“I need to get into a women’s prison. I need to get into another men’s prison. Maybe I can get into two women’s prisons, or three more men’s prisons,” Fury Young said, punching his open hand with his fist emphatically. “I don’t know, but I want to try and at least get into one more of each.”
I realized the Bushwick-based prison reform activist wasn’t really directing this statement toward me– instead he was drilling himself about what remains left of his enormously ambitious passion project. For years, Young has been at work on Die Jim Crow– an effort that, so far, has taken him to a State Prison in Ohio and to neighborhoods in New York City and Philadelphia with particularly high incarceration rates. Along the way, he has recorded and collaborated with musicians who, at one time or another, have spent time behind bars or are currently locked up. “It’s the first anti-prison album recorded in prison,” he explained.
By now you’re well aware that activists are waging to put an end to this country’s archaic incarceration practices, including insanely high rates of imprisonment (amongst the highest in the world), solitary confinement, and the death penalty– all of which cannot be mentioned without addressing the unequal burden placed on people of color and the paralyzing and traumatic effects these conditions have on individuals, families, friends, and entire communities. In light of all this, Fury’s project might seem, at best, inconsequential and at worst, like a distraction from the larger issues. But that just means you haven’t listened to the Die Jim Crow EP (you can stream it online for free over here), which was released at the beginning of May.
The EP features six songs in which vocal storytelling are front-and-center– here, the lyrics about various aspects of prison life (being assigned a number in place of your name, parole hearings, getting out). And each track reveals a different combination of stylistic influences including R&B, rap, blues, rock n’ roll, even gospel– all historically black music traditions that, together, manage to avoid sounding like a mishmash. That’s certainly owed to the consistency in recording quality thanks to co-producer dr. Israel (aka “Doc”), an experienced musician and sound engineer who teamed up with Fury for the project.
If you read B+B’s first article about Die Jim Crow, after we interviewed Fury back in August 2014, you’re probably feeling a little confused. That’s because the project has changed enormously since that initial plan. Back then, inspired by Michelle Alexanders and The New Jim Crow, Fury was preparing to embark on a road trip with a guy named G Law (aka Michael Ta’bon) who, as an artist and activist, envisioned a pretty wacky plan that involved traveling across the U.S. in “a prison bus” and stopping at various prisons along the way to collect recordings. “It was extremely unrealistic, we were thinking we were going to get into all these prisons,” Fury recalled. “I was a lot younger then, and inexperienced with working with the Department of Corrections– I didn’t realize how long it takes to get from the point of submitting the proposal to getting actual access. It takes forever.”
The plan fell through, but Fury said he believes he’s proceeding “the right way” now. “Doc is just super experienced with recording, and we’re getting the best-quality sounds– there’s no way that I would have gotten as good quality music and recordings if I went on that road trip.”
To talk about the progress of Die Jim Crow, I met Fury recently at a Bushwick cafe. He immediately struck me as a reformed-punk type of activist, with his scraggly hair and actually ripped clothing (as opposed to premeditated slashes). His scruffy look comes with the territory– by day, Fury is a carpenter. By night (and whatever extra time he manages to sacrifice from his sleep schedule and social life), he’s a budding prison reform activist. (Though I can’t say I’ve ever actually seen them together, Fury and his brother, writer/artist Royal Young, who we spoke with last fall about his series of saturated psychedelic paintings, probably make quite the pair.)
When it’s ideally and fully realized, Die Jim Crow will not only be an epic, three-part LP with three “acts” (pre-prison, prison, and re-entry), but a galaxy of related art and media including paintings and other visual art pieces, and a pair of books that document the last three years of work on the project (the first one is out later this month). Fury even plans to make a music video, something he wouldn’t divulge too much about (he has yet to start shooting). “I’ll just say this– I have a 15′-by-15′ birdcage that I built for a film set, and that’s gonna be in the video– it’s gonna be very epic.” He guessed the video will be released sometime in September.
Fury described the 175-page hardcover EP book as “epic” in its content, which includes collage work, photos, artwork made in prison, essays penned behind bars, and even interviews with the inmates. “There’s so much behind this project,” Fury explained. “There are so many stories, so much energy, and to put it out just as an EP or an LP wouldn’t do it justice.”
Even though I heard just a few details about them, it’s clear that the inmates have some incredible backstories to tell (and many of them are contained in the songs). Anthony “Big Ant” McKinney (a drummer and multi-instrumentalist) wrote the song “Tired and Weary” with searing vocals about serving “28 to life” for a crime he says he didn’t commit. The song recounts, in great detail, the night that landed him in prison, and the experience of being locked up based on a conviction by an “all white, all white, no jury of my peers.”
“Anthony’s an amazing guy, he dropped out of high school but he’s a pro se litigant, his own attorney, and he’s fighting tooth-and-nail to get out of there,” Fury said. “Basically, Anthony got accused of shooting someone– he didn’t do it, he’s been incarcerated for 11 years now. He’s either in the law library or he’s working on music, that’s all he does. I’ve never met anyone who wanted to get out of prison so bad.”
Stories from his formerly incarcerated collaborators also make an appearance. “With Monique, she just told me that she didn’t feel equipped to go back out into the world and do the straight-and-narrow,” Fury explained. “She got locked up when she was 18, so it was a weird transition for her, so she got back into her old habits and next thing you know she’s back in under a drug charge.”
While you won’t hear all of the people Fury’s worked with on the EP, the idea behind releasing it now was to keep interest afloat leading up to the completion of the full album, which will include tracks by formerly and even more presently incarcerated musicians he hopes to work with in the future. The musicians serving time at a close-security prison called Warren Correctional Institution in Lebanon, Ohio are a major presence on the EP. “There are people who are doing life, people who are never going to get out,” Fury explained. “They don’t have a death row, but they do have a solitary-confinement unit. It’s weird, it looks kind of like a community college campus, but like a really ugly community college campus.”
Depending on their status in the prison, and on the particular prison rules, some inmates are granted access to instruments. “Every prison’s different. At Warren, they can actually play guitars in their cells and stuff,” he explained. “It’s also about, do you have merit status? Are you a ‘trusted inmate?'”
But before he and Doc were granted access to the correctional facility, Fury corresponded with several prisoners to start writing songs and developing relationships with the musicians. He said that letter writing was a major factor in ensuring that the music sounds as good as it does. “It’s about building relationships and building trust– I wrote with my main songwriters, Mark, Anthony, and Charles, for about seven months before the first sessions.”
Once they were finally allowed in, Doc and Fury were able to visit Warren for two separate recording sessions. The first was held in January 2015, when the duo worked mostly with an existing musical ensemble called the UMOJA Choir, and the second later that year in November. Despite these relatively few face-to-face encounters, Fury’s relationships with the inmates were intense. “It’s this very special relationship, it’s so deep and so unique, I cherish them a lot,” he explained. “And then when they get out, it’s that much more powerful because you can actually talk.”
The separation between Fury and Doc and the inmates, was palpable and, at first, even a little awkward. “The first day I felt this sort of geographical and psychological divide, where we were stationed on one side and [the inmates] were on the other,” he recalled. “It felt weird, but by day two that was all broken and as I was giving the guys notes or just talking with them, I sat over by them. It felt a lot more like, we’re all people now, we’re all equal, even though you’re over there in the prison blues [state uniform].”
Even though the producers were only allowed in the visiting room and never caught a glimpse of the cell blocks. Still, Fury remained hyperaware of the contrast between his freedom and the inmates’ lack of it. “It’s so strange because the visiting room is like 20 feet from the outside world, like, the gates. So I go in every morning, and I’m working with these guys I’m super close with, Anthony and Mark and Charles, and it’s like I’m seeing my friends, right? It would be like if we just went into this cafe, but I couldn’t leave with you, but you could leave.”
Of course, being in a prison presented several challenges to the recording process. “We built a recording studio every day,” he explained. “I had C-stands and sound blankets, I cut a hole in the sound blanket and put some plexiglass in there so it felt like they were in the booth– I mean, they were in the booth, everyone was on headphone monitors. They loved it.”
I was surprised to hear that the guards didn’t cause too much trouble. Fury assured me that the “COs,” or correctional officers, get a bad rap, but that most of them are simply regular people doing their job. “A lot of times they’re even on good terms with the people who are incarcerated,” he explained. “Some of them were really more hard-ass than others, but I’d say that most of the ones that I encountered, I had pleasant experiences with. I tell them about the project, and they say, ‘Yeah, that’s important.’ I think everyone knows the jig is up. It’s no secret.”
Of course, Fury isn’t the first to record music inside prisons nor is he the first producer to collaborate with inmates and formerly incarcerated people. Lead Belly, the legendary blues musician who recently earned a plaque outside his former home in the East Village, was “discovered” by Alan Lomax in the 1930s while serving a sentence in a Louisiana penitentiary. Fury named two doo-wop groups, The Prisonaires and The Escorts, and a ’90s hip-hop group called Lifers Group. “All of these are examples of recordings that were what the producer wanted to hear or, like with Alan Lomax, are field recordings of the era– but Die Jim Crow is kind of both,” he explained.
With Die Jim Crow, Fury is walking a narrow tightrope– on one side, there’s the risk of exploitation, and on the other, the risk of paternalism– it’s a balancing act that a slightly less knowledgable and not-as passionate person could easily screw up. (Clayton Patterson walked a similar line with his book on street gangs of the Lower East Side, which he co-authored with Jose “Cochise” Quiles who spent 25 years in prison.) But Fury does all the right things by compensating his collaborators ($200 advance, plus royalties) and maintaining a level of creative distance from the inmates so as not to project his own ideas onto their stories and their music.
“There’s definitely my influence as the producer, so I know the storyline that I’m trying to tell,” he said. But aside from basic pitches to the inmates about the song’s subject (e.g. “song about prison food,” or “song about solitary confinement”), Fury takes several steps away from the writing process. “As the producer, I’m also trying to be as invisible as possible once that storyline is established.”
That same commitment to making things right is seen in Fury’s refusal to move forward with the Die Jim Crow LP without actually completing the project. He recently completed a Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $18,000, well over his target. And right now, Fury is corresponding with a number of musicians in several prisons. “One thing that I’m really trying to do with this EP is to make it a calling card to get into new prisons,” he said. “I mean, I don’t think I should release the LP until I’ve recorded inside of a women’s prison. I just don’t think that’s right.” Although Fury has reasonable expectations about how and when the project will be completed. “I mean, I write to people in over eight prisons, but I don’t think I can really get access to them any time soon,” he said. He’s continuing to work at gaining access to others, including two women’s prisons– York in Connecticut and Bedford Hills in Westchester. “I’m going to try again in Louisiana– look, anywhere, as long as it’s not a jail.”
I wondered, exactly, why Fury wasn’t interested in recording inside jails for this project. “It’s a very different environment. I’ve been to Rikers, and it’s so much more intense than going to a prison, in a way, because it’s so transient. You have people there– one guy didn’t pay his parking tickets and he just wants to go home to his wife and kids or whatever, and then the next person just got caught with a body– so it’s very weird, and it’s pretty fucked up because it’s totally the new Jim Crow in front of your eyes. You go in that waiting line and everyone is people of color, everyone, it’s crazy. But if you want a real New York experience, just go to Rikers Island.”
Follow the “Die Jim Crow” project here. Check out two upcoming prison art shows, one at the Sheen Center in Soho (June 4 through July 17) and the next one on view at Governor’s Island from late July through September.