Wednesday, February 09, 2011


It's unfortunate and racist fact of American life that if you are a young black man just trying to stay alive isn't easy, and just trying to stay out of jail is even harder.  Yet, somehow, what we hear all about is the bellyaching of the white, tea party types who have, oh, such a tough life.  Give me a break.

The following posts are from the blog US Prison Culture.

Hip Hop and the Banality of Incarceration
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Look at the cover of Ja Rule’s 2003 album Blood in My Eye. See the prison in the background? He is paying homage to George Jackson's book of the same title. Yet the impactful cover art belies the crappy lyrics contained on the actual CD. Ja Rule’s words in no way measure up to the powerful ones written by Jackson.
This got me thinking about the fact that the most successful modern social movements (the black freedom movement, the anti-war movement, etc…) seem to have had an accompanying soundtrack.
What would be the soundtrack for a modern social movement to dismantle prisons? A few weeks ago, in response to a request, I offered a few songs about prisons/jails that I like. However besides Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos by Public Enemy and 16 on Death Row by Tupac from that list, I don’t know that I would include any of the other songs on my anti-PIC movement soundtrack.
This led me to think more deeply about the relationship between rap music and the prison industrial complex. A number of rappers offer prison as a setting for their lyrics, album covers and videos. Yet how often have you heard these performers actually talking about prison abolition or even reform? The answer is simple… very rarely. Why is this?
I have a theory that it is because incarceration among young black men has been and is naturalized in actuality and in representation. I think that hip hop artists don’t talk about reform or abolition because to them prison has been and is a part of the experience of being young and black in America. It is a black boy’s rite of passage so to speak. I have no empirical evidence of the truth of this claim. I am just making an assumption based on very limited knowledge. This will no doubt prove to be problematic when it is shown that I am completely wrong. Yet, how would you explain the disconnect? I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the matter…

It took me 3000 words to say what Mos Def said in 35…

Honestly it is a curse to have spent so many years in school… Academia has a way of making it impossible for a person to write succinctly and clearly. I have now spent the past few years unlearning bad habits from years of graduate school. No one cares about any of this so back to my main point…
I am writing an article about the so-called “war on drugs” and its impact on young women of color. I really hate what I have written so far. When that happens, I decide to listen to music to get my mind off the pain of writing. So I put in my Black on Both Sides CD by Mos Def. Halfway through listening to the song “Mathematics”, I decided to chuck everything that I had just written. I turned off the CD player and went to lie down.
In under 35 words, Mos Def had said what I still could not convey in 3000. Here’s the relevant passage from the song:
all research and successful drug policy show
that treatment should be increased
and law enforcement decreased
while abolishing mandatory minimum sentences
they’re trying to build a prison
(for you and me to live in)
There you have it folks. There is no way to top the eloquence and simplicity of these words. So now this is the standard. I am going to tell the editor of the journal that she should call Mos Def and ask him to write the essay about how the war on drugs impacts women of color. He’s likely to send back two sentences that say it all…

About The Author

prison culture

I have been an anti-violence activist and organizer since my teen years. I recently founded and currently direct a grassroots organization in Chicago dedicated to eradicating youth incarceration. My anti-prison activism is an extension of my work as an anti-violence organizer.

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