The People vs. Prison
The Prosecution’s Case
“The execution of the laws is more important than the making [of] them.”
—Thomas Jefferson, letter to the Abbé Arnond, 1789
Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury—members of the buying public—the case against In Prison: Afro-American Prison Music from Blues to Hip Hop represents a unique legal proceeding because, for the first time, a music album has been arrested and indicted, and is being tried for multiple felonies. It’s long overdue, if you ask me, as this piece of work was clearly designed to aid, abet, and provide safe harbor to lawlessness.
In Prison is a collection of 19 songs culled from the genres of blues, soul, and gangsta rap. This mix includes work by Curtis Mayfield (“Short Eyes”), the Temptations (“Run Charlie Run”), Billy Boy Arnold (“Prisoner’s Plea”), Nina Simone (“Work Song”), 2Pac (“16 on Death Row”), and the Last Poets (“The Court Room”), to name a few. This is an All-Star cast with an All-Star agenda: the criminal justice system. These selections embody the spirit of a particular type of song—the prison song—and represent a time span from Big Louisiana, Reverend Rogers, and Roosevelt Charles’ opening track “Berta” (recorded in 1959) to Bobby Womack’s “Arkansas State Prison” (1969) to more recent releases such as Dead Prez’s “Behind Enemy Lines” (from the 2000 release Let’s Get Free) and Akon’s “Locked Up” (from his debut album Trouble).
Don’t be swayed by this album’s celebrity contributors. In this case, you heard from the album itself, you heard the words of these contributors, criticizing—actually, vilifying—the key components of our legal system, from the judges to the prosecutors, from the law enforcement officials to the parole boards. The majority of this criticism was leveled at the justice system of the United States, with perhaps “Russia” thrown in for good measure, as you heard on Kay Kay and the Rays’ “Lone Star Justice”:
Texas has more people in prison than anywhere in the world.
Russia is second.
Texas executed over 200 people in the last past six years.
Certainly, it’s no coincidence that the song slams Texas, the home state of U.S. President George W. Bush. In this way, the album has attempted to inject politics into the mainstream.
You heard from In Prison, of its own accord, and you heard this album’s condemnation of, and contempt for, the players in our system. For instance, Brand Nubian’s “Claimin’ I’m a Criminal”, from the group’s 1994 album Everything is Everything, refers to a law enforcement official as a “bitch ass cop”. Consider the lyrics of the Last Poets’ “The Court Room”, such as “Here comes the judge, let everybody rise / In walks the beast, dressed up in disguise” and the following bit of colorful commentary:
Fifty are here, but just one face is pale
Crazy mixed-up kid, what are you doing in jail?
You robbed a bank? Why, that’s no serious crime!
My uncle Jesse James did that all the time
Now what did these Blacks and Puerto Ricans do?
He stole some bread and he a pair of shoes
He would not budge when the policemen said to move
They all must get time, there’s nothing else to do
Ladies and Gentlemen, these songs show a pattern—a pattern of pointing the finger at the perceived inadequacies of the justice system while refusing to point the finger at the criminal acts committed. As you’ve heard, many of the situations depicted in this music involve people who are guilty. That’s right, guilty. In 2Pac’s “16 on Death Row”, the lead voice raps, “I turned to a life of crime, ‘cause I came from a broken family” and “My uncle used to touch me, I never told you that”. As compelling as it sounds, it doesn’t erase the speaker’s admission that he “turned to a life of crime”. As for the Last Poets, their lyrics admitted that the prisoners stole the bread, stole the pair of shoes, and resisted arrest. Now they’re looking for an acquittal for what they imagine the judge is thinking!
When the speakers of these prison hymns are not seeking jury nullification, asking you to ignore the law, they divert your attention from the real issue. In that Brand Nubian tune I mentioned earlier, Lord Jamar, rapping in first person, admits a crime was committed, but distorts the nature of that crime, saying, “Come to find my crime was lettin’ brothas know the time on the devil / and stoppin’ ‘em from eatin’ swine”. Before that, he alleges the police, and by implication “The System”, is out to destroy the entire black race. Dead Prez’s “Behind Enemy Lines” would have you believe the government intends to exhaust community activists and silence political prisoners. No doubt, the defense would like you to focus on news stories about corrupt law enforcement officials until you forget what this album is about. It’s a one-sided view of our system of incarceration, bent on finger pointing and name-calling, exalting politics above aesthetics.
Don’t let this album put the system on trial, Ladies and Gentlemen. Send them a message that in today’s global community, we don’t stand for wanton violence and lawlessness. If you do the crime, you damn well better do the time.
Right now, there are over 100 people sitting on death row for crimes they didn’t commit…And how many times have we seen, after the man sitting on death row is cleared on newly discovered DNA evidence, or after the wrong man is executed, how many times have we seen the [district attorney] say, “I’m ashamed to be a part of the process”? They just say, “Mistakes happen.”
—Dylan McDermott as “Bobby Donell”, TV Show The Practice, “Day In Court” Episode
It’s smoke and mirrors, Ladies and Gentlemen. Or should I say smoke and turntables? Because that’s all the Prosecution can offer—censorship and hyperbole. Putting In Prison on trial drives a tank over the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment—and any other country’s laws that permit freedom of speech—but, hey, it “promotes” lawlessness, right? So what’s the harm? You don’t think that’s motivated by politics? Who are we kidding?
This album isn’t about whether a judge had Jesse James for an uncle, or whether Texas is Bush’s home state, or whether somebody actual stole bread or a pair of shoes. It is, first and foremost, about music. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. Music. Good music, too, as this collection juxtaposes the likes of Bobby Womack and 2Pac, puts Akon next to the Escorts, compares Nina Simone and Dead Prez. This fusion of blues and hip-hop is profoundly fascinating, as it bridges a perceived musical gap. Ever hear someone say today’s songs don’t have the qualities that songs had a long time ago? Right, the “back in the day” argument. Well, this album shows us the parallels between then and now, shows us that when Brand Nubian and Dead Prez detail the horrors of being silenced for political expression, it’s no different than the Last Poets’ critique of court room dynamics. The tremble and despair you hear in Nina Simone’s “Work Song” is present in Akon’s “Locked Up”—same feeling, different era.
What’s this charge of aiding and abetting lawlessness? What’s this contention that In Prison merely bashes judges and law enforcement officials? Given the fact that these “players” in the system stand to put individuals behind bars or, in some instances, put them to death, it’s hard to imagine they would fall apart over a verse in a song. What it comes down to, then, is the integrity of the system. In Prison offers a variety of viewpoints on this, in a richly organic and compelling manner, using musical compositions and skilled lyricism to get you, the listener, to ask questions. Namely, what’s going on in our prisons? Although Ice Cube’s “What Can I Do” wasn’t included on this compilation, its introduction is appropriate here, “In any country, prison is where society sends its failures / But in this country, society itself is failing”. Is pointing out society’s shortcomings a recipe for lawlessness? Does the Prosecution pretend there’s not a racial and economic disparity when it comes to conviction rates and prison sentences? Or does it only become a “political agenda” when you put a fat beat behind it?
The 30-page booklet that accompanies the CD describes the climate of prison culture. It highlights the unusual strategies that have been devised to humiliate inmates, from chain gangs wearing electroshock devices to dressing inmates up in pink. A recent article picked up on the use of color in the pursuit of justice. As another example, In Prison‘s booklet mentions a sheriff in Lexington, North Carolina—choosing to leave the sheriff’s actual name unmentioned—who became a local legend for his tough stance against crime, having the interior of his prison painted pink and decorated with pictures of crying teddy-bears.
I live 20 minutes from Lexington, North Carolina. What the CD booklet didn’t mention was that, in 2001, three members of the Lexington vice-narcotics unit were arrested for their involvement with a cocaine and steroid distribution ring. In 2004, the sheriff, who called himself the “toughest sheriff in America”, agreed to resign and plead guilty to two felony counts of obstruction of justice. That’s two out of the original 15 counts that included embezzlement and obtaining property by false pretenses. Our local paper covered the story here. Yet, the Prosecution wants you to think In Prison is full of exaggerations calculated to breed contempt for the legal system. I take offense to that. Brand Nubian and Dead Prez didn’t make that scumbag plead guilty. In Prison is a classic case of art imitating life.
If police are using excessive force (Brand Nubian’s “Claimin’ I’m a Criminal”), if bias is affecting judicial outcomes (the Last Poets’ “The Court Room”), and if abuse is taking place inside prison walls (Curtis Mayfield’s “Short Eyes”), then we need to know about it, if not for the alleged victims of these practices, then at least for those of us on the outside. If, as we like to think, rehabilitation is meant to be part of the process, we need to understand the mechanics. Are there guilty people who’ve been rightfully incarcerated? Without question. In Prison included “Living Proof” by Lifers Group to examine this, as the song tackles the lead voice’s own culpability and blameworthiness. In Prison doesn’t misdirect; it gives you windows into the prison system from several vantage points. But since there aren’t any songs from the perspective of a warden or a judge, you’re supposed to chalk it up to politics.
Worse, the Prosecution wants you to believe there are no innocent people who’ve been wrongly convicted. Listen to K-Solo’s Premonition of a Black Prisoner, which reminds us of the bedrock principle that it’s better for ten guilty defendants to go free than for an innocent person to go down for a crime he or she didn’t commit. In Prison allows us to raise questions about the type of society we want for ourselves and for our children.
With that said, this album is in your hands now. It’s up to you to assess the value of it.
- multiple songs official site
// Notes from the Road
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