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.

 

The Roots of Die Jim Crow

Pulled from the Introduction to Die Jim Crow EP Book, available at diejimcrow.com and Amazon.com.
by Fury Young

It’s been three years since a notebook jot-down outlining the idea for what would become the concept album project Die Jim Crow. I was on the B train to Kingsborough Community College where I was studying history. There was a book in my hand and I was about halfway through it. The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.

I was twenty-three years old and I wasn’t sure what my truest pas- sion was. Music? Filmmaking? History? Activism? I’m halfway through the book, about two stops from the end of the line and I write down:

“A concept album* called The New Jim Crow (*a la Amused to Death).”

Yes, my title—not too original. We’ll call it an homage. Amused to Death? A concept album by Roger Waters about humans amusing them- selves to death with TV. The album came out pre-internet. Worth listening to. It’s use of repeating musical themes, intense builds between tracks, and dark sociopolitical commentary appealed to me. Later on Pink Floyd’s The Wall (which Waters also wrote) would become a greater inspiration.

I’m a Jew from the Lower East Side of New York City who has not been to prison. Why did I care? To start with, the book in my hand. I was reading about this very current and domestic human rights crisis, so well researched in Alexander’s book, beautifully articulated—but I was lacking the personal stories. I wanted to hear it from the folks who were living the “New Jim Crow.”

I got off at the last stop and waited for the bus. “If I take on this project, I am going to meet people who I will know for the rest of my life. People who will change my life forever.” The bus arrives.

Growing up in L.E.S, I saw a lot—drug dealers, drug addicts, prostitutes, parolees, you name it. In my late teens I met a man who was all of the above at one point or another. He became a close friend. Alexander Pridgen. You can find a movie I made about him on the internet.

I knew others who’d done time as well. A few of them I considered friends. But I had no idea, prior to reading The New Jim Crow, of the scope of the issue: so many affected, so historically rooted, so nationwide, so many things.

I could elaborate on other reasons for becoming obsessed with this project, but I’ll keep it simple and turn these reasons into a question, one I’m still asking today. What is freedom?

Three years and hundreds of prison letters later, here I am — but much more importantly — here WE are. Die Jim Crow has gone from a notebook scribble to a realized project involving artists formerly and currently incarcerated from all over the country. Recordings have been done with formerly incarcerated artists in Wichita, KS; New Orleans, LA; Philly, PA; and Brooklyn, NY. At Warren Correctional Institution, a close-security state prison in Ohio, myself and DJC co-producer/ engineer dr. Israel have worked closely with solo artists on their music, in addition to the prison’s 22-member choir UMOJA (“unity” in Swahili).

From this body of work, we are thrilled to present to you the Die Jim Crow EP — the first sample of what the Die Jim Crow full length album will sound like.

Because digital is how most people consume music these days, we’ve decided to release an accompanying book that honors the many artists and stories on this album. Die Jim Crow is a massive project in scope, and all the energy that went into this EP simply could not be contained in a short digital booklet. And that’s just the six song sample.

The Die Jim Crow LP, a full length double album of 20+ original tracks, will also have a book accompaniment, and hopefully much more. Although the project is still in its early stages (it takes years to lay the groundwork for a project like this, so far three and counting), it feels like a natural and necessary progression for this music to be toured across America, especially in areas hit the hardest by mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow. But why stop there? In order to catapult great change, the music should also reach those of other backgrounds and political leanings—so wide promotion and international touring is also part of the plan.

The LP tells a three act story: pre-prison, prison, reentry. Similar to the LP, the Die Jim Crow EP follows this three act trajectory — albeit in a looser way. The first two songs take place outside the penitentiary walls (with “My Name Be Jim Crow” in some sort of strange farcical history land and “Tired and Weary” in a jail and a courtroom), the next two strictly in prison, and the final tracks back on the streets: wandering, exhausted, in a nightmare, broke, homeless, lost, beat — but not broken.

Also reminiscent of the soon-to-be LP, this album features artists from across the country — often within the same song — both in prison and formerly incarcerated. For example, “Headed to the Streets” was written by B.L. Shirelle during her incarceration, sent to Mark Springer and Anthony McKinney at Warren Correctional Institution for composition, discussed for months between myself, Mark, and Ant over the phone and in letters, then recorded at WCI with a full band and Ant on the first hook and verse. Once B.L. was released from Muncy State Correctional Institution in December 2015, dr. Israel and I drove down to Philly and recorded her vocal there. This unique method of song-making —— a combination of production inside and outside prison walls—is what I’ll call the “Die Jim Crow model.”

The one song on the Die Jim Crow EP that does not feature vocals and/or instrumentation from Warren Correctional Institution is “Plastic Bag,” which was written, co-performed, and lived by Carl Dukes. Dukes spent 31 years in New York State prisons only to return to the streets homeless, even though his parole officer had promised him housing. The powerful outro is the voice of Apostle Heloise, who served four years also in the NYS system.

I hope this project creates constructive dialogue and action. Confronting and dismantling the broken American incarceration machine will take a mountain of work, of which Die Jim Crow is an exciting part. I hope the music makes you feel something real, something deep, something both disempowering and empowering, and puts you in the shoes of the artists who created it.

We look forward to continuing the journey.

 

Fury Young and DJC artist Apostle Heloise
Fury Young and DJC artist Apostle Heloise
DJC poster art, collage by Fury Young
DJC poster art, collage by Fury Young
DJC artist Leon Benson at Pendleton Correctional Facility. Benson has served 17 years thus far for a murder he did not commit.
DJC artist Leon Benson at Pendleton Correctional Facility. Benson has served 17 years thus far for a murder he did not commit.

 

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