The Hamilton Project

by Guy La”Tron” Banks, a.k.a Tronee Threat

It’s two a.m. I can’t sleep. I find myself inside the restroom stall of the dorm I share with 200 other men, but no one happens to be in here with me and it is quiet enough to hear my thoughts and feel my emotions. I throw on my headphones and tune into rapper Swoope’s song “You Got Me”. The song is an exact expression of my feelings at the moment. I feel like God got me – like he is really looking out for me. The past three days have been so beautiful. I’ve seen loved ones, as well as strangers all, come together throughout this weekend with the same purpose. It was glorious. I have caged my emotions the whole time, but right now tears, Mr. Kool-Aid smiles, and laughter is starting to run wild. I am alive. I can see greatness before me. I feel closer to my dreams than ever before. The moment that I’ve just lived out was so much bigger than me and I’m ready to take it to another level. My eyes are on the stars but my head is against the ceiling. I feel like a jumbo jet in a dark and dirty warehouse. My joy and excitement are anchored by reality. My motivation is fueled and frustrated all at once.

These are the thoughts and emotions surrounding me after the final show of four performances in a span of two days of The Hamilton Project. The KUJI Men’s Chorus lead by Dr. Catherine Roma teamed up with, Dr. Jessie Glover, Lori Hiltenbeitel, and a band of supporters, at Marion Correctional Institution in Marion Ohio, and took Lin’s masterpiece from the heavenly heights of Broadway all the way down to the lowly floors of the jailhouse. I was first introduced to the idea of performing Hamilton in November of 2018. KUJI had just finished what was then our best performance to date, the reenactment of Les Miserables with students from Salisbury college. Dr. Roma was already thinking about what was to come next for us and she wanted to keep elevating. She asked me what I thought about doing Hamilton. I had heard of the musical, but I never paid much attention to it. I had seen some hip-hop musicals and never really thought they were any good. I remember watching MTV’s “hip- hopera” Karma and thinking, “this really sucks”. I love hip hop and I want to see it rise to levels unimaginable, but not at the expense of it being “corny”. KUJI did good with Le Mis, and it made us better. It taught us discipline, accountability, priority, and brought out hidden talents within the group. Best of all, we built unity throughout the process. So maybe another musical will help us advance as a group. What if musicals could become KUJI’s “thing”? Dr. Roma could be opening up the lane of hip hop, knowing I will put my all into this project because rapping is what I do and hip hop is what I am. I was also skeptical because in hip-hop good rappers don’t rap other artists’ music. But, I trusted Dr. Roma and believed in my team so I said: “let’s do it”. By February of 2019, we were gearing up to do Hamilton.

I still had not heard any of the music. Dr. Roma gave me the soundtrack and from the press of play, I was caught in Lin’s web of dope beats, flow patterns, wordplay, and storytelling ability. I thought so far so great. The music wasn’t corny. It solidified my decision to pursue the project. I wasn’t sure what role I would play in the musical. KUJI is made up of many good artists who could fill several roles. I was instantly spellbound by a song called “Wait for it”. It was to be performed by the character Aaron Burr. He also had a daughter and I have two. Again another of his songs (“Dear Theodosia”) directed toward his daughter expressed my sentiments well. However, the group thought I should play Alexander Hamilton (the lead role) which is the most demanding role of all. I accepted, so it was time to fully commit.

The Hamilton Project, Marion Correctional Institution
Makaveli as Hercules Mulligan, Tron as Hamilton, Sam as John Laurens. Photo: Kyle Long

After listening to the music I started memorizing the songs. Lin used a lot of rhyme schemes that I was already familiar with, so the flow came first. Flow is the cadence and style of the song lyrics. Next, I learned the lyrics by reciting day and night until they were committed to memory. Then I explored the meaning of it all. I could mimic the musical at that point but I still had to become my character. I wanted to see Miranda’s vision and feel Hamilton’s struggle. I wondered what was Lin trying to say. How true was the story of Alexander Hamilton’s’ life? The only thing I knew about him was that he was on the ten-dollar bill. I learned all the basics of Hamilton’s story by listening closely to the fragmented story of the soundtrack. It taught me about Alexander’s family, his upbringing, intelligence, and work ethic. Dr. Roma brought in material for us to read about it. We met with Dr. Glover once a week for a month and dissected each song. I began to see him as a person, leader, family man, politician, and genius. I tried to imagine Alexander as a performer. I knew this would be the most difficult part of the job – portraying a white politician as a young fly MC. Everything I learned about theater and acting as a member of Theatre of Conviction for the past four years, (which is also run by Dr. Glover) paid off. As I understood his dream and struggle, overtime got in tune with the spirit of Hamilton, and it became real on stage.

I related to Alexander’s ambitions to create something great, bigger than himself. In “The Room Where it Happens”, the lyrics “God help and forgive me, I want to build something that’s going to outlive me” are the echoes of my soul. He knew that what he was about to attempt was big, and big dreams are dangerous. He longed for change – for a revolution. It would call for great sacrifices from many. He knew the pain of those sacrifices and so he asked for forgiveness. He coveted divine help, knowing the magnitude of his task and the righteousness of the cause. I dream of using Hip- hop to transform the ghetto and empower its people. I don’t want to simply take the fruits of a successful hip-hop career and give back to the ghetto; I want to plant the hip-hop tree in the ghetto. I want to restore control of the art form and its benefits to people who produce it. We forge the art form in the fire of our oppression; it’s only just that we benefit from it. Alexander also knew that he needed the education to be able to execute his goals. “Imma get a scholarship to King’s College”, he said. He wanted to go to a prestigious college and establish valuable relationships – social capital. I need education too. I need to thoroughly understand the music business. I need to meet powerful and passionate people. That is why I’m attending Ohio University while I’m in prison. I hope to use it as a springboard to Berklee’s School of Music to gain a wealth of knowledge and relationships and obtain a degree in Music Business and Management when I’m released. I admire his obsessive nature and big-picture perspective. I learn from his mistakes and shortcomings. His infidelity and lack of self-control destroyed his family, stained his reputation and single-handedly prevented his presidential hopes, which would have allowed him to make a greater impact. He was never home and didn’t spend enough time with his family. I know it’s critical to value my relationships and remain faithful. These connections tapped into my internal energy reserves and allowed me to bring life to every rehearsal.

The rehearsal was challenging. We were only able to rehearse for two hours a week as a group. We lost a couple of months because of inconsistencies in prison and personal schedules. We battled and struggled with one another. We gained new members and lost some. We met with Dr. Glover and Lori every other week to stage the scenes. Driving two hours to the prison Dr. Roma, our Choir Director, was there as much as she could be, but some days we were on our own. Those times called many of us to leadership. This was new to all of us. No one had ever done a hip-hop musical; it showed and it wasn’t looking good. We needed an extra push. Time was running out and we were getting discouraged. Then, the women arrived.

Dr. Roma brought in seven women to fill the female roles in the play. It was the day before the first show and we had not blocked the entire musical. We had chosen 23 out of 46 songs and did not have a good sense of how all of them were supposed to be sung and acted out. The stage lights were not ready, and we still needed our costumes. We had not tightened up our harmonies as an ensemble yet, and now we were adding seven more strangers to an already volatile concoction. Things could have gotten ugly. But, the women were like a warm cup of coffee on a brisk morning, warm relaxing, and yet energizing. They were accomplished professionals, and passionate about music. Lori, Bennyce, Lisa, Audrey, Danielle, Jillian, and Ashley were ready to go when they walked through the door. Working with them was easy and familiar. I walked into the chapel where we were putting on the show and they were all on the stage singing “Helpless”. I joined in with Danielle, who was playing Eliza and we sang the song like we had been singing together forever. I knew that was a good sign that we were going to be alright. We got into the costumes and into character. We tried to run through the music from the beginning but we ran out of time. Our next time meeting would be the following day, showtime, and no time to do a full run-through, so we gathered in unity and sung a hymn together. “I will be your standing stone, I will stand by you”. This was like an agreement within the group. We would support each other.

The audience arrived. Our first performance was for the general population in the prison, accompanied by the Warden, Deputy Warden, Majors, and of course staff security a.k.a Correctional Officers. We took our places. Mine was behind the curtain, where I would spend time before each show praying and calming my nerves. I listened as Dr. Glover gave an introduction, and then the music started. “How does a bastard, orphan son of a whore…” delivered by Scienze who played Aaron Burr. The execution of his lines set the tone were good, as I prayed that he would do well, and he did. Performer by performer, everyone hit their lines flawlessly in the opening. Then it was my turn to take the stage. I stepped out from behind the curtain into the light and spoke the words with a melodic cadence “Alexander Hamilton”.

I was surprised at how well the population received it. It is hard to impress people that you virtually share every waking moment with. Most of them, like us, had little knowledge of the story and were educated and entertained at the same time. They were glued to their seats, in awe of what they were hearing and seeing. Many of them are still talking about it now.

It was the Deputy Warden’s last day working at the institution, she was moved to tears by the show. The joy was real and you could tell it was going to get better as the performances continued.

The Hamilton Project, Marion Correctional Institution
John, Aziz, Makaveli, Sam, James. Photo: Kyle Long

Our second show was for an outside audience that included family, friends, former inmates, and children. The former first lady of Ohio Karen Kasich was there. She wrote “I adored the show. It brought tears to my eyes and made me laugh and smile as well. I think that’s a sign of some good acting!! These folks obviously made some devastating choices in their lives, and are they paying the price. But that does not mean they are ‘throwaways’ “. Others also wrote heartfelt comments and donated to our mission. My mother and mother in law shared the night with me. My aunt whom I had not seen in ten years showed up unexpectedly with my cousin who is suffering from mental illness. They were all blown away by the show and we are still in contact because of it. The entire environment was like nothing I had ever experienced before, inside or outside of prison. I’m still not fully capable of explaining how it felt or how we pulled the shows off with such little preparation. There were times I was experiencing altered states of consciousness, when I had a heightened sense of awareness about what was taking place in the 1800s, being relived in a moment of music and theater. I knew something was happening that I was and am thankful to be a part of. This would not have been possible without the hard work, creativity, and support of everyone that was a part of the experience. I truly believe that everyone who was supposed to be there was there. Murphy’s law was in effect, it was a struggle, but nothing was able to stop The Hamilton Project from happening.

Since the show, we have heard a lot of great feedback and request to do it again. One wildly entertaining and motivating reflection came from a 15-year-old name Cleo “EVERYONE DID AMAZING AND U MANAGED TO MAKE AN EDGY TEEN WHO IS BENT ON BEING AN EMOTIONLESS EMO SMILE AND BE VERY HAPPY”. Her comment speaks to the many physical, and emotional transformations that were taking place during and after the show. I had not been able to freely speak to my daughter for the entire nine years of my incarceration, but because my mother in law attended the show, things changed. She was so impacted that she went home and told my daughter’s mother – her own daughter – what she witnessed. She told her how she felt I had matured and talked about all the positive things in store for the future. My daughter’s mother opened up and is now supportive of my daughter and my relationship. My mother-in-law was reconciled to my mother at the show after years of feuding. Both of them met and were impressed with Dr. Roma. It was a time of true unification. Real relationships were formed and bonds were strengthened.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. My dreams are coming together. I’m not doing anything special. I’m using my natural God-given gifts and combining them with hard work and purpose. I’ve longed for times like this. I’ve always wanted to sing with a stylish, edgy, talented choir. I’ve always liked the sound of the music choirs produce, collective voices singing in harmony, and now I have the opportunity and it feels great. However, when I think about what’s to come, and what has to be accomplished, some anxiety kicks in. When is my time coming? Will I ever sit in a classroom at Berklee? Is it a silly fantasy to picture me in a studio making beautiful music and working to get it out to the world? Will I have a chance to be a real father to my daughters before it’s too late? I want to build an entire community and an artist-run label. I want to buy my mother her first home. I want to hug Dr. Roma and Dr. Glover without feeling like the police are going to apprehend me. I’m concerned about my age and time were against it all. I feel like a hot air balloon inside of a shack inflating, covering the floor, bursting out the windows, and ceiling trying to make it out but still being held back from its destination in the sky. My time is coming soon, I could be released as early as next year. But, as I learn more and reach new levels of awareness that time seems further and further away. Then I’m reminded of the words of Greek Philosopher Heraclitus, he said, ” All things come into being through opposition”. So maybe this struggle I’m experiencing – this struggle – frustrated motivation will birth something beautiful.

In the words of Dr. Jessie Glover, “there is a non-zero percent chance we will be doing Hamilton again in May of 2020”. Dr. Catherine Roma seconds that, “we are definitely doing it again”. We will get on the same page eventually, and I’m ready for whatever.

The Hamilton Project, Marion Correctional Institution
Tron as Hamilton, with ensemble. Photo: Kyle Long

About the guest contributor:

Tron is a rapper with ambitions to launch an artist-run record label that can uplift his community in Columbus, Ohio.

About the production:

The Hamilton Project was a collaboration between KUJI Men’s Chorus and Healing Broken Circles, a nonprofit organization that runs a community center inside Marion Correctional Institution. It had support from the MCI Administration and Chaplain, Otterbein University, Wilmington College, Puffin Foundation West, the Ohio Arts Council, and the Braddock Fund. If you are interested in The Hamilton Project 2020 remount, please follow ohioprisonartsconnection.org.

 

Building Musical Imaginations

by Dr. Kevin Shorner-Johnson

Our newest podcast episode, Singing Connected Relationships in Prison Contexts with Dr. Mary Cohen is an exploration of the power of imagination as a part of restorative, redemptive, and community-building work within prison contexts. When the word “empathy” was introduced into the Western lexicon by Robert Vischer in 1873, the notion of empathy was rooted in an imaginative ability to feel into works of art (Laurence, 2015). Rachel Corbett (2016) writes, “Empathy explained why people sometimes describe the experience of ‘losing themselves’ in a powerful work of art. Maybe their ears deafen to the sounds around them . . . or they lose track of the passage of time” (p. 22). Empathy may be a process of losing the self in the moment to construct new identities and interconnected communities within imaginative space.

Mary Cohen conducts the Oakdale Community Choir

Mary Cohen and Jennie Henley (2018) recently wrote about the imagination of possible selves as “cognitive bridges between the past and future.” As I listened to prison insiders/outsiders offer introductions to concert songs and read stories within the Oakdale choir, I began to understand the power of articulating imaginations in a public space. Many choir members’ spoken introductions articulate who the self is and who the self wants to be. This ritual of public proclamation within a choral concert offers members opportunities to reimagine a new sense of self within the shared accountability of concert space.

Similarly, my earlier conversation with Elizabeth Parker (2018) explored how women’s choirs allow girls to construct new senses of social identity that imagine the possibility of who they are and can become as women. Parker writes that women’s choir participants “felt a sense of mattering” that supported them in literally and metaphorically “opening up my voice and me.” Maybe a sense of mattering is the fertile soil which supports imagination and the development of voice and personhood.

I am also captivated by the interplay of imagination within Mary Cohen’s notion of ubuntu as the work of humanized community building. South African ubuntu is the process of being a person through other persons; a process that engages our imaginative and empathetic capacity to explore, sense, and live into a sense of oneness. Desmond Tutu (1999) articulates that through the oneness of ubuntu, forgiveness reclaims humanness. He says, “What dehumanizes you inexorably dehumanizes me. It [Ubuntu] gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them” (p. 31).

Prominent peacebuilders and theologians have noted the centrality of imagination and connectedness as foundations of empathy and compassion. Bridget Moix (2019) notes that peacebuilders speak of “the ability to imagine new futures as a critical ‘tool’ and a source of ‘power’ in the process of peacebuilding.” Imagination can make hope visible, opening futures of possibility and empowering practices of compassion. The power of artistic or prophetic imagination, according to Brueggeman (1978), is that it allows individuals to lose a sense of numbness and reclaim humanness through awakened senses and emotions. It is for this reason that imagination is one of our three pillars of peacebuilding in our new Master of Music Education program at Elizabethtown College.

This podcast with Dr. Mary Cohen that has challenged the way I think about the role of imagination within identity, restoration, and healing. As arts advocates, we all know of the power of the arts in awakening creative imaginations. The emerging research from Dr. Cohen, Dr. Parker, and the neuroscience of social connection may help us frame our intentions in building selves and connecting communities.

Works cited:

Cohen, M. L., & Henley, J. (2018). Music-making behind bars: The many dimensions of community music in prisons. In B. Bartleet & L. Higgins (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Community Music (pp. 153-171). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Corbett, R. (2016). You must change your life: The story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Laurence, F. (2015). Music and empathy. In Olivier Urbain (Ed.), Music and conflict transformation (pp. 13-25). New York: I.B. Tauris.

Moix, B. (2019). Choosing peace: Agency and action in the midst of war (Peace and Security in the 21st Century). New York: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Parker, E. C. (2018). A grounded theory of adolescent high school women’s choir singers’ process of social identity development. Journal of Research in Music Education, 65(4), 439-460.

Tutu, D. (1999). No future without forgiveness. New York: Random House.

About the guest contributor:

Dr. Kevin Shorner-Johnson

Dr. Kevin Shorner-Johnson is director of music education at Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the intersection of peacebuilding and music education. As a teacher, he has applied his interests in ethics, spirituality, and peacebuilding to approach music coursework in ways that are rooted within an Anabaptist heritage of peacebuilding, intentional community, and ethical discernment. Dr. Shorner-Johnson’s most recent scholarship will be highlighted in an international book that approaches and critiques the United Nation’s temporal constructions in education policy. His on-the-ground peacebuilding work focuses on building capacity and community within Central Pennsylvania Latina/o communities and using the arts to affirm and embrace the fullness of Puerto Rican identity.

REDEMPTION SONGS: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF A COMMUNITY PRISON CHOIR – Book Release

Innerworld Publications

San German, Puerto Rico

Iowa City-based writer Andy Douglas’s new book, “Redemption Songs: A Year in the Life of a Community Prison Choir”, was released on April 1, 2019. For six years, the author volunteered with the Oakdale Community Choir, a performing chorale composed of both volunteers and inmates and directed by University of Iowa associate professor of music education Dr. Mary Cohen, based in a correctional facility in Coralville, Iowa. Taking the reader inside the walls of this medium-security prison, the book offers a glimpse at how music and the arts are offering second chances to the incarcerated.

The United States incarcerates more prisoners per capita than any other country, with more than two million people in U.S. jails and prisons. In addition to exploring the role of singing as a rehabilitative tool, the book examines some of the pressing issues facing the criminal justice system.

In doing so, it reflects on several questions – how can music and the arts inspire prisoners to change? Should the underlying philosophy of our penal system be one of retribution or restoration? What can restorative justice offer to all those touched by crime and the criminal justice system?

Dr André de Quadros, Professor of Music and Chair, Department of Music Education, Boston University, notes, “More than an account of the choir’s work, the book is a deep insight into musical humanity under dehumanizing conditions. Douglas’s work is evocative and thoughtful, deeply compassionate and humble, and brings the reader close to the troubled lives, wounds and hopes of the incarcerated men.”

Andy Douglas received an MFA in Creative Writing from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, where he was the recipient of the Marcus Bach Fellowship for Writing about Religion and Culture. His first book, The Curve of the World: Into the Spiritual Heart of Yoga, was published in 2013 by Bottom Dog Press. He is available for readings, and review copies available upon request.

      

TO ORDER: The book is available from Amazon.com (including ebook), in selected bookstores, and directly from the author. To support the author, order directly from him! Pre-order by sending your mailing address, $16, plus $2.75 for shipping and handling, to Andy Douglas, 2721-D Muscatine Ave, Iowa City, IA 52240. Or send your info to andy.c.douglas@gmail.com and pay by paypal. A percentage of sales will be donated to Inside Out Reentry Community, a returning citizens support organization, and should you wish to donate any amount above the $16 cover price, this will go to the Iowa Organization for Victim Assistance.



Communities of Caring through Choral Singing: an update from the Oakdale Prison Choir

by Mary Cohen, PhD

After attending an East Hill Singers concert in January 2002 in Overland Park Kansas, my curiosity for Prison Choirs began. In graduate school at the University of Kansas, I spent a lot of time in Prisons, literally and figuratively—learning from Elvera Voth, the Inside and Outside Choir members of the East Hill Singers, and creating a theoretical framework for a Pedagogy for Prison Choirs.
Now, at the University of Iowa, we’ve developed a unique Community of Caring with the Oakdale Prison Choir. It’s provided a space for outside singers to heal, connect, and express, and spaces for inside singers to reconnect with family, create new social connections, and develop new educational programming. Some of these programs include a Writers’ Workshop, Parenting Class, Yoga Classes, and a series of credit-bearing classes called the Liberal Arts Beyond Bars University project.
The Oakdale Prison Community Choir began in 2009 with 22 inside (incarcerated) singers and 22 outside (women and men from the community and the University of Iowa) singers. We have completed our 21st season (two per year), and here is a brief summary of 2018:
  • A new Greetings from Iowa 8 minute documentary from Iowa Public Television is out. This video is a great introduction to the choir.
  • The folks from Iowa Public Television heard about the Oakdale Choir because of our participation in Heartbeat Opera’s New York May 2018 production of Beethoven’s Fidelio. Their revision of this opera had a Black Lives Activist wrongfully arrested. In their stage production, they wove voices from 6 different prison choirs who each audio recorded a section of the “Prisoner’s Chorus.” They also had showed video footage from four of the choirs during the “Prisoner’s Chorus” portion of the opera. See the Oakdale Choir website for links to this story.
  • On November 12, we hosted a Learning Exchange at the Oakdale prison with the Soweto Gospel Choir, Maggie Wheeler (TV actress from “Friends” and also a singer/songwriter from LA), and Sara Thomsen (another singer/songwriter from Duluth, MN). It was THE musical highlight of my career, so far. A research team and I collected data to study this model of a “Learning Exchange,” rather than a traditional concert.
  • This fall I led a Listening Session with a group of survivors of violent crime to hear what they think about music education in prisons. As a result of that session, we hosted a survivor of sexual abuse to come into a choir rehearsal and share his story. We had the director of victims’ services and restorative justice from Iowa Department of Corrections there who coordinated both the listening session and this event.
  • The choir sang and I spoke at the inaugural Negative to Positive Graduation on December 4. This new program was created by inside singer/songwriter and lifer, Michael Blackwell. Its goal is to promote positivity. Michael is featured in the documentary from Iowa Public TV.
  • We have a songwriting and reflective writing component to the choir. As of Fall 2018, we have created 143 original songs, and the choir has performed 76 of these songs. Many original songs are available on the choir website, and we have choir newsletters comprised of writing reflection pieces also on the choir website.
  • Last: the prison administration allowed outside singers to bring homemade treats to our last rehearsal of the season this past Tuesday. The men decorated the gym with a fake fireplace, made cards for all the outside singers, and I have never seen such a feast inside a prison!

 

 

 

Making Meaning: a caged bird sings

by Page Dukes

I was released from prison last May, after serving ten years for a crime I committed as a heroin-addicted teenager. I have spoken publicly many times since, about the decisions and circumstances that led me to the criminal justice system. However, at the Art for Justice Forum held at Emory University Law School, I was asked to talk about the role music has played in my life, how it both kept me free on the inside and has helped me to have confidence and livelihood in my newfound freedom.

I was around music my entire life. The daughter of musicians, I toured the country and sang on stage with my mother from as early as 3 years old. I played the cello in elementary school, switching to the guitar when I discovered punk rock. My best friend and I formed a band when we were 13 and played on stages (with big black X’s on our hands) all over Atlanta. It was around that time that I began to “experiment” with drugs— my ambition to use matched and eventually surpassed my ambition to play music. By 18 I was shooting a deadly mix of heroin and cocaine daily, and by my 21st birthday I’d committed armed robbery.

In the jail, I got clean for the first time in many years. I realized all I had given up, all I had to lose and to live for. At the Art for Justice forum, I remembered the time a volunteer let me play her guitar after a jailhouse church service—how grateful I had been to her, how I probably scared her with my weeping, and how that moment was the first time I had felt anything in a long, long time. That was perhaps the first in a series of releases—in which I opened up a little at a time, and began to grow, in the darkest, dankest of places: the basement of the Fulton County Jail at 901 Rice Street.

There were long years when I didn’t get to play at all. I sang a lot when it was all I had. I remember finding spaces where the acoustics carried and amplified my voice— in the dungeon below the courthouse, where we sat shackled, anxiously awaiting an uncertain fate, or to be sent back without any answers at all; or in the visitation room, where we waited to be “shaken down,” having watched our families leave crying, trying to reassure them that we were okay.

It was in that room that I last saw Kelly Gissendanner, who was killed after 18 years on death row, having turned her life around and become a pillar of hope and encouragement in the prison community. She’d been visiting with her children in the room where they kept her quarantined from the rest of us. After her death warrant was issued, they had stopped letting her attend church and classes with us. I knew it may be the last time I would see her, so I sang for her. I cried, and she cried, and she thanked me. In Kelly’s last hours, she sang “Amazing Grace.”

Music is something that could not be taken from us. In a place designed to dehumanize you, where you’re told you are worthless—a uniform, a number, a discarded sub-citizen—you must make your own meaning. The system is not designed to rehabilitate, but to “correct–” to punish. I knew where my meaning was—music was my first religion—and I also believed that I would survive and thrive no matter how large the obstacles I had placed in my way.

How many others bought the view that their lives were worthless? That they were defined by their crimes, that they will never be anything more than a number, a statistic, an “offender.” The system will strip you of everything, even your humanity, if you let it. And once that happens what do you have left to lose?

The first panelist, Rachel May, a co-founder of Synchronicity Theatre, hosts theater workshops, where they give young girls in juvie the platform to tell their own stories. I remembered young girls who were in solitary confinement until their eighteenth birthdays. I remembered the ones who felt they had nothing to lose, facing long sentences, longer even than the one I had faced in my youth. And I hope that they find the freedom I did in music and in art and in words, that they will inspire others inside, and one day speak to an audience who wants to know how they made it through.

Another panelist had been making art since a childhood teacher had encouraged him to do so. In prison, he honed his portraiture skills, capturing the character of each person who lived in his unit, in graphite on paper. Like music, it was more than just a talent. It helped him to know who he was, and how he could serve a purpose in a void of meaning. It also helped him to develop his skill—one that would sustain him when he faced the task of finding work with a record.

I sang and played in the chapel services for my last three years at Lee Arrendale State Prison. I’ve since met women who tell me they remember hearing me sing in church— and they thanked me. It humbled me, that my voice and my music could have such an effect, could be a conductor for the same peace, beauty and transcendence that it brought me.

I talked and talked and talked at the Forum, until I realized I had taken up all the time. It was strange and wonderful to be asked about my experience with music in prison. The transformative power of art is no new idea—everyone has felt it, and yet we forget that the people who have been condemned, hidden out of sight and out of mind, need it too. The artist in a world without color, the musician in a room with only her voice bouncing off cement walls, the writer stripped down to the basics of pen and paper and his words—they are bound and confined, but their inner lives are rich, and they matter.

About the guest contributor:

Page Dukes is a formerly incarcerated writer, musician and college student. She grew up in Atlanta, the daughter of a touring singer/ songwriter who brought her along on the road during school breaks. She experienced life on the road with her mom and played in her own band back home, but started using drugs in her early teens, and by the age of 18 was hopelessly addicted to heroin. She committed armed robbery at 20 and served the mandatory minimum sentence of ten years in prison. While incarcerated she taught writing classes in the GED program, studied theology with the Atlanta Theological Association, trained and re-homed shelter dogs with the Forever Friends Canine Rescue, and performed with the Voices of Hope Choir. She was released last May and since has studied journalism and philosophy, worked as a reporting intern at the Marshall Project in New York this summer and the publications chief at the Roar, Piedmont College’s student media. As a founding member of the Athens Reentry Collaborative, she and several post-incarcerated peers work with academics and advocates to provide resources and support to reentering citizens in Athens, Georgia. She recently celebrated 11 and a half years clean.

About the Art for Justice Forums:

California Lawyers for the Arts was awarded one of 30 grants from the new Art for Justice Fund to facilitate six Art for Justice Forums in Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, New York and California during 2018. These one-day forums are designed to engage the arts in justice reform efforts and increase support for arts in corrections programs, as well as delinquency prevention and re-entry services. More than 200 persons, including elected legislators, artists, returned citizens, educators, arts and justice reform organizations, and others participated in the first two forums at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on April 3 and at the Houston Museum of African American Culture on July 14 . A short video of the Michigan Art for Justice Forum is linked here. Videos of the plenary panel sessions are also available here. The Defender Network.com published photographs from the Texas Art for Justice Forum, while the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition summarized the day’s discussions in a blog report.