Riffs, Rhymes, Rehabilitation

Compassionate, innovative projects helmed by Ani DiFranco, Wayne Kramer, David Jassy and others use music to help prisoners restore the humanity that incarceration strips away.

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Image: The MC5’s Wayne Kramer, cofounder of the nonprofit Jail Guitar Doors, jams with a prisoner named Arthur in California. Credit: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

In the late 1990s and aughts, David Jassy was an up-and-coming player in hip-hop, R&B and pop who’d had charting hits in his native Sweden and worked successfully as a writer and producer for big-name outside artists. But by the spring of 2010, when Jassy was in his mid-30s, he was a convicted felon, sentenced to 15 years to life for second-degree murder.  

After doing time in two facilities, Jassy ended up at San Quentin State Prison (SQ) due to its close proximity to San Francisco’s Swedish consulate. SQ has a reputation as a progressive prison because of its diversity of volunteer-run programs, and by the skin of his teeth, Jassy was allowed to have a simple keyboard mailed to his cell. As he tapped away at the buttons, inmates walked by his cell and rapped to the music. This, he says, led to an epiphany — and a project that reversed his negative course.

“The raps I heard in the tier were mostly glorifying a violent lifestyle,” he tells TIDAL from Sweden, where he returned after California Governor Gavin Newsom commuted his sentence to time served in 2020. “I said, ‘You know what? I’ll produce [my own] mixtape, but instead of using curse words, we’ll just skip that totally and talk about the dangers of the criminal lifestyle and warn young kids about prison. You can even talk about the crime that you did, but don’t do it in a way that you glorify it.”

With support from the criminal-justice-reform effort #cut50 and from SQ’s public information officer Sam Robinson and chief music sponsor Raphaele Casale, among others, Jassy was able to assemble a studio and guide aspiring artists in a music initiative in SQ’s Youthful Offenders Program. In four years he curated and produced San Quentin Mixtapes, Vol. 1, a 17-track project featuring incarcerated MCs like Le Joe, Scoob Stacks and THANH, and benefiting organizations including the National Center for Victims of Crime and the Boys & Girls Club of Oakland. The project, distributed in the spring via the Roc Nation-associated company Equity, has garnered praise (and participation) from A-listers like J. Cole, DJ Khaled, Fat Joe, Meek Mill and T.I.

David Jassy with San Quentin Mixtapes supporters J. Cole (left image) and Common. Credit: Courtesy of David Jassy.

But San Quentin Mixtapes is not alone. Organizations and initiatives like Jail Guitar Doors, cofounded by MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer and singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, and the Prison Music Project, whose collection Long Time Gone was produced by singer-songwriters Zoe Boekbinder and Ani DiFranco, echo Jassy’s mission to let people who have become property of the state “tell a human story.”

Jassy’s story includes a tragic, deadly confrontation in 2008 with 55-year-old John Osnes, a jazz pianist, in a Hollywood street. Today Jassy is a free man on parole, and whether he knows it or not, he is part of a long line of prison-music documentarians.

Nearly 100 years ago, music collector Lawrence Gellert chronicled chain-gang hollers and recorded musical performances in the South, although not without controversy. Years later, writer David L. Cohn gathered the lyrics and songs of women prisoners at Mississippi’s Parchman Farm. Perhaps most famously, John Lomax and his son Alan made groundbreaking recordings at Parchman and other penitentiaries in the first half of the 20th century. “What they heard in [prisons] were songs about trains, dogs, foxes, and horses,” John Szwed wrote in his 2010 book Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World. “Songs of cotton, boll weevils, and the miseries of work — heat, hammers, guards, endless days, iron bars and the sun.” 

In this image by the renowned ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, country-blues hero Lead Belly stands in the foreground at Louisiana State Penitentiary. Credit: Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images.

But singing and playing instruments can be much more than a hobby for inmates; it can soothe boredom and psychological pain. What’s more, it can result in a dramatic decrease in violence and recidivism. One 2013 study in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology asserted that having access to relaxing music directly correlated with decreased aggression in inmates.

This extends to handing prisoners pens, paintbrushes or guitars as an avenue to express themselves, and to showcasing prisoners’ work at local functions. “[P]rison arts programs have been found to positively impact inmate behavior,” Larry Brewster, professor emeritus at the University of San Francisco, wrote in a 2014 article titled The Impact of Prison Arts Programs on Inmate Attitudes and Behavior. “These community-based activities serve to help incarcerated men and women demonstrate to themselves and to the public that they are more than a number, or should not be defined solely by the act that brought them to prison.”

Just ask Kramer, who entered the prison system after the MC5 first disintegrated. Back in the 1970s, he dealt cocaine and burglarized before being charged on a scad of drug-related counts. “At 25, I had flushed my fine young life right down the toilet,” he wrote in his 2018 memoir The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5 & My Life of Impossibilities. “I was a user and a taker, and now I was going to have to pay the bill.”

Wayne Kramer in the MC5 c. 1970, just five years before he was busted for selling cocaine to undercover law enforcement and sent to Kentucky’s Narcotic Farm. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

While doing time at the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky — best known as the Narcotic Farm, and for its rehabilitative programs and population of famous addicts — he jammed with trumpeter Red Rodney, who had replaced Miles Davis in Charlie Parker’s quintet. Trapped in a system designed to strip him of his humanity, Kramer felt transported while holding a guitar. “It’s hugely important for human beings to be able to say, ‘This is me. I’m a man. This is my story. This is where I come from,’” he tells TIDAL. “It’s huge in our sense of self.” 

DiFranco, a deeply influential alt-folk artist recognized for her social activism, says the Prison Music Project aims to “facilitate creative connection with people, both incarcerated and not.” “Everybody needs an outlet, especially those who suffer and struggle under the greatest weights,” she tells TIDAL. “People in prison suffer very much and need a way to open up and reconnect. Arts, education and therapeutic programs can provide that point of connection. Reconnection is the way that cycles of violence are brought to an end.”

“The very architecture of prisons is designed to strip you of your humanity and your individuality and your story. … You’re a number and a bedspace and a crime,” Kramer says. “And what we’ve discovered is that the creative arts are a great argument against that meaninglessness.” When Jail Guitar Doors puts six-strings and percussion in the hands of inmates who are taught to collaborate on original music, he says, assaults against prison staff and each other plummet. Giving inmates access to music also results in a decrease in recidivism (the chance that a convicted offender will reoffend and return to prison). 

This summer, the Prison Music Project released Long Time Gone, an album featuring songwriting and some performances from imprisoned men like the poet Stanley “Spoon” Jackson, who was convicted of murder in the late 1970s and remains in custody at Solano state prison. “Coming from a background of severe childhood abuse and trauma, I was lost with no sense of direction, no sense of responsibility, and no purpose,” Jackson wrote in a 2018 petition to Gov. Newsom. “I wish with all my heart I could have traveled another road instead of the one I did which resulted in such devastation.” 

Thanks to the programming at Solano, Jackson also plays flute in a jazz-fusion band, reports for an inmate-run newspaper, contributes to a podcast and takes part in a Shakespearean acting class, among other activities. At press time, Jackson’s designation is Level II, the lowest security level possible for an inmate serving life without parole.

The Prison Music Project’s Zoe Boekbinder (left) and Ani DiFranco; poet Stanley “Spoon” Jackson, who contributed writing to Long Time Gone. Credit: Courtesy of the Prison Music Project.

“To address all those get-tough-on-crime people,” Kramer says sharply, “you end up plopping people back out on the street after 10 or 20 years of bitterness and resentment and violence and racism, and return them to the streets and say, [affects naïve tone] ‘OK, we’re going to let you go now. Please rejoin civic life!’ It doesn’t work that way. You have to go to people where they are and reach them where they are.”

Where they are, he asserts, is located in the heart, not solely the brain. “If you educate a criminal, you end up with an educated criminal,” Kramer says. “You have to get onto a deeper level than that. And the only thing that reaches people that deeply is art in all its forms.”

“Music and self-expression can make you feel better and more connected, even set your soul free,” DiFranco says, and along with Jassy’s mixtape, Long Time Gone plumbs the humanity of those we collectively prefer to lock away and forget about. “I’m searching for a new birth/To put to death the part of me that caused me to do dirt,” Abraham Banks raps on “Breakthrough,” from Long Time Gone. “I guess it’s just the heart of me that wants to see a new earth/To be the man I oughta be, I gotta come anew first.”

For San Quentin Mixtapes, Vol. 1, Eric “Maserati-E” Abercrombie wrote “Break the Mold” about a minor incident that nearly provoked a full-scale race riot. “It was a white man who had the politics of a Black gang. He ran as a Crip. Due to the whites’ politics, they had to do something about that,” Maserati-E, who was first incarcerated in 2010 and released from SQ in 2019, tells TIDAL. “It was going to be this big, big deal. There were a bunch of people I hadn’t seen ever in that yard come out that were willing to participate in a riot. Looking at that really showed me the power of unity, if you will. It was very unfortunate that we were all willing to come together and unite for something so destructive.”

Maserati-E realized the conflict could have been avoided altogether if its participants had been treated more humanely — in this case, if they had been given a creative outlet. “Spiritually, [making music] was food. It was definitely feeding my spirit,” he says. “Being blessed with the opportunity to do that in prison — in an actual studio — was beyond motivating and gave me a sense of peace that I never, during my incarceration, was able to feel.” 

Eric “Maserati-E” Abercrombie. Credit: San Quentin Mixtapes.

“We don’t recognize any gang affiliations, neighborhood, class [nor] sexuality,” Kramer says. “We’re not Bloods. We’re not Crips. We’re not homies. We’re not peckerwoods. We’re artists. And we can talk about anyone and anything, but we always have to do it with dignity and respect for each other.”

For prisoners with little-to-no personal autonomy, the feeling of creating something that didn’t exist before is priceless. “I have witnessed joy and the glow of accomplishment touch people in the deepest, darkest places,” DiFranco explains. “I have seen formerly violent, disconnected people become the most wise, gentle and loving amongst us.”

“Psychologically, it definitely challenged me. It made me evolve,” Maserati-E says. “This was a way we could reach the youth — the future, if we will — and allow them to learn from our mistakes. It motivated me to stay on a very progressive path.

“I’ve literally been told by a correctional officer, no exaggeration, that I’m not a human being,” he continues. “I’m an inmate. [But] every time I was in the studio with David Jassy, it was like I was no longer in prison for those 15, 20 minutes to an hour.”

Jassy recalls a moment in which the San Quentin Mixtapes helped forge musical connections between inmates despite fierce differences. “First of all, these are young men, and [secondly] they belong to certain gangs. When they were all gathered in the same room and we were all talking, I could feel that it was tense,” he remembers. 

“But as soon as we started playing a different beat, I noticed that some guys wanted to get on the same beat,” he continues. “They were from rival gangs, but the music itself enabled them to do it. They were like, ‘All right, well, I’m in this program now, so we’re just doing it, and it’s kind of like an experiment.’”

When they let their guard down and let the beat take over, the opposing gang members felt rapport. “Everybody was nodding their heads like, ‘Ah, man, this is so hard! I feel this!’” Jassy remembers. “The tone, when everyone was done in there, was pretty light.” 

That lightness is hard to come by behind steel gates and barb wire, and politicians hell-bent on being “tough on crime” may be reluctant to accept music-therapy solutions. But by letting dismal concrete corridors flow forth with music, perhaps correctional institutions can finally do what their name promises to: correct.

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