In this festive holiday season, with its Black Friday and Cyber Monday, in a world struggling to acknowledge the notion of peace and goodwill, it may be a break from the madness to read about one small way that music is being used to put things together again.
You could almost consider it the opposite of the 2015 year-end list. It isn’t about how it sounds, or how palatable it is. It’s about where it came from, how it’s made, people realizing the art inside them. The painful birth of their unspoken selves – recorded and public, for our scrutiny. More scrutiny, more judgment, but this time of something good.
“Giving a sense of accomplishment to someone who thought they had nothing left to give … ” is how one inmate from Pittsburgh Institution, a prison near Kingston, Ontario, described the Pros and Cons music program, run by Chris Brown.
Brown is a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and music producer from Canada. An artist in his own right, he has also worked with an array of names ranging from Ani DiFranco and Po' Girl to Tom Jones and Tony Scherr (Bill Frisell). I met him in Ireland in the summer, as he toured Europe with David Corley’s Available Light tour.
He gave me a link to the website where you can download Postcards from the County; the album that had come about as the result of the Pros and Cons program. “I explain it all in my TED talk” he told me. “Just watch the TED talk.”
In the TED talk you’ll hear it pointed out that Brown is working with “murderers and rapists.” Pros and Cons isn’t dealing with the innocent victims of miscarriages of justice. It is working with perpetrators, and it is using the creation of music as a tangible device in that cold reality. Using that device makes the album powerful. It includes songs written by inmates themselves, with further songs penned by Brown and other artists. The singing of the inmates, and their songwriting, is allowed to remain raw and unpolished. Tracks are sung with broken or wavering notes accompanied by the professional calm of seasoned musicians, and this brings out the poignancy of the words. Repeatedly one wonders what the hell went wrong in the stories behind these songs, behind the singers.
It all started because the prison farm at Pittsburgh Institution was being mothballed as part of the Canadian Conservative government’s "tough on crime" policy – a policy that saw no point in prison reform. Brown, on the other hand, who spends half of his year on Wolfe Island near Kingston, saw every point, and felt obliged to do something about it.
The whole concept was a marriage of key elements to Brown – his musicianship and his activism. He was a principal writer and singer for Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, an R&B tinged rock band in the '80s and '90s. When they split, he continued to record and work with Kate Fenner from “the Bourbans,” and all these years later, Fenner went on to become involved with Pros and Cons. He has recorded albums solo, and with fellow musicians such as OpenHearts Society. He has been working as a producer, including the debuts by Suzanne Jarvie and David Corley.
All through this however, his activism never relented; from tar sands to nuclear proliferation, he has written about it, sung about it, campaigned for it, and protested against it. And now he is working in prison with it.
Cara Gibney: You’ve been a working musician since your high school band, the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, which played for ten years. You have also worked with an array of artists over the years, including Ani DiFranco, Crash Test Dummies, Po’ Girl, The Tragically Hip, and Tom Jones. Has music always been your calling?
Chris Brown: My sister is 2 and half years my senior. I remember reaching up to the piano to imitate the sounds she was making when she started lessons at age 5, so I would have been 2 or 3 when I consciously began playing music. At my public school, I was a soloist, and eventually was sent to a choir school when I was 10 where we sang Latin Mass, Mendelssohn, Bach, Britten, and Handel.
Always, always from the earliest years I was playing rock and roll and blues from the radio and my parents' records by ear. I’ve worked other jobs when I’ve needed, but it’s been constant.
Was Tom Jones a sex bomb?
There are definitely those more qualified to answer that question, however I really did love the experience of working with him. He was full of enthusiasm and totally present while he worked. It’s always a trip hanging out with a living archetype.
How did you get involved with producing David Corley’s Available Light?
David and I had orbited each other in NYC for years, our common gravity being Kari Auerbach. When we finally connected a couple of years ago, the spark was immediate and we made Available Light in a matter of weeks. He’s got much more in him of comparable caliber, which I am really looking forward to working with him on.
You presently split your time between New York City and Wolfe Island. What is taking up your time in these two very distinct places?
I have studios in both locations. Wolfe Island is about the same size as Manhattan, with a human population of 1,200, so it’s about space, water, and birds. NYC is the human wilderness. Both are great places to find and make music. I chop more wood on Wolfe Island, and sit in on more gigs in the city; but the balance has been really important in carving out creative and spiritual space in my life. All the albums carry elements from both spaces in them.
You say in your own words that you have a history of applying music to social justice. Why do you do that? What does music really have to offer social justice?
It has to do with my upbringing; a sense of connectedness and responsibility toward others, human and non-human. The animals in our house were accorded respect and accompanied us at critical times. When my father died, the cats gathered on his bed because they sensed to be with him. If this sounds like an odd answer, I guess what I am illustrating is the transcendent awareness of another’s condition, and the way we might give and take in so many invisible ways. Music is giving and receiving in balance. It makes sense that such an activity becomes relevant in times of social disfunction.
In 2010 you and other social activists protested over the closure of prison farms in Canada. Do you see any sign that the recent election of Liberal Party Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could mean a shift in the attitude toward prisons that was shown by Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party?
Yes, firstly because the Prime Minister’s Office under Harper was secretly invested in privatizing corrections, which is why they were sabotaging it. Secondly, because we have in writing the Liberals’ guarantee to restore the prison agricultural program. When I began doing national media about our music program, officials who had worked decades in the system were really pleased but confessed their only anxiety was “the minister’s office as we are not allowed good news stories right now.” Enough said.
"Jail Guitar Doors" is an initiative started by Billy Bragg in 2007. It was started with the aim of providing “instruments to those who are using music as a means of achieving the rehabilitation of prison inmates” in the UK. In 2009, Wayne Kramer (MC5) teamed up with Billy Bragg to found "Jail Guitar Doors USA." Pros and Cons is very much its own project; however, I’m wondering if there are other projects or individuals that have inspired you? Whose brain did you pick about starting this project?
[CG note: "Jail Guitar Doors" was named after a Clash song (the B-side of the Clash's 1978 single "Clash City Rockers"). The first line of the song - "Let me tell you about Wayne and his deals with cocaine” - refers to Kramer’s two year prison sentence for drug dealing in 1975.]
Yes! Bless Billy and Wayne and Joe and countless others who have turned their talents and ideas toward the incarcerated, and the understanding that life is precious wherever you find it. The people you meet behind bars teaching literacy, yoga, and on are beacons. My principal mentor was a prison chaplain who made so much possible during a politically discouraging time. She and others with years of experience on the inside held my hand through the basics and really encouraged me by example.
In your TED Talk – "Rethinking Prison: Music and Life Beyond Punishment" – you spoke of a prison official who became involved with prison work because he was a victim of crime. He said he became interested in restorative justice, in trying to avoid the same thing happening to other people. Do you see the Pros and Cons project as a means to avoid the prisoners you work with falling into their previous patterns of behavior when they get out? If so, how?
That is one of the goals. It is really easy for an inmate to overidentify with criminality, especially in a corrupt or oppressive system. You understand the way defiance and defensiveness would build in a prisoner, just out of protection alone. When you introduce a discipline like music that is self-motivating and rewarding in the present tense, it can really help folks take a stake in themselves and their wellbeing. It also breeds cooperation and ultimately compassion. This is a pretty quick answer to an incredibly complex question. I cover it in a little more detail in the TED Talk.
In your TED Talk you said that the Pros and Cons project has helped deepen your appreciation for what music is. Can you explain that? Can you put into words how it has deepened your appreciation of music?
As I said earlier, I have been playing music most of my life and I realize that for me it is always just "there." When I watch the transformation of people I work with inside, I understand the emotional platform that music is, and begin to notice that dynamic in my own life, and in the broader social context of music. My painter and dancer friends growing up didn’t have the constant social context we musicians had in terms of playing in bars etc. which makes the "art" of music sometimes more subtle to behold. Again, the ubiquitousness of music can disguise its importance ... then you realize why it’s ubiquitous.
There were various levels of skills and experience among the men involved with the project. How did this play out on a practical basis in regard to songwriting or recording?
In many interesting ways. At first, the ones with experience in the prison choir or in their professional lives took the leads. Once we got into it, more began happening in terms of people wanting to explore their ideas and how to translate them. This lead to great mentorship between inmates, which obviously demanded great trust. It generated a true stake in them seeing each other succeed in their ideas and improve as artists. The music is the evidence of this process. Sometimes the most unpolished parts are the most rewarding to behold.
Many people in prison have not fared well in the education system as children, and therefore have not gained qualifications, or skills like literacy and numeracy, needed for day-to-day life. Can a music project such as Pros and Cons help with this?
Yes, definitely, and in exactly the way arts programming does in schools: to develop imagination and broaden participants sense of who they are, building their confidence to try the unfamiliar, and by creating openings for the nonverbal to communicate and participate in societal activity. As one recent parolee told me, it matters not if he ever gets paid to sing. He has discovered something he loves doing that moves others, and that sense is what he seeks in living.
The men you are working with are in jail because they committed serious crime. Violent crime. Why should you put effort into them? Why should we put effort into them?
Do you want the safe answer or the more risky one? I’ll give you the safe one first: because most on the inside will one day be out. If your focus is serving victims, then real social programming in prisons is victim prevention. Here is the risky one: If we are looking to better society, then we must attend to suffering. The way one suffers who has caused another harm is very deep and needs to be recognized for what it is, if we are sincere about our participation in a society. As this sort of suffering is often disguised with anger, narcissism, hostility, and on, it is serious work to see beyond the repulsiveness of the resulting acts, toward the human hiding behind them. Some will not allow themselves to be found. It’s worth the effort because a great many will, shown love and respect. The risk on both sides is equal.
By the same token, violence could have been present in the lives of the prisoners since childhood. How is a music project like Pros and Cons equipped to deal with that?
A couple of ways. I think one of the important dynamics is entry into the space of work with no prior knowledge of the participants. It makes the moment clear to contain the present tense and all its potential, unencumbered by identity and stigma. Often as we get into work, the guys will eventually want to tell me about their deeds and experiences, but by then the violence they have experienced or perpetrated is not the exclusive or dominating identity. It is a type of freedom the men can find in themselves that is supported while making music. If it sounds like a holiday, it’s not; because that "freedom" is a perspective of clarity that can be excruciating. The music helps simply by being pleasurable.
What I have observed is the more the participants inhabit that space of being present, the more they entertain possibilities for their own lives. If someone is locking you behind a door, you might very well take charge by saying, “well, I am locking myself deeper than that so it does not affect me.” Music works to expose those keys we all possess to our hearts. We can also talk about the critical need for education in prison, and the fact that generally 80% of inmates suffer from mental health issues.
Postcards From The County is the album created through the Pros and Cons project. Could you tell me about the recording of the album? How did you work on the songs that were to feature on it?
It began by simply going to the prison chapel to share music with the inmates. I would play for them, they for me, and from the start we began playing together. I was asked to do a charity track for a local arts initiative, so it just made sense to include the musicians from the prison on a whole host of levels. The response to that initial track was overwhelming and showed that the guys could be putting their time inside to use for self-improvement and positive social impact by raising money for charity.*
Technically, I would bring gear in every week and we would turn the prison chapel into a recording studio after service. As time was limited between headcounts, the guys became super-efficient at setting up and tearing down for sessions, so they picked up studio skills along the way. I continue to bring in many musicians to work with the participants and share their music and experiences from lives spent making it. Sometimes they would record with the prisoners while inside, as is exemplified by "Silent Eyes," which Kate Fenner recorded live in the chapel with the men from the prison choir.
What impact has this album had on the men involved, and on Pittsburgh Institution?
A letter written by a participant speaks of “... hope brought where there was only hopelessness ... the ability to dream brought where it had been forgotten” and it goes on, “... giving a sense of accomplishment to someone who thought they had nothing left to give … .”
I also can tell you of a parolee who wanted to talk to me about his crimes before release came; it was vital to him to feel responsible for them, alongside our accomplishments. What I have observed in the guys personally is a deeper self-possession. Institutionally, it has been interesting seeing people come and go, and observing the way an effective program helps corrections officials by helping the inmates be better people.
Does the project have all the resources it needs?
We do all we are able with what we have. When resources increase, so do capacities. Support from The John Howard Society and David Rockefeller Fund has been immensely helpful both in channeling funds to focus charities and providing a bit of compensation for the unlimited hours one could apply to all that needs doing. The website is set up so that people can hear, share, or download the music freely, with suggested donations in kind to various charities selected by the inmates.
Where do you go from here? What are you doing with Pros and Cons at the minute?
Currently I am in dialogue to expand the program nationally, and into New York. We have also done a great deal of international press, there’s been a TED Talk, and I am always open to exchange of ideas with others. We continue regular music sessions, and our next release will be a cover of David Corley’s song, "Selah."
Video Credits: Hugh Christopher Brown
Photo Credit: Mook & Alex Vignes