In Empire's second season, during the his short prison bid, Lucious Lyon smuggled recording equipment inside, and dropped the fictitious street banger, “Snitch B*tch.” Sure, there are real life rappers behind who record with contraband smart phones, but that scenario is highly unlikely. That is until now.
Local music production company Audio Pictures and Columbia University have launched a hip-hop program entitled "Beats Rhymes and Justice" at New York's Rikers Island Prison Complex, enabling the younger inmates at the nation’s second largest jail to hit the booth and the boards.
“The reason why they approach the program is because they want to be some of the rappers and moguls they see,” says Ryan Burvick, who co-owns Audio Pictures with Darnell Hannon. “What we hope to do is show them that working and honing their craft, in this apprenticeship, will divert their energy toward wanting to be the best and in wanting to the best, they will be consumed with the many facets of craftsmanship they need to be artists.”
The path to the program started when Burvick was a site director for one of NYC’s after-school programs. The gig took him through some of the toughest schools in the most rough-and-tumble parts of town. While thinking of a way that he could reach the children he was serving, Burvick and Hannon hatched the idea of an iPad-based hip-hop program for the Big Apple’s students. “We saw there was an opportunity to reach these kids through music,” says Burvick.
Along the way, Burvick was contacted by a childhood friend who asked if he would be interesting in doing an audio engineering program at Rikers through Columbia University’s Center for Justice.
“We are the most incarcerated nation in the world and something that has been both a cause and a consequence of that is that we don’t invest in our young people, particularly our young people of color and our young people living in poverty,” says Center for Justice program director Cameron Rasmussen. “So many young folks who find themselves incarcerated didn’t have access to high-quality, culturally responsive educational opportunities and instead were heavily policed and treated like they were less than, like they were criminal, long before they ended up at Rikers. So part of our work is to provide that access, to support people in their critical thinking and self awareness.”
The Center for Justice went to Rikers and asked the young men what kind of programming they wanted. One of the responses was a hip-hop beatmaking course. Burvick and Hannon–who have worked musically with the likes of DJ Marley Marl, Nas’ Braveheats, Infamous Mobb and Lyricist’s Lounge–were interested, but saw that there was no concrete program in place. Seeing the opportunity, they pitched their unpolished idea for the iPad-based hip-hop program. After a little tweaking, the program was launched at Rikers.
Burvick, Hannon and Columbia entered Rikers in the winter of 2015, during a period of transformation at the long-lambasted jail. Reforms have been rolled out due to public outcry concerning brutality on the part of the staff, highlighted by the tragic suicide of Kalief Browder, who was tortured at Rikers for three years while awaiting a court trial for a theft case that was eventually thrown out by the judge. (Browder’s family couldn’t afford bail money, so the youth was placed in an adult prison; his death has prompted a number of reforms.) A number of the new reforms (including more cameras and new staff) were made to benefit the youth population.
For example, teen inmates were offered a $25 per week allowance as incentive for good behavior. Solitary confinement was banned for Rikers inmates 21 and under, due to the considerable mental anguish of isolation. “Beats, Rhymes and Justice” is yet another program presented to help rehabilitate inmates aged 16 to 21. “Melody allows things to stick in the mind. Sometimes patients fighting Alzheimer's or dementia remember their favorite song,” says Burvick, referring to the program’s benefits. “Music has that effect. Since we all learn from this medium, it’s interesting finding ways to put vitamins in the music.”
“Hip-hop has always been a voice for young urban culture, adds Hannon. “For this particular population, you often get the sense that they feel like they have no voice; no way to express themselves or exercise their thoughts in healthy manner. The allure of hip-hop just being a tool [they can use] to speak what they have is a very powerful thing.”
(L to R) Darnell Hannon, Ryan Burvick and Cameron Rasmussen. Photo: Jason Bergman
In its beginning stages, the program assembled once a week for three hours on Saturday mornings over four weeks, with an average of 15 students per class. Since then, a bi-monthly, five-day intensive track has been incorporated, where students come for five hours daily, Monday to Friday. At the beginning of each class, students (a mix of the well-behaved and mischievous) and teachers sit in a circle and chop it up with each other.
“We just build a community type of vibe and get everybody into a cypher,” Burvick says.
Afterwards, a socially conscious hip-hop track is played. The song’s lyrics and production are dissected by the pupils, who use the track as inspiration for their production or writing work for the day. Audio Pictures provides iPads, keyboards, a microphone booth and speakers as well as rhyming dictionaries and writing materials. The program even extends beyond the walls of Rikers, thanks to a partnership formed with Carnegie Hall and the Friends of Island Academy. On a monthly basis, participants who have been released can continue the program and further sharpen their swords.
Program facilitators are looking to do more for these young inmates than merely let them spit bars and bang out beats. “We use that as a stepping stone to give them a lot of other transferrable skills in the realms of communicating thoughts, expertise, manipulating software, motor skills, healthy creative writing habits and so on,” explains Hannon.
“They make these parallel connections,” Rasmussen adds. “At the least, our program helps our students feel confident and respected and, at best, opens up their interests in education, critical thinking and social change.”
Burvick and Hannon have seen successes with the program and the 100 to 150 students it has served thus far. The most evident is the lack of altercations, brawls or “buck fifties” (face slashings) during the program, while in class. Burvick says the harmony crafted in the makeshift recording studio radiates beyond the program’s bounds into the jail. “It’s separate houses, gangs, Blacks and Latins, all in the same room creating music, giving each other fives,” he says. “Walking through the halls a year later, people are greeting each other like they knew each other from the neighborhood. Brothers from the program are happy to see each other and damn near get in trouble trying to give you five.”
The program has also reportedly influenced the highly criticized Rikers staff, who, according to Burvick, have been very receptive of it. “We even had some of the correction officers and other staff lay vocals to songs, and help coordinate the sessions and performances with us,” he says. “Many of the officers and higher-ups who've been there for 20-plus years, have voiced, on multiple occasions, that is one the best programs to have ever set foot on Rikers.”
Following Rikers’ lead, President Barack Obama recently banned solitary confinement for youth inmates in all federal correctional institutions, among other monumental penal reforms enacted under his administration. If mass reform is on the horizon, Audio Pictures would like to see “Beats, Rhymes & Justice” expand to other facilities. Nevertheless, the teachers have also been pupils-of-sorts, learning about young people in general. “We have to be able to listen to what the young people are saying so we know how to approach the situation,” says Hannon. “They are really intelligent and really thoughtful, but we’ve learned that people learn in all different ways, so we’ve got to listen to see what the learning curve is.”
“This might sound cliche, but don’t count these people out. This is family. When you go through there, you’re going to feel it; it’s family,” declares Burvick. “There’s millions of people throughout this country that are incarcerated and they’re not getting the ‘nutrients,’ which is the love that we have to offer our own people. Hopefully this inspires people to do more programming. Get in there, give it a shot and don’t be scared.”
Ryan K. Smith is the digital content editor for Don Diva Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @MeWeFree.