Local Activist to Create Music Label for Incarcerated Artists

Matt Fink

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For Brooklyn activist Fury Young, Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” proved to be an important catalyst in the creation of Die Jim Crow, a non-profit dedicated to giving currently or formerly incarcerated musicians avenues to creative self-realization. The book concerns “the rebirth of a caste-like system in the United States, one that has resulted in millions of African Americans locked up behind bars and then relegated to a permanent second-class status – denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement.”

Since 2013, Young has made it his mission to do what he can to push back against this kind of systematic marginalization, traveling to prisons across America in search of talented hip-hop, soul, and rock musicians muzzled by imprisonment. Once talent is found, he organizes groups of like-minded artists and arranges recording sessions right there in the prisons.

This Saturday in Bushwick, Young and company celebrate a further step in Die Jim Crow’s evolution: the launching of a $50k Kickstarter campaign they hope will fund a DJC record label, which of course will be dedicated to work by ex or currently incarcerated artists.

Deonte Leary (left) and Charles Williams at Warren Correctional Institution.

The event will be hosted by Maxwell Melvins of Lifers Group, a hip-hop unit born from New Jersey State Prison in the early 1990s. Set to perform at the event are Philly rappers BL Shirelle, Freedom Rider and Shotta Montgomery, and Baltimore R&B singer Michael Austin.

Ex-prisoners all, Austin spent a jaw-dropping 27 years in Maryland’s prison system for a murder he didn’t commit. Sentenced in 1975 to life, he was released in 2001 after his charges were dismissed due to, among other things, perjury and prosecutorial misconduct. He was later awarded $1.4 million in compensation by the state of Maryland.

While never having been to prison himself, Young’s upbringing as the child of a social worker in the pre-gentrification Lower East Side positioned him on that world’s periphery. A lifelong activist, he was a member of Occupy Los Angeles and involved in the environmental justice movement. In 2012, he moved back to New York. The following year, he read “The New Jim Crow,” prompting his correspondence with correctional institutions.

Die Jim Crow founder/director Fury Young (left), talking to inmate Anthony “Big Ant” McKinney at Ohio’s Warren Correctional Institution.

Initially, Young envisioned one long concept album featuring ex or current convicts, and he heard it primarily as falling under the umbrella of hip-hop. But there was too much material for just  one album. Hence the label.

“I was trying to fit a lot on this concept LP, because I wanted to cover all these diverse prison experiences that I’d gathered,” explained Young, by phone from San Francisco. “But now [with the label] we can put those other songs on tons of different projects.”

The material Young has thus far gathered (which has since expanded stylistically from hip-hop to include rock and soul) hasn’t fallen at his feet; his is an arduous curation process that starts with gaining preliminary access, usually through a warden or a chaplain. From there, he finds his “point person,” i.e., an inmate who is passionate and perseverant enough to light a fire under the other musically inclined inmates. If there’s enough of a groundswell at a given location, instruments are brought in, rehearsals organized and, eventually, tracks cut with professional grade equipment and in places like the prison library, visiting rooms, and areas adjacent to cell blocks. At the Mississippi juvenile prison, in fact, at least one recording was made in the facility’s barber shop.

Age of participates has ranged from 15 (the Mississippi inmates) to, as an example, Carl Dukes, a former prisoner in his 70s.

BL Shirelle (foreground), Philly rapper and deputy director of Die Jim Crow.

Die Jim Crow is bearing fruit: three of the four musicians slated to perform Saturday, the aforementioned Shotta Montgomery, Freedom Writer and BL Shirelle, were inmates at Muncy State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania who corresponded with Young prior to their release. Shirelle, in fact, has come on as Deputy Director of the Die Jim Crow organization.

Potential donors to the non-profit’s label-launching Kickstarter fund should also know that Young and Die Jim Crow already have an EP under their belt. Released in 2016 and featuring, among others, BL Shirelle and Carl Dukes, the disc is, per Young, essentially a “proof of concept” to potential naysayers.

Many gaps remain for Young to fill. One concern is money: prison authorities have balked at paying prisoners for their time, but Young plans to try and convince administrators of at least one southern correctional institution to let him set the inmates up with royalty trusts.

Event host Maxwell Melvins, founder of Lifers Group.

Still in the works, as well, is the original concept LP that Young conceived of back in 2013. One missing piece is a close-knit backing band.

“I want to try and find a group of people from one prison that can really be a conductor of the [album’s] sound,” explained Young, who doesn’t expect the album to see the light of day until roughly August, 2022. (The label, meanwhile, should be in operation by May, 2020.)

Aside from live music, this Saturday’s event will feature an art show courtesy of Bushwick Open Studios and the organization that brought “Escaping Time,” an art exhibit featuring the work of incarcerated individuals, to Governors Island last May. Beer is on the house, and food will be provided by Jamaican Fyre, a pop-up owned by Rusty, a veteran of the prison system himself. The event will be housed at Sets & Effects (1239 Dekalb Ave @ Evergreen Ave). September 21, doors at 7 p.m., music at 8 p.m.

All images courtesy of Die Jim Crow.

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