Socialist Worker

In Prison: Afroamerican Prison Music From Blues To Hiphop

by Yuri Prasad
Issue No. 2020

That prison is as big a reference point for black America as basketball or the church tells you a lot about racism in US society.

Out of nearly two million in jail, roughly 600,000 are black males between the ages of 20 and 40.

Given the backgrounds and age ranges of those in captivity, it is no surprise that prison life has formed the subject matter for hundreds of songs.

Black popular music has reacted to incarceration in a number of different ways. This new compilation is an attempt to bring some of the strands together.

Back in 1974 a band of rehabilitated prisoners called the Escorts sang that “Disrespect Can Wreck”. Here soulful harmonies carried a message of how teenage delinquency could lead to prison if it was not met with a firm hand.

If you want to hear the exact opposite, you need only listen to rapper 2Pac Shakur’s “IG On Death Row”. With its detailed references to prisoner rapes and suicides, there is no hint of the “redemptive qualities” of life on the inside.

In a similar vein are black nationalist rappers Bran Nubian whose “Claimin’ I’m A Criminal” describes the fear that even the toughest experience when the lights go out.

James Russell’s “I Had Five Long Years” is a blues song from 1959 that was sung by chain gangs as they broke stones on the side of the road.

The sorrow in the voices clearly articulates the pain of those whose lives are literally being stolen from them.

In 1972 the Temptations rewrote a song called “Run Nigger Run”, which was about a runaway slave - the result was Run Charlie Run. The song describes the way in which many white people engaged in “white flight” - leaving the urban areas as black ghettos, where crime became a means to exist.

Nina Simone’s version of the Work Song is a classic that everyone should hear. She said of it, “My whole life I wanted to cry out what it means to be locked up. I know the deadly silence of the social prison in which all black Americans live.”

In Prison: Afroamerican Prison Music From Blues To Hiphop

Various Artists

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Sat 30 Sep 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 2020
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