Zoe Boekbinder: Prison Music Project

JAC recently spoke with Zoe Boekbinder (they/them), folk singer and songwriter who planted the seed for the Prison Music Project. Nomadic at heart and a creator at their core, Zoe was born on a farm into a family of four children. While music wasn’t very present in their upbringing, Zoe recalls some of their first memories as making up songs. For them, music is as natural and as necessary as breath, and the way they engage as an activist. Zoe was raised, in part, by their grandfather — a Holocaust survivor. Having survived the horrific, prejudiced violence of his past, he instilled in Zoe a deep belief in justice, equality, and anti-racism. Songwriting has become their resistance language, a way to lift up the voices and stories of people who are marginalized by capitalism. 

Using their music as a platform to bring light to stories and voices otherwise unheard, lost or forgotten, Zoe continues their empowering work from their hometown in New Orleans, LA, performing both as a solo artist and in collaborations with artists including Ani DiFranco, Amanda Palmer, Jason Webley, Neil Gaiman, Mal Blum, and Mirah.

JAC: Tell me a little about your background and your life.

ZB: I started playing music as a teenager, and when I was 20, I joined a band with my sister and started touring. I did that for almost five years. Then, I started playing shows on my own, so I had years of being a touring folk singer under my belt. I was playing a show in one of my hometowns – I’ve moved around a lot, but one of the towns I spent part of my childhood in was Nevada City – and this woman, a radio DJ, told me after the show about an arts program at a prison nearby. New Folsom Prison or California State Prison, in Sacramento. She really just said, would you like to play in prison? And I said, yes, because it sounded interesting to me. I hadn’t really thought a lot about prison. Mass incarceration wasn’t something we were talking about in the media. We definitely weren’t talking about defunding the police. There was a movement, but not one that I had really heard of yet, to abolish the punitive system and the carceral system. So, all I was thinking when that woman asked me if I want to play in the prison was: this would be interesting. So I said yes. And a few months later, she put me in touch with Jim Carlson, who ran the arts program at New Folsom.

I was in touch with him for a few months, got the security clearance, and he gave me a few rundowns of what to expect, how to be prepared. He was very specific. I think that was intentional because it’s a really intense experience to go inside a prison for the first time. Being prepared for it is a stabilizing factor. I played three concerts that day. The third one was one that Jim kept asking me about in the months leading up. He kept checking with me and making sure that I really wanted to do it, because it was for folks in solitary confinement. He kept explaining to me what that was going to look like. You’re in a small room. The walls are lined with these little cages that are just big enough for one person to sit inside. And when they come in, they’re cuffed and have shackles on their ankles. And sometimes they’re chained to each other walking in. It’s a really intense thing to see. It’s an intense thing to experience. Jim just kept asking if I was wanted to do it, and I just kept saying yes.

I had a lot of great conversations after the concert with incarcerated folks and it was a really, really impactful experience for me. It totally radicalized me on the spot. I didn’t even know the term prison abolitionist, but I pretty much became a prison abolitionist that day. It was very clear to me that this place and places like it should not exist. And that wasn’t in my power. It still is not in my power, so that at that time I thought, well, the only thing I can do, a thing that’s in my control, is I can keep coming in here. Try to bring in some empathy and some humanity, by which I mean I can come in here and treat these human beings like human beings, because oftentimes they’re not treated that way by outsiders and by prison staff.

It’s not keeping anyone safe. I wasn’t in there thinking: good thing all these people are in here and not on the streets. I was thinking: nobody deserves to be treated this way. Nobody deserves to live like this, and this is so traumatizing. It’s completely ineffective, punishing children, punishing adults. It just doesn’t work. It doesn’t deter people from harming anyone or themselves. It’s just completely 100 percent ineffective. In fact, most of the time, it has the opposite impact.

JAC: Can you speak a bit about how you got into music and what inspired you to start working on the Prison Music Project?

ZB: I continued to go back to the prison over the next five years. As often as Jim would let me. He jokingly called me the house band. At some point, he asked if I could teach a songwriting workshop or a guitar workshop. Teach something. I started teaching songwriting, which I’d never done before. I’ve never even been taught songwriting before. The workshops were more like an excuse for us to sit around and share our work with each other. Through that, I heard a lot of work by incarcerated folks.

I really, really wanted people to see what I was seeing in the prison. I wanted folks like myself who had never been close to or impacted by the correctional system to see this place. They really hide this place from us for a reason because if we all knew the truth about it, we would protest it. They don’t want us to protest because prison is a money maker. Since I couldn’t bring people in with me to see it, I thought: what can I bring out with me? What of this experience can I share to help people see the truth of this place?

I realized that the guys had all this material about their lives and about their experiences from prison and in prison, which illustrates a lot of the issues in our system. I asked if I could share those. It started with one writer, Alex Patrice, who had this rap. It was this really vulnerable story about his life, and so I asked him if I could share his story. That’s how it started. After I played his songs for different audiences in the prison, different writers approached me, wanting me to do the same thing. It just grew and grew. Then we got to recording.

Alex was on the streets at the time, so Alex recorded his rap in the studio. The other rappers recorded over the phone, and we brought in different performers. The reason for bringing performers in was one of two things, it was either because they were connected to the writer in some way, a sister, a cousin, a niece, or an old friend, or it was someone who could help us reach a larger audience like a musician with their own audience. We released it almost a year ago, and I worked on it for 10 years.

Now we’re working on a musical telling the story of a restorative justice process with someone who is in prison serving life without parole for an incident that occurred when he was 18, where he caused harm. He is writing much of the musical.

And another way that we’re moving forward is through a podcast. It’ll still involve music, but I’m excited about the podcast because it feels like a more direct way to share people’s stories in people’s voices.

JAC: What is your mission as an organization?

ZB: I’m a prison abolitionist, but not everybody who is a part of the Prison Music Project is. I can’t say that our mission is to abolish prisons, though it is my personal mission. But what we can all agree on is that incarcerated people’s voices need to be heard more. We need to be listening to folks who are impacted by the system, and certainly everybody in the collective wants to reform the system in major, major ways.

JAC: How have your programs have been affected by COVID-19, and how have you adapted or made new innovations?

ZB: I don’t still work in the prison. Maybe five or six years ago, I stopped working in the prison because I needed to make a choice. I couldn’t work in the prison and also communicate with people in prison. I couldn’t write letters, receive phone calls and then also go volunteer inside of the same prison where that person was incarcerated. I made a choice at one point to stop working inside the prison so that I could be in communication with the folks that I was making this record with. I really, really miss working inside so much, but I think I made the right choice. I mean, there was so much communication that was necessary around the making of this album and making sure we were doing what the writers wanted us to do with our work.

The pandemic definitely influenced the release of the album. It was weird to release it into the beginning of the pandemic. We released it in June and did a virtual release show. I hope one day we can tour with it, even though it’ll be belated.

JAC: What do you think a tour would look like?

ZB: It depends on if any of our writers are here on the street at that point, and if they want to join us. The most bare-bones version would just be me and Ani playing some of the songs and encouraging people to buy the record because we didn’t get paid to make the record. All of the proceeds are being held by the Southern Center for Human Rights, and we can decide where that money goes when it exists one day – the pandemic has definitely impacted how much we can sell records. One day, hopefully, we’ll sell records and have some money to give to some awesome causes.

The Prison Music Project’s culminating album, Long Time Gone, produced by Ani DiFranco, is out now on Righteous Babe Records. The album features work by nine incarcerated (and formerly incarcerated) writers. Their bios can be found online.

The profits of Long Time Gone sales will benefit communities impacted by mass incarceration and the funds will be administered by the Southern Center for Human Rights. The contributing writers will decide, collectively, what projects will be funded. The writers own their work and will profit from royalties. Listen and purchase online.

The Prison Music Project is also performing at Abolition 2021 on April 23rd. Abolition 2021 is a concert organized by Abolition Apostles in collaboration with Jolie Holland and Johanna Samuels in order to fundraise for a new hospitality house near the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Find more information and purchase tickets online.

Check out Zoe’s website, Twitter, and Instagram.


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