic sound is a sonic exploration of Hip Hop, Rock, Blues, and R&B, with incredible lyricism coupled with complex instrumentation. Shirelle and her work have been featured in the LA Times, NPR, RollingStone, PBS/Whyy, The Indypendent, Flowertown, Ms. Magazine, Bushwick Daily, Aesthetics For Birds, and We Want The Airwaves, and Philly Inquirer among others.
King Moosa is a portrait artist, rapper, and spoken word poet. Born and raised in Rockford, Illinois by a single mother, he was incarcerated at age fourteen with a twenty-five year sentence. He describes how it was in prison that he grew up and became a man.
He immediately began to fight for juvenile justice: despite being only fourteen, he had been tried as an adult and sent to spend all his formative years in prison. “At fourteen I wasn’t even allowed to sign my own permission slip…this is unfair,” he says.
While expressing himself through his art, he also seeks to use his art as a way of engaging with juvenile advocacy and activism in general.
KM: I knew that art would give me a door to be able to have these discussions around what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to brain development. And so I used rapping and spoken word to engage people and portraits to engage people. I was granted clemency last year, April. I’m a juvenile advocate still to this day. I use the music the same way I did then to try to engage people, bring them into my world, get them to understand the narrative of a young Black male in the inner city and the certain things we face. The end goal is to change the narrative of who I am to the everyday average American. I don’t want you to look at me as a prisoner, as a number, or as a dangerous Black man. I want you to look at me as a person, with desires, wrongs, flaws, just like everybody else. The aim is to hopefully change enough hearts to where legislation resembles fairness when it comes to juveniles.
JAC: Could you speak a bit more about how you got into music?
KM: When I was seventeen, I was in the worst prison in Illinois. There, I witnessed a man die. He was thirty-nine years old. At that time, if I had done all my time in prison that they told me to do…I was fourteen, doing the math, like ‘I’ll be thirty-nine years old once I’ve done that time.’ This guy was in the yard working out, and he passed out. The guards took forever to come to him and he passed away. And so I was thinking about what killed him. At the moment I was dealing with a lot of depression, given the stimuli of prison. I was so far away from my family. I was only three years into my sentence. It was just a lot of weight. I remember this feeling, and I remember thinking to myself that if I hold this in, I’m going to be like him. That’s all I remember. And so I started writing out my pain…it came out in spoken word, or it came out in rap, sometimes in a rhythmic form and sometimes in a prose form.
For Moosa, rap was the perfect outlet. The energy building inside him could be expressed in both aggressive and mellow forms on rap tracks, and every time he finished a song, it felt like relief. Then, he fell in love with hiphop. “I’m pacing for greatness when it comes to rap. I’m studying rapping…I want a spot in history.” His purpose is twofold: one, “for the young men who wish they had somebody who thought like them,” and two, “to give context to everyday life.” He wants to change the narrative of daily living in inner-city America.
Hiphop and rap are catching on for a reason, he further explains. “There’s an energy that comes with the culture that’s ancient.” He names it as the rhythm of life, the way a child might hear music and instinctively begin dancing to it. “I firmly believe that we’re connected to the past,” Moosa continues. “Hiphop has a lot of the culture of African movements. When it comes to Africa, they communicate through drums, literally a play on rhythm. People knew what was said through a rhythm…information gets passed down in your genes when it comes to things like that.” In the future, he predicts rap and hiphop will continue to connect to more people’s souls.
Like BL Shirelle, Moosa’s inspirations come from all parts of life, and his creative process is just as free-flowing. “Life is my biggest music,” he says. His process is spontaneous. Sometimes he needs a beat, and other times he can work off of a vibe in his head. The openness to inspiration stems from a desire to stay uncaged and free in his rap style.
“Greatness inspires me. Heartache inspires me. Justice inspires me.”
Moosa was granted clemency a couple of months into the COVID-19 pandemic, which means that although he’s participated in Zoom performances, he hasn’t yet been able to perform in front of a live crowd. In many ways, the freedom he had expected upon release has warped in a pandemic-stricken world. However, he’s continuing to make and perform music, with the expectation of releasing his first single and signing a deal with a label soon.
To hear his music tomorrow and support his music career, register for the Inside & Out Musical Launch Event here.
We’re excited to have both BL Shirelle and King Moosa perform tonight, alongside the Prison Music Project. Register on Eventbrite for the Inside& Out Musical Launch Event at 7 PM EST here. We hope to see you there!