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The rich history of music in prisons shows how damaged souls can be worth redemption

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. In 1996, a man named Kenyatta Emmanuel killed a cab driver during a robbery. Emmanuel was 21 years old, and he'd later go on to serve 24 years in prison for his crime. During his time behind bars, Emmanuel studied music as part of a program teaching inmates about instrumentation, arrangement and vocals. And on the day of his release in 2019, Emmanuel performed a song he wrote in prison before a crowd at Carnegie Hall. The song is called "Holding Out Hope."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENYATTA EMMANUEL: (Singing) I guess I'm waiting for a miracle. Yes, I'm praying that I hear from a God who I have to believe made us to be better than we've been behaving lately. I'm just reaching for a blessing, requesting a little help and answers to questions that maybe we should be asking ourselves, like, can't we agree there's something wrong if I feel the need to scream my life matters? And why in the world to you does that feel like an accusation? How many guns does one man need? How many children have to bleed and die before we concede? This math - it ain't adding up right. But I'm holding out hope that this is all some passing, temporary insanity. I'm holding out hope that deep inside, we recognize our common humanity.

MOSLEY: That was former prisoner Kenyatta Emmanuel singing a song he wrote in prison called "Holding Out Hope" before a crowd at Carnegie Hall. Journalist Maurice Chammah writes about Emmanuel and the history of prison music programs in a recent opinion piece for The New York Times titled "Listening To This Might Change You." In it, Chammah explores how music can build hope and dignity and possibly lessen the chances of a person returning to prison after serving their time.

Now, if this sounds like a soft, feel-good idea with not much bite, Chammah says think again. As a longtime criminal justice reporter, Chammah argues that seriously looking at the intersection of music and redemption could offer one solution to our expensive and sometimes discriminatory and abusive prison system. Maurice Chammah is a staff writer at the Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism organization that covers the criminal justice system. His book, "Let The Lord Sort Them Out: The Rise And Fall Of The Death Penalty" (ph), explores the rise and fall of capital punishment. Maurice Chammah, welcome to FRESH AIR.

MAURICE CHAMMAH: Hi there. Thanks for having me.

MOSLEY: Maurice, we know that educational programs like the ability to get a GED or college courses in prison can actually help with rehabilitation. What does the data show regarding arts and music programs like the one Kenyatta Emmanuel was part of?

CHAMMAH: There's not a lot of specific research and data saying that arts or music programs in particular reduce the likelihood of somebody committing a new crime once they get out. But the data on education programs is very clear that getting any sort of education, having any sort of access to culture, to ideas, makes it much less likely that somebody is going to commit a new crime when they get out. The recidivism rate goes way down. And these programs are sadly very few and far between in American prisons.

MOSLEY: I actually read where Emmanuel said he'd watch wardens and prison guards get so wrapped up in his performances when he was serving time as if they were seeing his soul for the first time. And this is basically the basis of your article - that music that the prisoners make is not only beneficial for them. It's beneficial for us, meaning society. You say it changes how we think about the people who make it. It allows us to see our shared humanity.

CHAMMAH: I get chills when I watch that video, and I think I'm not the only one. And you watch it, and you can hear in that recording the backup singers. There's also a string quartet and a horn section and then this big crowd of people sitting in Carnegie Hall and watching Kenyatta sing that song. And I just watch that and think, these people - are they going to go, you know, vote for a tough-on-crime candidate? Are they going to support long, harsh sentences? The next time they're on a jury and they're asked to consider mercy and redemption in the context of the prisoner in front of them, are they going to be kind of taking what they heard from Kenyatta forward and looking at the prison system and the people within it in a more merciful and kind of redemptive way, a way that I've now learned, really, we used to have as a country? It was not so strange 40, 50, 60 years ago, really, before the era of mass incarceration set in.

MOSLEY: This is really an interesting thought to think about how music like this could change our perceptions because really, the thing is our culture, by and large, has operated under this assumption that we don't need to humanize a prisoner who has committed a crime, the thought being that being denied access to the joys of life, like music, is part of the punishment.

CHAMMAH: That's right. That has very much been the idea. I mean, I live in Texas, where many of the prisons don't even have air conditioning, which can be very deadly. So there's this assumption that, in places like Texas - that giving prisoners anything that seems like an extra is somehow reducing their punishment. But the problem is that most people who go to prison get out someday. And when they've spent those years being deprived of every sort of human joy of the sort of full spectrum of the human experience, of a relationship with their family, it really makes it much harder for them once they get out to readapt to society and to build a successful life as a law-abiding citizen.

So there's a part of this that can feel perhaps squishy, like we want to humanize and dignify everybody because, you know, makes us better people. But if you see it in a - the kind of cold, hard light of making a safer society, you see that when people get out of prison, you know, we all have an interest in them, you know, returning to becoming productive members of society, law-abiding citizens. And living with joy and dignity is a part of that. And so increasingly, there's a thought, I think, that our prisons could be doing more to create that for people.

MOSLEY: As you mentioned as part of your reporting, you found that we didn't always think of prisoners in this way, that they should be punished continually and also after they served their time. It was common for the public to consume and enjoy prison music back in the day, dating as far back as the 1930s with this radio program called "Thirty Minutes Behind The Walls." Can you tell us a little bit about it?

CHAMMAH: Yeah. And I wish we had recordings. This was one of the great disappointments of this reporting - was that we couldn't find any actual recordings of this radio show. But back in the 1930s, there was a show called "Thirty Minutes Behind The Walls." It was put on by a Fort Worth radio station, but they broadcast from a Texas prison in Huntsville, actually very close to the execution chamber. So apparently, they would pause executions - have halts on them so that an audience of free-world citizens could come into the prison and listen to prisoners perform doo-wop and gospel and blues and all these different sorts of genres.

And then the radio signal would be broadcast out not just to Texas but to the entire country. And tens of thousands of fan letters would come in to this radio show in which people would talk about the singing groups that they liked. Sometimes these singing groups on their own would become quite successful and be allowed to perform outside of the prison. And what really struck me about this radio show, reading about it, was that politicians would go and speak to the audience on the show and say things that today it is much harder to imagine, you know, a governor in a southern state like Ron DeSantis or Greg Abbott saying.

I found this quote of Wilbert Lee O'Daniel, who was the governor of Texas in the 1930s. And he said, you know, before radio, prisoners were exiled. Citizens paid little attention to them. But now you hear them talk. You hear them sing. You find out they are sons and daughters of good mothers. You find out they made mistakes, thus proving that they are human. And I think this speaks to an older way of looking at prisons. There's a tendency now to say, this person committed a robbery, a murder, a rape. And that is all that they are, and we need to excise them from society, put them in a prison. And even when they come back, we need to sort of freeze in amber this terrible fact about them.

MOSLEY: Another example of this is in the 1950s with the doo-wop group called The Prisonaires, who were actually allowed to leave their Tennessee facility under armed guards to record at Sun Studio in Memphis. I think I read in your reporting that Elvis Presley was reportedly a fan. Let's listen to a little of their music. This is a song called "Just Walkin' In The Rain."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST WALKIN' IN THE RAIN")

THE PRISONAIRES: (Singing) Just walking in the rain, thinking how we met, knowing things have changed. Somehow I can't forget. I can't forget. People come to windows, and they always stare at me, shake their heads in sorrow, saying, who can that fool be? Just walking in the rain, thinking how we met, knowing things have changed. Somehow I can't forget. Somehow I can't forget.

MOSLEY: That was the doo-wop group The Prisonaires, who recorded with Sun Records in 1953 while incarcerated in the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville. Maurice, I want to talk a little bit more about what we hear in the music. Former prisoner BL Shirelle is a Philadelphia native who served 10 years in prison. And in her music, she describes in great detail what it's like once released from prison, the obstacles that she faced. Let's listen to a little bit of her song. This one is called "Headed To The Streets."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEADED TO THE STREETS")

B L SHIRELLE: (Singing) I wake up sweating, sweating. I be sweating in my sheets. Every time I go to sleep, I be headed to the streets. I be digging, finding, searching for whoever got it cheap. I be ripping, robbing, merking, trying to settle all my beef. I had a dream like Martin Luther. It was killed by Freddy Krueger. Got to live to find my purpose - not accepting this defeat. I wake up sweating in my sheets. Every time I go to sleep, I be heading to the streets.

(Rapping) Another day, another hope for a dollar. I hit the pavement. Been filling out 20 applications a day since I got out. I see my old [expletive], and they shout out. They like, what you need? I got you. They pull they knots out. We start reminiscing. The good times get my attention. Got to admit this s*** it is hard. I'm getting tempted. Like, f*** these lonely nights, these fried bologna nights. This s*** is a lonely life, lonely night, lonely night. Without a call back, I'll make a little wealth if I got to chop a tree down make the paper myself. As I chop a key down, I'm truly, truly hating myself. Sweating in my - then out of a nightmare, I awaken myself.

MOSLEY: That was musician and producer BL Shirelle, who served 10 years in prison. And in this song, they recount the anguish of living. This song covers a lot. It covers elements of depression, interacting with old friends, trying to find a job, dealing with family after getting out. And to me - I don't know if it's this way for you, Maurice, but it feels like a rawer version of early hip-hop and rap, when the music was about documenting real life. I'm wondering what have former prisoners like BL Shirelle told you about the ability to share the realities of prison life and kind of as a release through their music. Has it made integrating with the outside world easier?

CHAMMAH: Yeah. I mean, BL Shirelle is very brass tacks when she tells me, we're just looking for more working musicians. These are jobs. This is a job creation program for some people when they come out of prison. And she now works as a music producer. She runs a small record label called Die Jim Crow Records, which goes into prisons and records musicians - not just hip-hop but other genres, too - in prisons across the country.

And she made this argument to me that when you hear a really good song, you can connect with the emotions that the singer is trying to express to you even if you don't have a direct experience of what they're talking about. You may be listening and thinking, well, I've never been to prison and struggled with getting out. But the way that she sings and raps about her experience is so vulnerable and raw that you can't help but just feel a little bit of empathy for what she's going through in that moment. And you briefly forget about whatever it is that might have gotten her to prison in the first place, no matter how bad that thing is. And it allows you to really hold in your mind two different things - you know, anger about a crime and then separately, an understanding that this is a human being and there's more to say about them than their crime. There's more to their life than just their crime. And there's a before and an after to that crime.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest today is journalist Maurice Chammah. He writes for The Marshall Project and focuses on the criminal justice system. His latest opinion piece, "Listening To This Might Change You" for The New York Times, argues the benefits of music and arts education as a form of rehabilitation for prisoners. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOWARD FISHMAN'S "DIRTY")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR, and today we're talking to Maurice Chammah. He's a staff writer with The Marshall Project and author of "Let The Lord Sort Them: The Rise And Fall Of The Death Penalty." He's been published by The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The New York Times. And as a former Fulbright fellow, he helped organize the Insider Prize, a contest for incarcerated writers sponsored by the magazine American Short Fiction.

You know, one of the things I wonder about is what hearing a prisoner's music out in the world might mean for their victims, if their crimes involved victims. Have you run into cases where this has happened? And is there empathy in that space, too? Does the music allow for that?

CHAMMAH: Sometimes, it doesn't. And the examples that come to mind are often very prominent musicians who go to prison for crimes that are really abhorrent. Like, R. Kelly comes to mind. There was a news story in the past couple of years where he was still making money from his music while in prison, and some of his victims sought to get some of that money as restitution. And certainly, it's easy enough to sympathize with victims like that. I think that in a lot of these cases, victims have been promised a very harsh sentence by the criminal justice system as a solution to the terrible thing that happened to them. And as a society, that makes it very hard to accept redemption in the form of music from a particular prisoner.

I don't know, for example, what Kenyatta, who we heard at the beginning - what his victims' family would think of him getting out and singing. And so that's just something that we kind of have to reckon with. And I think it often comes down to whether a victim's family perceives the singer or musician as earnestly seeking redemption and rehabilitation and change, as opposed to simply trying to make money and stardom from their music.

MOSLEY: Let's talk a little bit about remorse for a moment. You made a playlist of prison music, some of which you digitized yourself from vinyl. And I want to play a song from a group called The Escorts. This was recorded in 1974, and the song is called "Disrespect Can Wreck." Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DISRESPECT CAN WRECK")

THE ESCORTS: (Singing) When I think back when I was a child, very rarely could I smile. I used to think it was a disgrace how my life and time seemed like a waste, wishing I could change and be like him 'cause I never, never knew, never knew nothing about my kin. Living like rats with garbage piled high didn't make much sense. Disrespect surely can wreck. Sure, it can. It really can. I know it can. It really can. Disrespect...

CHAMMAH: Love that one.

MOSLEY: That was the 1974 song called "Disrespect Can Wreck" by the Escorts. What can you tell us about that group?

CHAMMAH: Well, in that song, you also hear - there's a music break where you hear the judge admonishing him and then his mother admonishing him. And it's just been a whole life of people, you know, admonishing him. And the Escorts were formed in a New Jersey prison. And they were discovered at a prison talent show by a Motown producer named George Kerr. Kerr got access to the prison to record, and then some of the members got out. And once they were out in the world, they were allowed to return to the prison to record more music with their bandmates who were still incarcerated.

This was part of a larger wave in the 1970s of record producers who would discover acts in prison, acts that were incredible, like what you just heard, often funk and soul, and would negotiate access. And it speaks to an era in which wardens were more comfortable with that and where producers were willing to take that chance and clearly not as worried about, you know, potential listeners saying, oh, well, these people committed crimes, why would I listen to it? It was almost seen as a selling point. So you look at the cover of one of the Escorts' albums and you see them behind prison bars with their guitars and other instruments reaching through. And it's a very literal, you know, image. But the idea that this would be the record cover, the thing that you're selling to the audience about this album, you know, come look behind the bars and see the talent there.

MOSLEY: Our guest today is journalist Maurice Chammah. We're talking with him about his recent opinion piece, "Listening To This Might Change You," for The New York Times, where he argues the benefits of music and arts education as a form of rehabilitation for prisoners. To our conversation after a short break. I'm Tonya Mosley and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGING MAN")

POWER OF ATTORNEY: (Singing) Changing man in a changing land, hustling to survive the very best he can, living fast, living fast, while the living lasts. Yeah. Ghetto streets was his school. Changing man was a fool. But he ought to position his thoughts too slow, moving women and losing dough. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE UPSETTERS SONG, "MEMPHIS")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and my guest today is Maurice Chammah. He writes for The Marshall Project and focuses on the criminal justice system. His latest opinion piece, "Listening To This Might Change You" for The New York Times, argues the benefits of music and arts education as a form of rehab for prisoners.

One of the things that you write about in your book "Let The Lord Sort Them: The Rise And Fall Of The Death Penalty" is the history and the history of how the American prison came to be heavily racialized. And a visual example that you write about in a recent article of yours is the work of photographer and filmmaker Bruce Jackson, who took photographs and recordings of prisoners, mostly in Texas and Arkansas, during the '60s and '70s, including some some music. His photos captured the day to day in prison, which included the recording of music. But in the photographs, Maurice, the prisoners look like they're on slave plantations. And you found that they actually were.

CHAMMAH: Yeah, a lot of Texas prisons are on land that previously was a slave plantation. And then, as many of us know, with the 13th Amendment, slavery continued for people who had been convicted of crimes. And you look at these pictures from the 1940s, '50s, '60s, and it's as if you're looking at pictures from the 1840s and '50s - mostly Black prisoners hoeing the fields with the guards on horseback, these large rifles, you know, overseeing them with their aviator sunglasses reflecting off the sun, I mean, that kind of classic "Cool Hand Luke" look. Some of the prisoners were white, but you look at the pictures, and the racial disparities of the prison system are really stark.

In addition, I remember while working on the book, listening to some of the music that this photographer, Bruce Jackson, had recorded. And it sounds like you're listening to work songs from, you know, what you imagine people were singing in the 1840s and '50s before the Civil War, you know, singing about their strife, their desire to go to their families. And then you can hear in this music the seeds of early blues music - right? - the same kind of mourning and loss and grief that you end up hearing in many forms of blues music but also blues music that was recorded in the prisons themselves by fairly famous ethnomusicologist like the Lomaxes.

MOSLEY: One of the examples is the music of J.B. Smith. Can you tell us a little bit about him?

CHAMMAH: So J.B. Smith was a Texas prisoner in the 1960s who was recorded by Bruce Jackson, this same folklorist who had taken photographs of death row. But he was so impressed with Smith's music that he worked to release a full album of it on its own. And you can really hear the relationship in this music between the work songs that someone like Smith would have been singing out in the fields and then the blues music that he would have been playing once he picks up the guitar. There's also a large amount of sort of religious influence. It sounds a little bit like gospel music. And there's also just this kind of mourning of having been cast out of society, whether as a slave or as a prisoner. You can really hear the way American culture slid from slavery into mass incarceration through these songs, which really kind of hold in the music both the before and after of this history.

MOSLEY: Let's hear a little bit of J.B. Smith's music. The title of this song is "No More Good Time In The World For Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO MORE GOOD TIME IN THE WORLD FOR ME")

J B SMITH: (Singing) No more good time, buddy, oh, man, in the wide, wide world for me 'cause I'm a lifetime skinner - never will go free. Well, I'm a lifetime skinner, oh, buddy. And I never will go free. There's no more good time, buddy, in the wide, wide world for me.

MOSLEY: That was J.B. Smith singing "No More Good Time In The World For Me." We're in a very interesting time because it's still difficult for many people to see the prison system and the death penalty more generally as a racially discriminatory institution. You yourself only understood this fully after you became a journalist.

CHAMMAH: Yeah. I mean, I grew up in Texas. And the way that the death penalty was portrayed to me as a child was, these are bad people who deserve this punishment. And many of the most famous people who were executed when I was in middle school and high school were white. One of the most famous was a woman named Karla Faye Tucker. And I think that there was also an image - you know, I also grew up in the generation that had a movie like "The Silence Of The Lambs." You had this image of a white serial killer psychopath who kills without remorse and is the poster child for who deserves the death penalty. And that's the image that you get. And it's only later when you look at the data and the fact that the vast proportion of people who are executed and sentenced to death are Black compared to their white counterparts that you really see that that image is papering over something that is much darker and much more connected to the history of lynching and slavery.

As I got deeper into the records of this history, I remember finding this one case of a man who was given the death penalty in a legal trial for the formal context. This was in the, you know, early 20th century in a small Texas town. But the account that I read was that his trial lasted for four hours. And while he was in the courtroom, he could hear saws and hammers outside on the courthouse square constructing the device that they were going to lynch him with, right? So there was this anecdote that, to me, encapsulated the idea that there used to be lynchings and now there's the death penalty. But we really slid from one into the other. And this image of the white serial killer being executed that I had grown up with was a very misleading one.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest today is journalist Maurice Chammah. He writes for the Marshall Project and focuses on the criminal justice system. His latest opinion piece, "Listening To This Might Change You," for The New York Times argues the benefits of music and arts education as a form of rehabilitation for prisoners. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR, and today I'm talking with Maurice Chammah. He's a staff writer with the Marshall Project and author of "Let The Lord Sort Them: The Rise And Fall Of The Death Penalty." His latest opinion piece, "Listening To This Might Change You," for The New York Times argues the benefits of music and arts education is a form of rehabilitation for prisoners. Maurice, in the context of the death penalty, you've also written about mitigation specialists. What are mitigation specialists?

CHAMMAH: Mitigation specialists are a fascinating profession. They are investigators who are hired by defense teams in cases of great severity, cases where somebody is facing the death penalty or, perhaps, life without the possibility of parole. And as an investigator, their role is to humanize the defendant in service of asking for mercy from the court, from the jury or from the prosecutor. And the way that they go about this work is to study the life story of this person before they committed the crime. So what are the traumas they experienced as a child? What are the mental health issues that have been unaddressed? Were they the victim themselves of, you know, sexual or other abuse that maybe shaped their path?

And when a jury hears these stories, the jury might say, oh, this isn't the worst of the worst. We should be more merciful towards this person. In a way, they're really storytellers because they are gathering vast amounts of interviews and public records. And they're molding all of that into an account of this person's life that they hope will spark mercy when decision-makers in the criminal justice system hear it.

MOSLEY: Is there an example of this and where this has been - this has worked?

CHAMMAH: Sure. I spent much of the past couple of years reporting on these mitigation specialists and eventually found one named Sara Baldwin in Florida. And she was beginning to work on the case of a man named James Bernard Belcher. Belcher had committed a rape and murder of a young woman named Jennifer Embry in Jacksonville, Fla., and he was sentenced to death. But after a couple of decades, his death sentence was reversed, and he was going to get a new sentencing hearing. And this is where Sara Baldwin, the investigator, was enlisted by the defense team to research Belcher's life.

And I really wanted to see this process up close. I felt that for readers to understand this work and the way that it promotes and sparks mercy, they needed to see it firsthand. So Sara and I spoke over the course of months about my shadowing her in a case. And eventually, she agreed to let me shadow her in the Belcher case, Belcher himself agreed to this, and I followed her. And what we learned over the course of months of driving around New York City and New Jersey and Florida was that this was a young man who had had a really, really troubled life, in ways that are sometimes hard to imagine.

He lived in some of the most derelict and abandoned and neglected housing projects in Brooklyn. He stole money when he was 16, and instead of being sent to a juvenile center, he was sent to Rikers Island and then to adult New York state prisons, where he was surrounded by violence all the time. You know, the descriptions he would give of sexual abuse around him were just harrowing. And then he got out of prison and had tremendous post-traumatic stress disorder. He tried to go to college and would have flashbacks in the classroom while trying to concentrate on his schoolwork. And nobody in his family, nobody in society said, hey; this guy needs help. So while his family members are increasingly succeeding, you know, having great jobs and careers and building their lives, he is just falling further and further into crime.

And Baldwin's work was not about excusing Belcher's crime. There was none of this that was trying to explain, OK, here is how he was on drugs or, you know, having an amnesia episode or something when he committed this murder. It didn't seek to detract from the severity of the murder. What it wanted to say was, here is a whole person who has had an incredible amount of struggle in his life. And but for other dynamics and his family or even public policy decisions, like if he'd been sent to a more rehabilitative place as a juvenile, maybe this crime wouldn't have happened.

And eventually, this material was put in front of a jury, and the jury voted to sentence him to life in prison instead of the death penalty. I interviewed some of the jurors. And the quote that really stuck with me was when this juror said something like, well, yeah, he's a monster, but society helped create this monster. And so perhaps he doesn't deserve the death penalty. Instead, he deserves life without the possibility of parole, which also gives him the opportunity for redemption. He can live the rest of his life, as he has previously, mentoring younger prisoners and helping them turn their lives around. Prisoners testified at his trial that he was like a father to them and that but for his intervention, they might have themselves gone down darker paths.

MOSLEY: The work of the mitigation specialists - I mean, this is pretty intense work. And there are not that many of them.

CHAMMAH: No. There's no exact number. There's, you know, probably fewer than a thousand that do it full time because just practically, the amount of work involved in documenting somebody's whole life like this is a lot. I mean, I went with Sara to New York, and we spent 15 hours one day driving around all five boroughs, two towns in New Jersey and a town upstate in the Hudson Valley. And this was across 15 hours. We were knocking on doors. She was slipping letters into the door jams when people wouldn't answer the door. She was cajoling people over the phone, just trying to get them to talk about Belcher's childhood. And it was so much work.

Eventually, though, she gets into a nursing home and finds Belcher's father, who reveals to her and to me, in my presence, that Belcher's mother had stabbed him and almost killed him. So all this work is incredibly intense, incredibly intimate. And you're asking so much of people. But Sara would go to these people and say, you need to share these traumatic things from 30, 40 years ago. And I'm only asking because the state of Florida is trying to kill him, and we want to save his life. So please share this - these stories of the traumas that surrounded him as a child because this is the way that we're going to humanize him and make him three-dimensional for a jury.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest today is journalist Maurice Chammah. He writes for The Marshall Project and focuses on the criminal justice system. His latest opinion piece, "Listening To This Might Change You" for The New York Times, argues the benefits of music and arts education as a form of rehabilitation for prisoners. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PATTI SMITH SONG, "WITHIN YOU WITHOUT YOU")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR, and today we're talking to Maurice Chammah. He's a staff writer with The Marshall Project and author of "Let The Lord Sort Them: The Rise And Fall Of The Death Penalty." He's been published by The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The New York Times. And as a former Fulbright fellow, he helped organize the Insider Prize, a contest for incarcerated writers sponsored by the magazine American Short Fiction.

Is there much jazz or classical taught in prison or education around those genres?

CHAMMAH: There is. I would say less so. Classical music, of course, takes just a lot of time to, you know, reach a level at your instrument where you can perform some of these pieces, but...

MOSLEY: It also takes instrumentation.

CHAMMAH: And it...

MOSLEY: It takes instruments.

CHAMMAH: ...Takes the instruments. So one of the challenges is getting the instruments themselves into the prisons. And then the other is time. But I've been told that actually, you know, one thing prisons and prisoners do have is a lot of time. So Nathan, the director of Musicambia, told me about one of the students in their program who was studying classical guitar. And it was just apparently incredible how fast this guy developed a facility because he had so many hours to practice, so little distraction. And so he was just a supercharged student. So you do have individual people in prison who become very accomplished very quickly on instruments like classical guitar, violin and cello.

One of the first ways that I learned about the history of prison music was stumbling upon a vinyl record on eBay that was for sale, and it was made by Texas prisoners in the 1970s. In the '70s here in Texas, there was a rodeo put on every year at the main prison in Huntsville, and it was a big to-do. Tens of thousands of free-world people would go to the prison grounds and watch prisoners not only dodge bulls and ride horses but also play in bands. And sometimes these bands would open for very prominent touring acts that would come to the rodeo, like Dolly Parton or George Strait or Willie Nelson, a lot of big country acts.

And I looked at this record that I had gotten and I was digitizing and started Googling the names of the people on the back. And the drummer was named Benny Medina. And I found out that he had gone on to play with Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt and other prominent jazz musicians. I found his phone number and called him, and he was now in his, I think, late 70s. This was a few years ago. And he said, oh, yeah, that Texas prison was basically my conservatory. You know, I got up every day. I practiced on drum pads in my cell, and then I'd go to the rehearsal space and join up with these other guys and rehearse all day. And then we would record these albums. And that was my education as a jazz drummer.

MOSLEY: And we know who Benny Medina is the father of.

CHAMMAH: Yeah, there's this addendum to that story. This was one of the more fun rabbit holes I've ever gone down as a criminal justice reporter. You don't think you're going to do pop culture writing. It turned out that Benny Medina, the drummer in the 1970s Texas prison band, was the father of a son named Benny Medina. That Benny Medina would go on to be the manager of Jennifer Lopez and other massive celebrities. And while his father was in prison, Benny Medina was taken in by a family. And that family was Berry Gordy's family of Motown Records fame. And I interviewed Kerry Gordy about his - he was the son of Berry Gordy - about his childhood friendship with Benny Medina. And at some point, Benny Medina said, well, this experience growing up with this, you know, prominent family in Los Angeles, me as this poor kid with a dad in prison - this would make a great TV show. And that got developed and developed and reset to Philadelphia. And lo and behold, this is the basis of "Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air," starring Will Smith. The show itself never portrays him as having a father in prison. It totally changes the identity of Berry Gordy, so it's not an entertainment family, but the seeds of that are there. And it struck me, A, as just wild and circuitous. But it also shows, I think, how much prisons and mass incarceration were always woven into our lives and pop culture in ways we didn't even understand, just kind of...

MOSLEY: Right.

CHAMMAH: ...Lurking there in the back of our kind of society's collective mind, shaping the stories of so many people.

MOSLEY: Right. And it's interesting how you refer to Benny Medina as Jennifer Lopez's manager, because he is very much a central figure in the music industry even today. And that origin story of his father really gives us a lens into the impact of prison music that spans throughout the industry and our collective consciousness culturally.

CHAMMAH: Yeah. And when I was doing that story, I couldn't get an interview with Benny Medina himself, but I talked to Kerry Gordy, his childhood friend, and he said that this father and son were very much estranged, that the younger Benny Medina was very angry at his father. But the one thing that he would say, apparently, with a note of pride was, you know, they always said my dad was a great drummer. And you could imagine that this shaped his young identity as he went into music and culture himself. And to the extent he was able to still have a positive sense of his father, it was through this music. And so this is another way in which this prison music had a positive influence in the world beyond what you might expect, beyond just rehabilitating the older Benny Medina. It really just - you hear these stories, and you think, well, music just has this ability to kind of inspire people and transcend even really terrible, tragic family circumstances.

MOSLEY: Maurice Chammah, thank you so much for your journalism and for this conversation.

CHAMMAH: Thank you so much for having me. Great to be here.

MOSLEY: Maurice Chammah is a staff writer for The Marshall Project. His recent op-ed in the New York Times is titled "Listening To This Might Change You." Let's listen to one more song from Chammah's playlist of music by prisoners. This is called "America The Merciful" by Territorial.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA THE MERCIFUL")

TERRITORIAL: (Singing) America the beautiful, forgive my sins again. I don't want to feel lost today. I don't want to die chasing the wind, chasing the wind.

(Rapping) It's time to rise, blinded by the lies, truth hidden in front of our eyes, perfectly disguised. They using confusion to brainwash. They remove them who refuse them just because. The real criminals are the ones who make the laws. Wake up. You working for a pay cut just to give it back to the people who paid you. Beep, beep, like a pager. I have your attention.

MOSLEY: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, check out our podcast. There you'll find some great listens like Christopher Nolan, director of the film "Oppenheimer," or humorist and essayist R. Eric Thomas. Find our podcast wherever you listen. And to keep up with what's going on on the show and to get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair.

(SOUNDBITE OF DARRELL GRANT'S "FILS DU SOLEIL (FOR TONY WILLIAMS)")

MOSLEY: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF DARRELL GRANT'S "FILS DU SOLEIL (FOR TONY WILLIAMS)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Tonya Mosley
Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.