Tennyson "Teddy Kane" Jackson chants into the mic. His face is damp with sweat. He’s rapping about life — his life — spitting it out in rhyme: the missed opportunities, the closed doors, the trouble he’s seen, the knowledge found.
At a computer, monitoring the sound, is hip-hop artist Speech Thomas.
The two musicians are not in a fancy recording studio. They're in the Richmond, Virginia, jail. And the music is part of a program that gives inmates a chance to express themselves, examine their lives and prepare for release.
Thomas, a Grammy Award-winning rapper with Arrested Development, went inside the Richmond City Justice Center to record the original music of the inmates. For the men in the jail it was an opportunity to tell their stories, connect with others and develop skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives. Their effort was documented in the film "16 Bars," released by Lightyear Entertainment, produced by Resonant Pictures and premiering in Atlanta, Georgia, on Oct. 5, 2019, followed by openings in New York City on Nov. 8 and Los Angeles on Nov. 15. The album from the recording sessions will be released by Caroline International on Nov. 8, 2019.
The Redemptive Power of Music
Making music can be a rehabilitative effort for people serving time in jails and prisons in the U.S. and around the world. “The process is a vehicle to get guys into the studio to talk and reflect,” says Sam Bathrick, director of "16 Bars." Inmates are caught up in a cycle of recidivism, going in and out of prison, something that can start very young. “It’s a cycle that has a magnetism to it,” he says.
The inmates' stories of incarceration are not just about the latest charges they're hit with, says Bathrick. They're about deeper issues in their lives and the conditions that surround them, such as generational poverty and systemic injustice.
Which is why the Richmond jail's REAL program (Recovering From Everyday Addictive Lifestyles) addressed underlying trauma and used cognitive behavioral therapy in its work with inmates. Sarah Scarbrough, program director in the jail from 2013-2017, created the REAL program in the Richmond jail in 2014 under Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr. He lost his re-election bid in 2017 and she left his administration (and the REAL program) that year. She now runs a nonprofit called REAL LIFE that works with people upon their release from jail or prison.
“The unique nature of our program is really getting to the root of what they did, helping them address it” and working toward a future that looks different, says Scarbrough. Elements include group therapy, an addiction recovery program, GED preparation and a work release program.
Music and art-making are tools in the process, Scarbrough says. "That's why we provided a music studio."
As Thomas prepared to record in the jail, he listened to the men’s stories. Anthony Johnston was beaten when he tried to protect his mother from his stepfather’s violence. Johnston spent his childhood and youth in 13 foster homes and has spent a lot of time without a home at all.
"Time is just a deadly weapon / waiting for you to slip up," he sings.
Garland Carr liked the feeling of getting high so much he didn’t care who he hurt, he said, while De'vonte James was surrounded by family members selling drugs.
Tennyson “Teddy Kane” Jackson was abused as a child and was suicidal at one point. His father got him started selling crack cocaine. His song, "Inspire," will be the first single released from the album.
"They're striving to overcome demons that are simply hard to overcome," Thomas says in the documentary.
How Music Helps People Break the Incarceration Cycle
In another music program, Carnegie Hall Arts Center in New York partnered with Sing Sing Correctional Facility just north of the city. Artists came from Carnegie Hall twice a month to work with detainees.
Kenyatta, who has been in prison for more than two decades, told Voice of America that the program was "the most transformative thing I have ever experienced." He's earned a master's degree in religious studies, and has been involved in the music program at Sing Sing since its inception. "I can be a little less alone,” he says, “because I know you understand some part of me, at least, and you can be a little less alone because you know that I understand some part of you.”
The program also taught skills that people can use when they leave prison — not only music skills but the ability to work with others in creating a piece of music or a performance.
Music programs are becoming part of the rehabilitative efforts in other parts of the world as well. The British Music in Prisons organization has been successful in working with inmates both in prison and after their release.
Music-making taps into emotions and allows prisoners to explore and express their experiences, according to the organization. They feel supported and develop confidence in themselves as they gain skills. They can develop a new identity, feel encouraged to learn other new things and maybe feel embraced by a music community and seen in a new way.
A 2013 study from two British universities, Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne and Bath Spa University in Bath, showed that taking part in arts activities can help people begin to redefine themselves. Art-making involves a high level of engagement and can provide a safe space where participants make choices and have positive experiences, the report said. They can help people develop greater cooperation with others.
But music rehabilitation programs are not a magic bullet.
“Our film doesn’t wrap it up with a bow,” Bathrick says. The movie shows the difficulties that inmates face, the invisible forces at work, including trauma and addiction, generational poverty and systemic injustice. The incarceration system in the United States had its roots in slavery, was shaped by Jim Crow laws and developed into our current criminal justice system, says Bathrick.
Teddy Jackson sings:
From Charlotte to Tulsa to Cleveland / can't justify how we die for no reason. Just guilty for speeding / they pull us over / next minute you bleeding... Nah don't talk about freedom / Look how they did to King / they kill all our leaders.
Thomas says his upcoming album is capturing "this moment of time in our country" through the voices of the men in jail.
"There's something there that needs to be said to the world," he says.