Music Has Great Healing Power

On the back stoop

Music has great healing power. It makes grown people cry. It brings laughter to the faces of those in pain. It unites thousands of people to withstand the force of Bull Connor’s fire hoses in those times of Civil Rights in Alabama. It soothes a teething baby to sleep. It opens up the heart of a 10 year old boy, incarcerated in a 12×12 foot cell in a Gulf Coast county still recovering from the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina.

The boy’s name is Michael. He’s one of the children whose rights are being championed by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi and New Orleans’ offices.

One year ago the detention center he’s being held in housed over 60 juveniles. Some four to a cell. Two in a bunk, two the floor, wrapped in a World War II woolen gray Salvation Army blanket beside an open toilet. The metal cells resemble the inside of a boxcar decorated with toothpaste-smudged grafitti. The youth were denied educational, medical and mental health services. They were in lockdown 23 hours a day.

Through their successful advocacy the Southern Poverty Law Center uncovered these unspeakable abuses, which included the sexual exploitation and assault of teenage girls by male staff. The SPLC secured reforms inside the detention center. The most important reform is a hard population cap that reduces by more than half the number of youths exposed to the horrors of imprisonment. In order to achieve these reforms and to ensure their sustainability, SPLC works hand in hand with the youth detained in the facility, and impresses upon the staff the kids’ incredible strength and potential.

SPLC contacted me to work with Shakti Belway, Director of Community Engagement and staff attorney, to begin giving a voice to these children through narrative, photography and song.

Shakti also brought in hip-hop artists from the Gulf Coast to collaborate: Skipp Coon, Truth Universal and Chuck “Lyrikill” Jones. Not only at the Detention Center, but with youth and elders in the New Orleans community.

Over four days we created ten hours of digitally recorded interviews, several hundred photographs, and five collectively written songs recorded live on my digital recorder! All bearing witness to the failing education system and endless cycle of incarcerated youth, often for minor offenses such as truancy or running away from home.

Ten year old Michael* wrote about being suddenly woken by prison guards from his dream where he was the superhero, Wolverine, with metal claws that could rip its way “out of here to go home.” Michael, in his own words, sang, “I want to go home!”, a call and response version of Chicky-Chicky Boom.

Three young incarcerated women each created interview questions and then took turns interviewing each other, playing the role of Oprah Winfrey. These questions became the first verse of their song “Freedom:”

Why do we make
the choices that we make
why do we do
the things we do
Why is it so hard
To get a second chance
In this life one should live
To sing and dance
In this world of freedom, freedom, freedom!

They also addressed their biggest fears—being incarcerated in a predominantly male facility with male guards:

My greatest fear
To not go home
To be stuck here
To be left alone
To be raped
By prison guards
When looking back
On the past
Life’s been hard
In this world of freedom, freedom, freedom!

Lastly, they addressed the injustices of the system, including the court process which seems to ignore the perspectives of youth:

Because I’m a kid
They feel I don’t know
Right from wrong
But I know so
It takes more than one
To prove someone wrong
At least two sides
And this is mine
In this song
In this world of freedom, freedom, freedom!

While I was working with the young women, Skipp Coon worked with three young incarcerated men. One of them created a polyrythmnic beat track using two toothbrushes against the jailhouse wall that we recorded in GarageBand. We then tracked all of their layered choruses and verses to their rap “Diz Here”. Here’s a few of their words:

[Diz here] Ya worst nightmare. 
Don’t stay here
Stay outside wit ya family
And ain’t no girls here

HCJDC fear don’t stay here
[Diz here] JDC fear
Ain’t nice here

. . .
Darkness up in the cell
It feel like hell
Hearing voices and seeing shit
Shit I was scared

Stay in school
Go by the rules
And keep it cool
And keep it smoove
You know wat to do
Don’t play hooky dude

Cuz dis drama is really cruel
They’ll thrash you
In a minute
Or maybe two

Permissible allowed to do
what you achieve
and be the best that you can do
anything is true
since my grandma done lost her life
I wanna get right
HCJDC bruh dis shit ain’t the life

. . .
da better time
instead of being
in a cell
enclosed in mind
takin orders now

you got the officers that treat you wrong [stupid lil bustaz] the judge who won’t send you home

. . . .
Ya mama want you home bruh
Don’t push away from her

You, on the streets you doin wrong
Some popel spare ya life
Some people lenienit but some
Other folks they take ya life [lord]

The following Monday two community elders from New Orleans, DJ Markey and Yvette Thierry, spoke to and were interviewed by over twenty youth between the 7th and 12th grade.

DJ spoke of his and their shared fight to further integrate our public schools for all children of disability, including autistic children like their son. He also spoke about his love of New Orleans with these amazing words:

New Orleans. Jazz was born here and the heart of life is improvisation. You have to make it happen when it’s happening. You can’t run to the closet and try to hide. Always thought jazz was a grand lesson for everyone. All have to learn to improvise. Like I said I have no regrets in that regard. We were doing the work as we were supposed to be doing it. It’s what chooses you, not what you always choose.

Yvette talked about getting their voices heard. As she said, “I’m not asking for a hand out but a hand up!”

They both addressed the disastrous affects of Katrina, not only on the physical and emotion level, and how when they came back to rebuild their community the powers that be began to destroy everything that they had worked for, including shutting down existing schools and replacing them with charter schools that fail far too many students and don’t provide full inclusion.

DJ shared these thoughts about his first return to the city:

I drove back where my mother and father were and back there on Desire and Florida Streets; and there wasn’t a car there. Everything was deserted. There in the middle of the street was a buzzard. It was only me and that buzzard in the intersection. I never seen a bird like this in the city before. They show up when there’s something dead. It was a transcending experience. The buzzard was just looking at me and saying , “Why are you here? Everything is dead!” For which I said, “If you’re not into rebuilding here this is not a place to be.”

The participating youth were asked to go home and write down their thoughts for lyrics the next day. They not only came back with their written thoughts, but some had written complete songs. Here’s an incredible set of lyrics by a 15 year old boy. The name of his song is Dreams:

Wake up every morning, seeing other people dead,
We don’t try to help them out we just laugh at them instead
We try to fight the law, but we end up in jail
There is only two ways to make it, that’s either heaven or hell

So reach for the stars and don’t you ever look back
Haters are there to try and knock you off track
Just keep dreaming, and don’t let it go to waste
Be ready for the challenges that you may face

Dreaming is our life, we are living in this white world
Kids are going to jail, and men are raping little girls
How can you complain when you haven’t tried to change
Times are very different and it’s feeling kind of strange.

So believe in yourself, take care of your own
Don’t let no one tell you, you are not strong
Perform for yourself and don’t stand in the crowed
Cause the more you stand out, you’ll make New Orleans proud

I sit here

We broke into two groups again; one group joining me to write melody and song,  the other working with Truth Universal and Chuck “Lyrikill” Jones to write spoken word.

In my group Cassandra Tran, a young biracial Vietnamese and Northern European girl, came with a spoken word poem. She asked me to play a blues pattern which concluded with a line “change these ways”, which immediately turned into the chorus and name for our song. The song concludes with Cassandra reciting her poem:

No more prisons
No more drugs
No more pain
I’m in need of love
From somebody
Who really cares
Someone who understands
Who’s always there
Justice, freedom, equality
Time to rebuild
Our Community

Change these ways

No more corruption
No more fear
No more situations
Where good folks disappear
Into their bedrooms
Into the night
No more cover up
It just ain’t right
Time to build-up unity
Time to rebuild our community

Change these ways

Time to be heard
To create good jobs
I’m sick & tired
Of my kids being robbed
Without an education
It’s time to rebuild our community

Change these ways

We live a life for a dream,
Tryin’ to aim for our
Along the way we plant
The seeds,
Our story starts to take hold
Mama said build your ambitions
Daddy fought for a new revolution
Not gonna live in the old days,
We’re gonna change these ways.

Change these ways

After we recorded Change These Ways in the backyard of where we were gathered, we quickly broke down the recording equipment to record the beat track and then layered spoken verses and chorus to their Hip-Hop song called This Is Life.

The plan now is for all of us to get back together in the recording studio and re-record our shared works with support from New Orleans musicians, with the focus always on the youth. By June we hope that many of the incarcerated youth will be out of the detention center.

The recording will then be shared with the world!