Artist Spotlight: Derrick Grantley

by Joslyn Lapinski, JAC Intern

At just 15 years old, Derrick Grantley was incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. At 17, he was placed into solitary confinement, where he has remained for 21 consecutive years. “With no end in sight, I am still fighting my case in the court,” Derrick tells us. Day after day, there is temptation to lose hope, but Derrick holds his head high and continues to advocate for justice, both for himself and for others.

Derrick’s fighting spirit shows not only through his attitude and actions, but most of all – it shines through his words. In 2003, Derrick discovered songwriting and poetry, and in doing so, found solace from the overwhelming stress and depression that had been taking over his life since the start of his sentence. Derrick explains that he uses writing “as a way to express indignation against the injustices I see or experience myself.” He channels the anger and dissent he feels into poetry, and the results are incredibly powerful.

Derrick focuses his poetry on what is happening in the world around him. He writes about racial injustice, America’s political climate, COVID in prisons, and other poignant issues. He only writes about the topics that truly light a fire within him. It is this genuine passion behind his words that make his poems so impactful. Every one of his poems is written with conviction, intensity, and zeal. 

I can only write when I am caught up in the event at the moment in time. I have to be feeling the situation deep inside my bones and spirit, or else I can’t write about it.

Derrick takes his time to really think about what he wants to write before he gets it onto paper. Because of this, the pandemic has not hindered his creative process, but rather it has given him more topics to write about and more time to really sit and reflect on them. He has more fuel for his mental fire and more time to kindle it. Below is a poem called “Quarantine Wonders” that Derrick wrote to express his frustrations during the pandemic.

Will I live or will I die?
Is the question that I ask!
Co-vid 19, is in prisons,
on the attack
We were giving 2 mask
One soap, that’s it
For 7 months straight
I’ve been wearing the same s**t
Most officers walk thru,
with their face uncovered
Coughing and sneezing,
Everyday I’m worried
I know if I catch it,
my chance to recover,
As a Black man in the system
Is 1 out of a hundred!

What keeps Derrick going, even through the hardships he faces in solitary, is the fact that he is able to inspire others through his writing. He loves being able to share his work and to know that it is reaching people. “Receiving letters and feedback from people in the free world motivates me, and makes me proud to see that people are genuinely appreciative of my work. Knowing that there are some people who really care about people on the inside, also helps to inspire and motivate me to keep writing.”

You can view Derrick Grantley’s portfolio here. If you would like to view more artists’ work and provide direct feedback, please attend our virtual ArtLinks event! If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration, please sign up for our pARTner Project!