Locked Up? Get Down!

Vee Bravo
of Hip Hop Cell Block

18 November 02

In 1996, I was the editor of a hip hop magazine called "Stress," which was really a progressive magazine that, in addition to covering the political dimensions of the graffiti and the break dancing world, also ran stories on prisons. We began encouraging inmates to send us letters and art, and we would publish them. A former graffiti writer, who happened to be a corrections officers on Riker's Island, approached us and asked us to do some hip hop shows on the island. So through our contacts in the hip hop industry we began arranging performances. We were all committed to building a bridge with the inmates, and we were able to get a lot of big-time acts. We were able to get the Wu Tang Clan, who are really famous, Fat Joe, Big Pun. Oddly enough, the leadership at Riker's asked us to keep doing it. They were really encouraging.

Their off-the-record, reason was that, in the days following the performances, they noticed that the level of inmate-on-inmate violence decreased substantially.

"Stress" ceased to exist in 2000. So I was out of a job and still committed to this project. What I began to do was not only do a performance for the inmates, but really develop a whole theme around the show. I MC the show, I do hip hop trivia, and through that I engage the inmates in a discussion of hip hop history, subtly tying in how hip hop has really been anti the system. I can't really get too political on the island. Although I have an agenda as far as building community, it's the inmates and the artists who frame the is sues.

I began to open up the shows to more then just hip hop bands. I started bringing in Afro-Dominican indigenous bands. I've brought in funk groups, b-boy crews, b-girl crews, comedians. At Riker's, they have access to some of the most dopest, most illest, most diverse programming.

The kind of artist I look for is somebody who is engaging, somebody who has onstage charisma, someone who is going to be entertaining, but who is conscious of what's going one. And when I say "what's going on," I mean that a disproportionate number of young people of color are being incarcerated for systemic reasons.

I want to do hip hop shows in upstate facilities. I definitely want to go into prisons where people are doing life, because the mentality is very different than at Riker's where people are just going in and out. It was really interesting going to Arthur Kills where most people are doing 15 to life. There were people who hadn't seen daylight since 1982.

Through this, I hope to build community. I don't have a grandiose plan to dethrone the system, but I come from the reference point of hip hop as a community. And the people who are locked up are part of this community. If anything, the people who are locked up legitimate and sustain the hip hop lyrics that are then sold to kids on the street. So let's build with that community, let's make it sustainable.

I have classroom space, so we're doing a whole media literacy thing starting in December, where I will be teaching a course on print, the internet, video production and other facets of the media and bring speakers. We also got permission to start screening films.

There are a handful of inmates that I've met that are really skilled in writing poetry, so the last two weeks we actually opened up and did an open mike with them. The artists perform. We're going to keep doing it every week. The thing that I'd like to start doing is to make a compilation album of all the artists that are locked up, and do a "Cell Block CD, volume 1."

For the inmates, the programs are something that's relevant, something that's enjoyable, something fun. And a chance to get with free people. The hip hop shows and the workshops that we're going to do on media literacy are going to offer them a connection to people that are relevant to them, that look like them, that come from the same community, who speak the same language. People who have gone through the prison system themselves. And I think that's a major step to begin to take in terms of building community.

Dealing with inmates and people's lives, you can't do it through an excel spreadsheet. These are real human beings with real souls, people that are passionate, people that are intimate, people that have emotion. If you go into a prison, everything is gray. The language that's used in prison is different. Everybody shares the impact of prison, even the people who work there. But within that there's love.

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