Friday, December 29, 2017

Smoke that FIRE

December 21st was the culmination of RMV on Rikers Island. Here are three simple lessons I learned- some advise to anyone who may want to pursue work with detained or incarcerated individuals:

  • This work is extremely difficult not because of the inmates, but because of the staff who are responsible for them. 
  • You cannot do this alone
  • You need to keep your promises

I dealt with new obstacles each time I ventured over to Rikers: Sometimes there would be a completely different set of students than those who had signed up, sometimes none at all. There would always be a different programs officer who never knew what I was doing there. One time the circuit bus (that takes visitors to RMSC once inside Rikers) simply never came, and I had to turn around and go right back home. On that night it was about 26 degrees out. One day my group of students had apparently "thrown they threw feces at an officer's desk," and thus wasn't allowed to receive any programming. I was informed about that when I got there, and again had to turn around and go back home. And on this final culmination day, there were scheduling conflicts with the Stellar Adler group from NYU that was teaching acting, and I wasn't able to have the room or the students that I had hoped for. 

What I ended up with was a couple of young women whom I'd met on the very first day of introductions. I hadn't seen them in the month since then, but we remembered each other. The workshop was held in their dorm room, with the buzzing gates and droning TV's. With me were three professional musicians: two beatboxers (world champs!) and a virtuoso jazz guitarist. I was slightly embarrassed as to how little of the group actually showed up, and how long it took for any programs officer to realize what we were even doing there. Nevertheless, we proceeded with the work.

We started with an exercise called "Lily Padding," a simple and fun exercise to generate couplets, or sets of two lines that rhyme. We asked the two young women what they wanted to talk about and received the obvious answer: going home. So we riff'd on that. 

"What does home look like, sound like, smell like?"
"Who's there in your home? What are you gonna wear when you get home?"
"What is the first thing you're gonna do when you get home?

"...Take the most peaceful shit"

A simple and honest answer broke the ice, and we continued to write. Here's what we came up with:

My little sister won’t get off me
I need a little peace, I need my coffee
I can’t go out, I can’t get lit
till i do my business and take a peaceful shit
i’m bout to go outside, i’m bout to get stoned
bout to call my home girl on my cell phone
she got what i want, she got what i need
she got..hey! bag of weed
Smoke that fire

After that, Kaila and Mark layered in some genius beatboxing, and Yuto backed them up with a seductive guitar riff. We put it all together and sang it back. It was actually pretty hot, not gonna lie.

Our time was limited, and we had to leave shortly after. I left my email and promised the young women that I'd be available to work on the song when they got out, and that regardless I'd continue to build on it and make something out of it. 

That is the next step: keeping my promise.

I'm planning to work with other community centers (not like Rikers is a community center) and come up with songs, inviting more guest artists into the mix. At the end of everything, I plan to have a concert of all the music that was created, record it, and give it all back to the individuals that helped create it, crediting them as songwriters. 

Friday, December 8, 2017

They ask me how you doin I say betta than you

“They ask me how you doin I say betta than you”

A powerful mantra and another unexpected utterance from one the young women on Rikers Island. Last week I left almost convinced that life on the outside was worse off than here, where “we got meals 3 times a day, we got beds, shoes,” and most importantly an indomitable spirit that none other can match. The people in here don’t give up, in fact they continue to fight.

And the soundtrack that tends to accompany these battles is typically drowned in heavy bass, explosive percussion, marches, sirens and screams. I realized that my lesson plans, which included the soothing vocals of Jill Scott, would not go over well here. Even Erykah Badu was too “soft” for these folks. “I need more shoot em up bang bang,” said one of the young women as the security guard standing by shot us a look as if to say “Oh, you crazy kids.”

I asked what people wanted to listen to and was met with generic responses of rappers that I have never heard of like Young Nudy, obviously because I was out of touch. I wanted to give them a chance to hear the music they love, but at the same time challenge them to be open to music that contained more socially conscious lyrics, as opposed to repetitive spit about hoes and drugs and guns- not that there’s anything wrong with those things, but I wanted to find music that connected to larger issues in a smart and innovative way that really pushed the boundaries of the genre. That’s when we all landed on Kendrick Lamar. Everyone was in agreeance about Kendrick, no questions asked. It’s just like, an understood thing.

I spent the next week revisiting To Pimp A Butterfly, arguably one of the most important albums to have dropped in the last decade, if not the history of music. The mantra “we gon be alright” was heard throughout the Black Lives Matter movement and according to Kendrick, on the streets in parts of the world that he visited. His words resonated clearly here, and I could not have found a more appropriate source. His rhymes are grounded in direct references to religion, literature and the words of his enemies and idols. His album is crafted meticulously to reflect his storyline in the world, parallel to the image of a caterpillar who pimps his future butterfly self- essentially an allegory of humility and resilience, owning one’s history and soaring above all adversity. I printed out the poem found at the end of his album to bring in for the next workshop:

He can no longer see past his own thoughts
He’s trapped
When trapped inside these walls certain ideas take roots, such as going home, and bringing back new concepts to this mad city

I wasn’t able to bring this in because when I arrived at Rikers, I found out that the programming for that week had been cancelled for my groups of young women. They had gotten into a fight and “threw shit.” One of them had thrown feces onto an officer’s desk. Now they weren’t able to have the privilege of arts programming for the week. I turned around and went home as the gate closed loudly behind me, shocked back into the reality of where I was.

Thursday, November 23, 2017


Reclaiming My Voice: 11/14/17


The standard announcement made as I enter a dorm of several young female inmates. There are two groups: ages 18-21, ages 15-17. I am accompanied by a security officer, and a program manager, both female. It’s Tuesday, roughly 6:30 in the evening, on Rikers Island.

In the dorm room is a single flat-screen TV perched high on the corner of a wall looking out into the rest of the seating area which is a bare room with metallic tables and chairs fixed to the ground. Fluorescent lights buzz overhead, and the ambient drone of TV chatter seems to harmonize in a static duet that echoes into emptiness. Occasionally the jarring buzz of a gate cuts in, punctuating phrases with a sudden shock reminder of where you are, and that you are alive.

The seating room opens up into the sleeping area, where about 30 sparsely made beds are arranged in a grid, each with a large trashcan next to it. Some of the beds have snacks and water near them, some books, magazines. There is a clique of young women seated towards the far east corner of the room, chattering. A lone girl comes up to me and my two female companions from behind. She is shy, but interested in what the male in the room has to offer. Her name is A. After being introduced, I utter just as shyly:

“I’m here to see if you want to learn how to write songs and sing them.”

She shuffles around, half interested.

“Do you like music?”
“Yea,” she responds.
“Well I’m thinking we can even get some musicians in here and perform the song with them.”

“And this starts today?”

We all share a laugh as she scribbles her name on the top of the sign up list.

The other young women in the clique signal that they wanna know what’s going on. We approach them and give them a more animated pitch, as it is harder to keep their attention. They coordinate a boisterous chorus of “LISTEN” by Beyonce, as a response to my asking if they enjoy singing. Clearly they are ready to go. They ask me to sing right now, and I let them know they’ll have to show up to the first class for that. They sign up, and also add the name of another girl who was listening nearby. There were a few other young women, one was reading, another on the phone, who were not interested. The visit with the 18-21 group lasts a little less than 10 minutes.

I’m led through a labyrinth of gates, hallways and elevators that I had no space in my brain to even begin to map out. I relied solely on the security officer and program manager, as was my only option. In this world I made no decisions, and everything was suspect.

Now I’m in another room with the exact same setup, only there are 3 girls, 2 of whom approach me first. We sit at the tables and talk. I avoid sitting on a chair at the table with the rest of them, because on the chair was a small opened packet of a gel-like substance that had been sitting there for what seemed like more than a few hours. I didn’t want to draw attention to it, so instead sat awkwardly distant.

“I’ve been wanting to write a song. Ok, because I’m pregnant so I’ve been wanting to write a song really bad.”
“That’s great!” I exclaim awkwardly. “You could write a song for your baby.”
She smiles, as if to say Duh.

I would go on to learn that she may not have actually been pregnant, otherwise she would be in a different room. Was she lying? Or did she really believe she was pregnant, even though in reality she wasn’t? How much of it mattered?

The other girl was an obvious candidate for the workshop. She’s well known within the other arts programs that work at the facility. “What are you talking about, remember when you freestyled like an entire act of a play?” exclaimed the security officer, who was also new and just starting to form relationships with the inmates. 2 more names on the list. Then pregnant-or-not girl walks to the sleeping area and takes down the name of another inmate who was on the phone. 3 now from the 15-17 group.

This age group is divided into two sections, for socializing reasons. “Some girls just don’t get along with each other, they’re adolescents” explains the newbie officer. We walk into the second room, same setup, to encounter a lone girl with glasses sitting closer to the TV and hard at work on a large puzzle. It must have been a thousand piece puzzle of a country home scene: white fence, red house/converted barn, autumn colored trees and hazy bluish grey skies. She was about half way through. She had Cazal frames that rested on top of a button nose with freckles, and poofed out hair- your average hipster nerd get up. A 3 liter orange Fanta bottle, half emptied, sat next to her and her puzzle.

“Hey I’m Chris. I’m here because I wanna see if you’d be down to learn how to write some songs, and maybe sing them.”

“Do you like music?”
She nods.

“What about singing?”

“Weeelll maybe we can work on that!”
She agrees.

She only makes eye contact with me about midway through our conversation, and in that instant, I realize how much work lies ahead of me. We convince her to sign up her roommate who is in the bathroom. She smirks at the small victory of having forced her roommate into a singing workshop without her knowing, and resumes her thousand piece puzzle as we leave.

While on our visit to the Serenity Room where the workshops will take place, an alarm goes off halting our tour for 15 minutes. An alarm is really just a bright flashing blue light that means no one can move, and everything freezes until whatever situation that caused the alarm is fixed. The program officer lets me know that I’ve been asking too many questions and that I’m making her head hurt. I take a back seat, and stare into the Serenity room at all the self portraits the girls have done. The program and security officer exchange stories of inmates, and their experiences with trust. They both talk about how some of the inmates grew to love them so much, that they would kill in order to protect them. And some did. From the casualness of their conversation and the order of everyone around us, I could deduce that alarms happen often here.

Another series of tight security measures, seemingly meaningless hand offs of documents, tags, and clips and I’m back out to the visitor’s center waiting for the sole bus that comes on and off the island to take me back to the outside world. I’m in the waiting room with a few others who are obvious do gooder granola artist types, Trader Joe’s reusable tote bags and all. And a few friends or family of the inmates. A droning TV again overhead, and even less flattering lighting again to match. I sit. I think about music. I think about what I’ve signed up to do, by myself. I check my calendar, add in Mondays and Thursdays for the next month, which will include Thanksgiving, Christmas and my 31st birthday. The brightness of my phone, which wasn’t allowed in, shocks me back into the reality of where I am and that I’m free to leave. On the bus ride home I feel heavy, and my mind is swirling with information overload mush. And the swirling, like thunder, conducts lightning synapses of ideas that only half form and then die too soon.