Remember the classic Coca-Cola ad from the 1970s? The one about teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony? The marketers knew they could touch a chord in people’s hearts about the power of music to promote peace, to unify.
That’s what young prisoners at New York’s Rikers Island—the nation’s second largest jail complex—are experiencing. But instead of a melodious jingle, they are using hip-hop to transform pent-up powers into positive tunes.
Kudos to music production company Audio Pictures and Columbia University’s Center for Justice for launching a hip-hop program at Rikers aimed at 16-21 year olds called “Beats, Rhymes and Justice,” which debuted after Rikers banned solitary confinement for prisoners 21 and under in January 2015.
Ryan Burvick, who co-owns Audio Pictures with Darnell Hannon, recently told Ebony that they hope the program diverts focus away from negative behaviors and moves prisoners toward developing their creative talent. The duo have worked in the music industry with the likes of DJ Marley Marl, Bravehearts, Infamous Mobb, and Lyricist Lounge.
The idea for Beats, Rhymes and Justice came to Burvick when he was a site director for a New York City after-school program that exposed him to the roughest schools in town. Considering how he could reach the students he was serving, Burvick and Hannon devised an iPad-based hip-hop program. “We saw there was an opportunity to reach these kids through music,” Burvick said.
As time passed, a childhood friend contacted Burvick asking if he would be interested in starting an audio-engineering program at Rikers through Columbia’s Center for Justice. “So many young folks who find themselves incarcerated didn’t have access to culturally responsive educational opportunities,” says Cameron Rasmussen, program director at the Center for Justice. “So part of our work is to provide that access.”
Collaborating with Columbia University, Burvick and Hannon entered Rikers in the winter of 2015. Hannon added, “For this particular population, you get the sense that they have no voice, no way to express themselves or exercise their thoughts in a healthy manner. [But] hip-hop has always been a voice for young urban culture.”
In its earliest days, an average of 15 students per class assembled Saturday mornings for three hours over four weeks. It has increased to a bi-monthly, five-hour track, Monday through Friday. So far, the program has served up to 150 students.
Each class begins with teachers and students sitting in a circle, building community. Then, a socially conscious hip-hop track is played with its lyrics and style dissected by the students who use the piece as inspiration for their own production or writing. Audio Pictures provides iPads, keyboards, microphone booth, speakers, rhyming dictionaries, and writing materials.
Thanks to a partnership with Carnegie Hall and the Friends of Island Academy, the program has busted out beyond Rikers. Monthly, participants who have been released, continue the program, further honing their skills, which includes communicating ideas, manipulating software, enhancing motor skills, and sharpening healthy creative writing habits.
Rasmussen adds, “At the least, our program helps students feel confident and respected; at best, it opens up interests in education, critical thinking, and social change.”
Apparently, the harmony created in the makeshift recording studio echoes beyond the program’s bounds and into the jail complex. Of all its successes, the most evident is the lack of altercations, brawls, or “buck fifties” (face slashings). Burvick added, “Gangs, blacks, Latinos, all in the same room creating music, giving each other [high] fives. Brothers from the program are happy to see each other and damn near get in trouble trying to give you five. Even officers and higher-ups who’ve been there for 20-plus years have voiced that this is one of the best programs to have ever set foot on Rikers.”
Following Rikers’ lead, in January 2016, President Barack Obama banned solitary confinement for incarcerated youth in all federal correctional institutions. And if prison reform is on the move, Audio Pictures hopes to expand Beats, Rhymes and Justice to more facilities.
Burvick urged, “Don’t count these people out. There are millions of people in this country who are incarcerated and they’re not getting the ‘nutrients,’ which is the love we have to offer our own people. Hopefully this inspires people to do more programming. Get in there. Give it a shot.”
Sounds like music really does have the potential to promote peace.
To learn how you can join others in creating a healthier prison culture, check out Prison Fellowship’s nationwide Warden Exchange program, which provides a platform for wardens and corrections professionals to exchange best practices, and create safer prisons and communities for successful reentry.