Inside & Out Musical Launch: Spotlight on Artists BL Shirelle and King Moosa

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. 


BL SHIRELLE

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

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! 


Visit BL Shirelle’s website and her Instagram. Visit Die Jim Crow’s website and their Instagram

Visit King Moosa’s Instagram and his Facebook

Artist Spotlight: Brian Hindson

by Melissa Wang and Isa Berliner, JAC Interns

The creative process enables us to see good in the world and people around us. Brian Hindson’s story and his collaborative work with other incarcerated artists exemplify this exceptional power of art.

His creative story begins, surprisingly, twenty-two years after leaving art school. Although Brian attended art school for a couple of years after graduating high school, he didn’t reconnect with art until he was in prison, more than two decades later. Now, he uses a variety of different styles, paints, and materials to express himself through his art. 

What does it mean to be an artist? Brian would say voice. In elementary school, Brian drew his classmates, who in turn considered him an “artist.” He continued to enjoy artmaking throughout high school simply because of his natural talent, although he began to struggle in art school due to what he guesses was a mix of “outside distractions” and “immaturity.” Afterward, he didn’t continue with art as a path because he didn’t have a voice to share through his body of work.

The years passed while Brian pursued other things over artistry, and he eventually ended up in prison. While inside, he “found a voice, a re-discovered talent, and more so peace” from artmaking. Prison can be isolating and at times devoid of hope. For Brian, art has helped him keep his sanity. In fact, it is his surroundings that inspire him: “There is a LOT of negativity in prison,” he writes, “Everything’s bad…I try to see the positive things – the good things.” He searches for the sparks of hope that are so often overlooked. Relating art to character, he concludes that his way of looking for the good is how he hopes others will look at him, “as a person.”

Access to materials has always been a unique challenge to incarcerated artists, and Brian has adapted by using whatever paint or drawing tools he can find. Although he prefers acrylic paint, he is capable of creating not only with any materials but also in a variety of styles – from “realistic to fractured.” Balancing rigorous thought prior to artmaking with a flexibility and fluidity during the process, Brian allows his paintings to morph when needed.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, materials have been even more difficult to find. The pandemic “has been horrible for artists in prison,” says Brian, “with mostly no access to art materials” and no way of getting to their art lockers. He himself currently only has a black pen and paper, or handkerchiefs.

What can we do to support Brian and other incarcerated creators at this time? “Highlight artists,” Brian says. “People love praise.” Brian recently created and organized a collaborative project with several other incarcerated artists. To learn more about the process and see the final collaborations, please read on. We encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments below! 


Brian Hindson’s collaborative project: 

Brian Hindson

Brian Hindson’s original painting was made for the NLADA Social Justice Art Auction. After discussing and deliberating an idea with others, he chose to add a paintbrush to the painting: “something meaningful to me.” He had always wanted to do a collaborative piece and thought this could be a good opportunity.

Brian Hindson

Brian started by tracing his original painting to make a black and white version for the copy machine — keeping only the details he felt were important. The process was more difficult than expected when the first copycard he bought didn’t work well. He was finally able to get successful copies for 15 cents each, noting that 15 cents is “more per hour than most inmates earn in jobs in The Box.”

After making copies, Brian distributed them with basic instructions to “paint, color, decorate or add anything you want.” Brian kept his directions simple because he didn’t want to influence what people returned to him. However, reflecting on the pieces he got back, Brian found it interesting that no one added anything into the hands. Some did choose to add words, and as Brian describes, “some of the added words, well they speak, while some yell.”

Click for a closer look: 

Brian was especially impressed by William Brown’s interpretation, who made his piece using collage. “William surpassed my hopes for what someone could do with my directions and his creativity.” Brian describes watching William search for resource materials to use in his collage, “being very judicious in his selections of colors and not settling.” In the end, Brian thinks William’s art is a better piece than his original, and “that makes me happy!”  

William Brown

You can view more of Brian’s work in his portfolio. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration, please sign up for our pARTner Project!

Artist Spotlight: Nhut Vo

by Isa Berliner, JAC Intern

“When you paint and when you draw, to me, you create a capsule with time and space, and it’s imprinted in life forever at that time.”

When Nhut Vo arrived in the United States at nine years old, it was not only his first time in a new country, but also his first time meeting his father, who had immigrated from Vietnam when Nhut was born. “I was a shy and quiet kid. I was an introvert,” Nhut says, reflecting on his childhood. Most of his thoughts and beliefs were based on assumptions because he spent a lot of time by himself, not venturing out of his comfort zone or engaging with many people. “When I came to this country, I did not feel like I was part of this country,” he explains. It was only when his parents got divorced and they moved to another district that things began to change.

In his new neighborhood, Nhut found himself facing even more challenges. He began struggling in school because he couldn’t speak English very well and with his two older brothers starting to have their own lives, Nhut’s “self-limiting beliefs” and feelings of loneliness were heightened. In junior high school, his life reached a turning point when he was first exposed to the gang culture in his neighborhood. His feelings of isolation hadn’t subsided: “I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere.” His search for a sense of belonging coupled with the culture of rebellion he was introduced to by his neighbors and brother led Nhut to begin associating with gang members who were older than him. Nhut describes how they fulfilled his need for validation and became the role models he had been looking for. Nhut started getting in fights and at 15, he joined a gang. “It was a camouflage for me to hide my insecurity, hide my shyness.” Through the world he now found himself a part of, Nhut developed a kind of “false self” defined by recklessness: “I thought that was who I was — that’s my identity.” 

When he was only 16 years old, Nhut was involved in the crime for which he would be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

After Nhut was first arrested, he was placed in a cell with a man who sold drawings done on handkerchiefs. Nhut had long held a curiosity for art, but never really invested time into learning about it. He can’t remember if he was interested in art when he was young, but he recalls practicing tattooing on some friends (“they probably still hate me for it now,” he jokes). Nhut remembers watching his cellmate work: he’d start with a picture and then trace and color it. “I figured I could do that. Can you help me do that? And he showed me.” And so began Nhut’s journey with art, looking at pictures in the newspaper until he found something that interested him, at which point he would simply cut it out, trace it, and do his best to replicate the image. As Nhut felt himself improving, he spent more and more time drawing.

Nhut started his term in a maximum security prison that didn’t allow any drawing supplies, so he learned to draw with pen. Working in pen is extremely challenging, Nhut explains, as you have to “barely allow that ball pen to touch the paper” in order to shade with a very light tone. Nhut spent years developing his technique, becoming skilled in the delicacy and precision required for the difficult medium. 

After the Supreme Court ruled that it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a child to life without parole, Nhut was able to return to court for resentencing and in 2016, he received a reduced sentence with the possibility of parole. He was moved to a lower-level prison that offered many more program opportunities, including a painting class. Though he had never painted before, Nhut’s talents with pen and colored pencil allowed him to pick up the new medium with ease. “I go, oh, this is amazing! I can just cover a very large space with just one big brush rather than sitting there and scribbling.”

His talents did not go unnoticed and shortly after picking up his first brush, Nhut was invited to paint a mural in the prison. He took on the project and painted a large mural inspired by another program he was part of called the Pawsitive Change Program. The mural was just the beginning and Nhut’s painting took off. 

At first, Nhut’s artistic process was about replicating exactly what he saw. His mental state when creating was focused on the result and how people would respond to it: “How people will perceive it, how they would experience it.” He would feel disappointed if he showed somebody a piece and they didn’t like it. But once he started painting, Nhut began to appreciate the artistic process itself. Working with color, both colored pencil and paint, takes a long time, especially when adding detail. It was in spending that time with color that Nhut learned to value the process — “enjoy it to an extent where it’s okay if they don’t like it.”

When Nhut is painting, he tries to stay fully engaged, enjoy the process, and not think too much about what the result will be. This mindset helps him not feel frustrated when he makes mistakes. “I’ll add the wrong color. I’ll add black when I know I’m not supposed to. And I constantly try to remind myself, you know, it’s an engagement with life.” This outlook has allowed Nhut to find far greater joy in his painting. Of course, he still finds it rewarding when audiences like his work, but, in Nhut’s words: “I think it’s fair to say I paint for myself.”

Now, Nhut describes his creative process as a formula. Inspired by his Buddhist practice, Nhut follows what is called the eightfold path, specifically one of the paths known as “right effort.” Nhut explains the formula: “First, you want to engender a wish to do something, and then you put forth the effort, and then you search your mind, and then you set out to do it.” Especially during his incarceration, this formula helped Nhut find the motivation to work: “A lot of the time you allow the environment to get to you, and you just don’t feel like doing things sometimes… you kind of have to psych yourself up.”

In addition to the eightfold path, Nhut finds it helpful to set up a “physical condition” for his space that he can repeat whenever he’s creating. When he can see something in a certain place and have a consistent routine like listening to music and drinking coffee, it’s easier to get into what he’s working on. Nhut also likes to set out his materials as a way to almost force himself to begin. He describes how in prison, your bunk pretty much covers the whole cell and acts as your table, your furniture, and your living room. By laying out his books and dictionary when he was taking college courses or laying out his paints and canvas, he would have no space to sit and no choice but to start. 

Sometimes, however, setting up his physical space isn’t enough. Nhut describes how his state of mind affects his ability to create: “If I am not in the mood, if I feel depressed or stressed out, it’s very hard for me to engage myself to paint. Even if I set everything up like that, I would still sit there and just look at the setting.” For Nhut, art is not only an outlet that can take him away from his immediate environment, but it is also an opportunity for self-reflection. Nhut thinks about the way his intention in creating has developed over time, originally being too focused on external validation — something he has struggled with his whole life. But over time, alongside his spirituality and his practice of meditation and Buddhism, Nhut has come to view his artwork and creativity on a deeper level, seeing value without outside validation and finding his self worth through art. “When I think of it that way, I think all my artwork is beautiful because I created it. There’s no second person that actually did that.”

“I think it’s how I show up in the world. What I want to share, what I want to present, and not really being shy about it, being genuine and authentic…  It’s really understanding yourself and how you can be comfortable with yourself to an extent that you can reveal yourself to the world just as you are… And in a way art does that. It helped me to understand myself.”

Learning to appreciate his own artistic process also taught Nhut to appreciate other people’s art. “I used to look at actual art and go, ‘I don’t get it.’ And now that I look at it, I understand… I can see what kind of brush they use, I can see the layer they lay on top of each other. I can sit there and imagine and guess the process it takes.”

Nhut can look at any of his paintings and remember the moment he painted it. He describes how painting captures his experiences and just by looking at a piece he can access them again: “I remember I had my dog sitting right next to me while I was painting that. I remember the people who walked by.” Beyond the memory of his physical experiences, Nhut can also look at a piece and remember who he was and what he was thinking at the time that he painted it. Describing a piece he did shortly after his sentence was reduced, Nhut says, “When I painted this… I was a person that just recently found hope again… Before then, I thought I was going to die in prison.” Looking at the piece now, Nhut sees a person who was painting with enthusiasm and joy, knowing he would have the opportunity to earn his freedom one day, “eager to prove to everybody that he can be a lot more.”

At last, in July of 2020, after 20 years in prison, Nhut was granted parole. He is still painting and drawing, doing commission pieces and sharing his work on Instagram. He also does tattoos and works as a dog trainer. Now that he has completed the six month transition program, he gets to go home to a lot more space and freedom, both literally and creatively. He says, “I have no idea what I want to do, but it’s almost like I’m just going to throw paint on the wall just to see how that feels.”


You can view more of Nhut’s work in his portfolio. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration, please sign up for our pARTner Project!

Artist Spotlight: Daniel Martinez

by Melissa Wang, JAC Intern

I send this one out

To all the homeboys down in, uh, Clinton lockdown

Rikers Island, all them dudes I was, uh, locked up with

E block, F block, lower H

N-I-C in Rikers Island

Downstate

All the peoples I met along the way

Better days is comin’ homeboy, keep your head up

“Better Dayz” by Tupac ft. Mr. Biggs

“The words to this song is my life.” 

 Creativity runs in Daniel Martinez’s family. When he was young, his older brother Jesse would bring him drawing supplies, showing him new artistic techniques. His cousin taught him and his other brother Tommy how to tattoo, working with a homemade tattoo gun on orange Gatorade lids. One of Daniel’s sisters also grew up to be an amazing artist. In ninth grade, his art teacher told him, “If it wasn’t for you, I would quit my job.” Daniel looked around and realized he was the only one drawing – everyone else was goofing off. “That stuck with me until this day,” he says.

In and out of prison his whole life, and now serving a ten-year federal prison term, Daniel has continued to create. Artistic collaboration flourishes inside, where Daniel has picked up new styles and ways to be creative from other artists. He calls art his “escape in a place like this…medicine to my soul.” With over 1000 pieces created for other incarcerated folks and their loved ones, he reflects on how good it feels to “put a smile on someone’s face” as well as how “art can reunite a relationship.” Art is heart-song for both maker and viewer.

His drawings, for example, are the only method he has to communicate with his daughter. “I love my daughter so much but all I have to give is my art…I’ve only watched her grow through my drawings. I don’t know what to really write on her drawings, all I know is that me drawing pictures of her helps me make wise choices…She’s my everything, she’s all I live for.” 

Daniel Martinez

“Sometimes God doesn’t change our trails, but instead changes us in the midst of the trails.”

Throughout the chapters of Daniel’s life, some violent and others fragmented, art has remained a constant, accompanying him through his personal changes. Having lost his father at four years old, so young he didn’t even know to cry at the funeral, Daniel was raised along with his five siblings by his single mother. His family slept on the “hard, cold wooden floor with blankets.” He wore only hand-me-downs and blamed his mother for the shame it brought him at school. “I would blame her for everything,” he writes. “I was wrong for it. I regret it.”

Daniel Martinez

As a child, Daniel didn’t understand why they always had to walk home after grocery shopping, or why he had to carry the heavy gallons of milk. “It brings tears to my eyes as I’m writing this now,” says Daniel while recounting how he used to complain and make her life harder, not realizing that his mother was bone-tired and struggling.

Anger built in him as he was made fun of for his worn shoes, and he fought other kids at elementary school, especially those of other races. Toys were too expensive, so the only things he had to play with were coloring books and pencils. By high school, drawing had become an everyday routine, more interesting and engaging than classwork. Simultaneously, Daniel had also joined a gang.

Because his mother worked graveyard shifts, his apartment at night was full of his friends and other gang members, including his cousin, a tattoo artist. While on juvenile house arrest, he received his first tattoo, and from then on, got countless more. “I loved the art,” he writes. “Art, period, was my passion.”

Throughout high school, however, he continued to participate in gang activities, getting his family evicted multiple times. “I was never there to even help her, or my family, move all the boxes. I was out in the streets being selfish. I had LBPD break down my mother’s door at 4 AM. I had her go through so much…I was lost.” Even during times when Daniel was just hanging around with his friends, the police had it out for him. Over-policed and constantly surveilled, Daniel and his friends were brutalized by cops who had arrived to deal with a neighbor’s problem, just for sitting around.  

The police blindly tasered the people in the apartment, and Daniel notes that two people were struck and “dropped to the floor screaming.” Singled out by the cops, Daniel was cuffed while four officers took turns stomping on his back and punching and kicking him. It felt like his lungs were collapsed, and it was only thanks to a passerby ambulance worker who stepped in that he was taken to the hospital. After the incident, there was no one to coach him through legal proceedings; instead, he turned to art.

Daniel Martinez

In response to the attack, he drew a cop car being shot up, with the words “fuck pigs.” The police officers later returned, found the drawing, and began to target him even more. At that moment, he thought back to an encounter with his tenth-grade history teacher.

Although deprived of a father figure from a young age, Daniel recounts the importance of having someone who believed in him. In tenth grade, Daniel drew a picture of an armed man standing over four dead bodies, depicting the ways in which the world presented itself to him. “I would draw in class so much the teachers would…tell me to put it away. High school is where drawing really started to be in my everyday life.” It just so happened that his history teacher noticed Daniel’s drawing and asked to meet him after class to discuss the contents of the artwork.

His teacher asked him if his home life was alright, if there was anything he wanted to talk about. Daniel didn’t understand the concern. The teacher pointed at the man holding the gun in the drawing and asked who he was. It was then that Daniel processed all the red colored pencil he had used for the dead bodies and realized he was in trouble.

Instead of punishing Daniel for the violent drawing, the teacher had his next period class wait outside as he talked to Daniel about changing his life. “He cared about me and kept my drawing in his hand. He ripped it in front of me and threw it away. He promised not to call the principal,” remembers Daniel. As long as Daniel promised to let the teacher check up on him periodically about changing his life, and as long as he promised not to draw things like that again, the teacher would not report him.

“I wish I had listened to him,” reflects Daniel on the situation with his drawing of police. The teacher transferred schools shortly after Daniel’s tenth grade.

Coincidentally, however, Daniel frequently skipped all his classes except art class to “catch three busses to make it to Lakewood High School.” It was the only way he could see the girl he liked. He didn’t expect, one day, to lock eyes with that history teacher in the classrooms of Lakewood. At that very moment, the teacher paused his class to ask Daniel how he’d been. He asked Daniel if he was still drawing.

Although the teacher asked Daniel to come back after school to talk, Daniel ditched the meeting to spend time with the girl he liked. “I never had the chance to thank him for caring. He was a good man and cared for his students. Thank you for caring,” Daniel writes now.

Daniel Martinez

Since then, Daniel has gone through great personal change. Now out of the gang life, he is focused on fatherhood and publishing his own biography, passing down a lineage of care threaded through his family growing up to his partner and daughter now. “As you see,” he says, “all my artwork used to be about violence but in today’s life they’re all about love and my daughter.” He asked Justice Arts Coalition to share a message of gratitude: “I would like to thank my future wife, Shauna. We have our ups and downs. I understand how hard it has been for you, but no matter what you are still here. Eight years locked up and I have never been without, because of you. I love you.” 

Daniel also expressed appreciation for Jayme, the JAC volunteer he corresponds with, saying, “Every letter you send me becomes another stepping stone in my art life. Not only do you speak highly about my artwork, but you also take the time to check on my well-being. Your words describe my art in ways I’ve never heard before. You motivate me to see my own artwork as if the world needs to see them.” Finally, he thanked President Biden for choosing a woman as a vice president. “Women to me mean power and I see her making changes for everyone. She just made history.” 

His passion for art and for creating these networks of care and gratitude are deeply intertwined; since those little orange Gatorade lids, his creative practice has followed him through his personal transformations. Acknowledging his prejudiced attitudes in the past, he now says that he “grew out of that hate against other races. A lot of people say racism will never go away. I strongly believe that is wrong because I grew out of it. I would like to take this moment to apologize to everyone, or anyone, I have ever hurt in life.” His story exemplifies the ability of the human character to evolve, grow, and move toward better futures.

You can view Daniel Martinez’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! 

Kenneth Reams: Workshop and Art Auction

JAC is proud to feature the work of Kenneth Reams, an artist and activist who has been incarcerated on death row for twenty-seven years. In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and in order to raise money for his ongoing fight for freedom, Kenneth is auctioning off this 8.5″ x 11″ framed portrait of MLK Jr, done in graphite on acid-free paper (above). The auction will end on Friday, January 22nd at 5pm PST so be sure to check it out soon! More information and instructions for how to enter can be found here.

“The Last Mile” by Kenneth Reams

We have also had the honor of hosting Kenneth as a facilitator for our online workshop series Create + Connect: In The Box with Kenneth Reams, and we welcome you to join us on Thursday, January 28th at 4pm PST for week 5 of the series. Come, enter the Box, and join the conversation around the intersection of law, activism, and the transformative powers of the arts. From the confines of solitary confinement, Kenneth hosts interviews, entertains, and reshapes the narrative with some of the nation’s leading criminal justice activists, lawyers, and artists. Register here.

“Kenneth ‘Artist927’ Reams” by Kenny Reams

In 1993, Kenneth Reams was an unarmed accomplice to a robbery that resulted in a fatality. Like so many, Reams was represented in court by a public defender. He was offered a plea bargain but refused to plead guilty, and at the age of 18, he became the youngest person sentenced to death by lethal injection in Arkansas. Kenneth Reams did not kill anyone, and yet he remains in solitary confinement without human contact to this day. Despite living in solitary confinement for the past 27 years, Reams has cultivated his practice as an artist, a poet, a writer, and the founder of the nonprofit organization Who Decides, Inc. Who Decides, Inc. is a national network of activists and volunteers working to educate the general public about the practice and history of capital punishment in the United States through various mediums of art. You can learn more about Kenneth on his website: http://www.freekennethreams.org

An attendee of one of Kenneth’s previous Create + Connect workshops reflected on the event:

“This workshop had a profound impact on me. This was my first window into seeing art as a vehicle and voice for incarcerated people. I was moved by Kenneth Reams’ personal story of perseverance… To witness incarcerated people creating the most profound and thought-provoking work with anything they can get their hands on in the most oppressive and restrictive conditions left me speechless and inspired.”

In next week’s workshop, Kenneth will be joined by Wanda Best, the Community Resource Developer for the domestic violence programs at Volunteers of America (VOA) of Greater New York. Wanda is also the founder and CEO of Art Transforms, Inc., a non-profit organization formed to bring art to communities of color. As a community activist she was one of the lead plaintiffs in the campaigns to reduce the cost of collect calls made by New York State prisoners to loved ones and the campaign to restore the right to vote to formerly incarcerated people on parole and probation in New York State. She is an artist painting the prison experience through the eyes of the families with incarcerated loved ones.

“Solitary” by Kenneth Reams

Much of Kenneth’s art is dedicated to illustrating the history and practice of capital punishment, and he also frequently depicts leaders in the civil rights movement and others who fight against racial and state violence. You can view more of Kenneth’s work on his website and in his portfolio.

If you’d like to support Kenny with a donation, you can do so here:
Venmo – @micah-herskind
Cashapp – @SK927
Paypal – reams.kenny@gmail.com

We hope you will join us next Thursday for Create + Connect: In The Box with Kenneth Reams as well as consider participating in the auction of Kenny’s beautiful artwork. 

“Capitalization” by Kenneth Reams