There isn't anything easy about going into a jail.. even if it's just to speak and share music.
Walking into the youth prison system reminds me of walking into the Moria refugee camp. Thick concrete wrapped in razor wire. Security cameras and security guards. Slamming doors of hope and despair...
(Natural or otherwise).
We had enough time to load in and do a quick soundcheck (and jam) with Miss. Amber Hall - who has found her life work serving these young brothers inside the youth prison system through her program "opening pathways to healing through rhythm and music."
About 50 young men walked into the room. They were between the ages of 13-17 doing anywhere from 1 to 2 years. A few of the guys were loud and excited, a few were disengaged but every one was respectful. They have had a few other musicians and bands (including members from Medicine for the People and Rising Appalachia) come in and perform/speak to these guys - to which I give thanks to all the artists, activists and musicians who came before us because I can see (and feel) the work being done in these young men.
I try not to say too much in the beginning. I just start by playing a song. One instrument and loop at a time. From the guitar to the beatbox, to the chain and didgeridoo - the energy shifts and I feel these guys getting into it. As I'm building up my song one of the brothers starts rapping from the corner of the room. I couldn't hear exactly what he was saying (but the authorities in the room were trying to encourage him to keep his lyrics clean).
The moment I began my lyrics, I look up and see that almost all of the guys had their heads up, respectfully listening and receiving what was being delivered.
Be Set Free
In between songs I spoke about some of our experiences in Africa, and working with refugees in Turkey and Greece. I told them that I've seen enough to gauge where my life sits on the social equality scale. And, because I believe my life (the good and bad) is Mickey Mouse compared to a lot of people I have met - including most of these guys - I had respect for them.
I asked them if they're given much respect? The answer I was given was a collective grunt, moans and cynical laughter...
I told them I respected them for a few reasons.
1. For giving me a space where I can vulnerably speak and sing from my heArt. (how often do men do that)?
2. I respect the difficulty and challenges that they have gone through and I respect that their life (path) is a lot tougher than mine and had I been born into their situation, I could just as easily be sitting among them.
It's crazy to see how far a little respect can go.
I tried to encourage these guys to use this time to learn as much as possible, and that figuring out what you don't want to "do" is just as important as what you want do (with your life). I told them to look/read up on Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. (two of my personal hero's who spent significant time incarcerated) because this world desperately needs radical people who are for peace and for social and spiritual good.
I felt a lot of things yesterday but the one thing I felt more than anything is Hope.
I have Hope in the good that is in each and every single one of us - whether we're incarcerated in the youth prison system or incarcerated in our own paralysis of analysis. We all have a tremendous ability to persevere. That's one of the things that make us human. When we start seeing ourselves in others (and others in ourselves) all of a sudden, names, labels, social class/caste becomes irrelevant. People are not longer prisoners, or refugees, or homeless, or gay or Christian or Muslim or any of that. They are because we are. Human.
During the last song I offered the mic up to anyone who wanted to rap over my beat. The only requirement was they couldn't use any inappropriate language that was derogatory or violent towards anyone. We (as in the whole room) insisted that the one brother who was rapping earlier to come up. He had this big white smile and although he wanted to rap into the mic, he said that he couldn't keep it clean.
We were all really trying to get him to come up. And he finally did... He grabbed the mic and spit one line. Just one rhyme. One time. And because I respect him (and his privacy), I cannot use his name - or his rap, because they are his.
I will say though...
His rhyme was simple and profound.
After he said his one line he looked back at me, flashed that smile and said he couldn't keep it clean so he gave the mic back. I think we were all a little disappointed (I know I was) because I wanted to hear him rap. This young man has skill and he has something to say. But, I respected him because he chose to respect the rules.
As the song/beat continued on, we asked if anyone else wanted to come up on the mic. We could tell a few of the other guys were thinking about it, but didn't. So Miss Amber comes up, grabs the mic and passionately pours out "I will make a change" lyrics to a song that embodies what we (and so many others) believe in: being the change we want to see in the world.
The show ended quickly and the guys had to go back to their regularly scheduled program. A few of the guys came up to me as they were enthralled with the looping pedal. I gave them a quick demo as to what it does and how it works and let them do a quick voice loop to get the feel for it. Building live musical beats. I could see their light bulb go off.
That's the power of art, music and storytelling.
As we started driving to our next show, I looked in the rear view mirror to see the razor wire fences disappear as I turned down the street. I had to stop and acknowledge the feeling that has become very consistent throughout our travels. That is the overwhelming amount of privilege and favor I have been born into (because of my race, "religion," nationality, sexuality and even my career).
I felt it in the refugee camps, at Standing Rock, all throughout Africa and even back at home in the friendly confines of suburban America. Yes, I have been given a ridiculous amount of privilege but what I am I going to do with it? And more importantly -> Why?
Privilege isn't something to be ashamed of.
It's something to be aware of.
This visit is part of nonprofit Compassionate Saint Augustine's ongoing work at the St. Johns Youth Academy and Amber Hall's music program,"opening pathways to healing through rhythm and music."
Thank you Amber, Sister Rachel and everyone who made this happen. I believe in the good things coming.