"The American apartheid is coming to a head": Ani DiFranco on oppression and "Prison Music Project"

DiFranco & Zoe Boekbinder spoke to Salon about collaborating with prisoners who tell their stories on a new album

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 5, 2020 5:26PM (EDT)

Zoe Boekbinder and Ani DiFranco for The Prison Music Project (Krys Fox)
Zoe Boekbinder and Ani DiFranco for The Prison Music Project (Krys Fox)

"I can't breathe . . . I can't breathe . . ." Songwriter Bruce "Sincere" Dixon's furious words echo over a low, mournful hum. The inspiration is a grimly familiar phrase. They were the last words of Eric Garner, as NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo held him in a chokehold on a July afternoon in 2014. They have become, unforgivably, even more resonant over the past two weeks, in the wake of the similar death of George Floyd. But when Dixon envisioned his track, it was a commentary not just on Garner's and Oscar Grant's deaths but an unjust and corrupt system that he knows well, as he serves out a 25-years-to-life sentence in New Folsom Prison.

"The Prison Music Project: Long Time Gone" began its life a decade ago, when singer and songwriter Zoe Boekbinder visited New Folsom Prison for what was intended to be a one-time performance. Over the next several years, Boekbinder continued performing, collaborating, and leading workshops there. Now, working with Ani DiFranco and Righteous Babe Records, Boekbinder's long-ago visit has become an album that combines the words of nine incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals like Dixon with the skills and resources of talent from the music world. Profits from the album will benefit communities impacted by mass incarceration, but this isn't an endeavor with ideals above its execution. It's a powerful — and eminently listenable — collection. Because of the constraints of the prison system, most of the artists could not be recorded in their own voices, creating one of the most hypnotically singular-sounding releases of the year so far.

Speaking to Salon via phone recently, Nathen "Nuruddin" Jackson-Brown, one of the album's contributing lyricists, spoke of the power of creativity in confinement. "I got a chance to learn to funnel stuff," he said. "I can funnel my anger into my ink and put it on paper. I can funnel my hurt, my feeling of loneliness being locked in a box with nobody on the outside… instead of bottling up and exploding in anger and/or violence in that environment I was trapped in." Now, Jackson-Brown is working share his experiences with others, and, as he says, "help them understand we are more than just a someone who committed a crime."

That's the aim of the entire project. As DiFranco says in a promo for the album, "It's easy to dehumanize people when we don't know their stories." Music has the power to transform our vision. Salon talked recently to Boekbinder and DiFranco about the project, and its devastating current relevance. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

It feels eerie that this album is coming out this week. It's chilling that one of the tracks is called, "I Can't Breathe." What made you want to make sure that was very clearly one of the first things people see before they even listen to the music, and one of the first messages that people understand about this album?

Zoe Boekbinder: We definitely did some choosing. But what we tried to do throughout is to amplify voices, not edit or decide what the important message was. To let our incarcerated collaborators decide what was important. Sincere — that's what he goes by — that was a freestyle rap at the time. It was right after Eric Garner was murdered by NYPD. That's what was on his mind and that's what he offered.

He called me on the phone yesterday and said, "Hey, I've been thinking with everything that's going on right now, my track, it's really relevant. I've been picturing this music video where it's a montage with all the current protests with my song." Now I'm last-minute trying to make that happen.

Ani DiFranco: That is a beautiful idea. That's a great idea. It's so amazing to see how that track is improvised. That track is coming in that moment, from his heart and his soul and his spleen and his spirit, to this moment.

Both of you have worked so collaboratively your whole careers, it's not surprising that that would be the tone that this particular project would take. Yet this is obviously unique. Aside from the fact that this is in the cause of amplifying voices that don't usually get amplified, that it is a fundraiser, it's also just an artistic project that stands on its own legs. Talk to me a little bit about that process, and about working with this population and with these particular artists.

DiFranco: I hope that it's apparent to the outside world that it is not Zoe and Ani trying to speak for an incarcerated population. It's collaborating with, and it continues with our collaborators, [who] have ideas for videos and are doing podcasts that are co-coordinating with Righteous Babe Radio and pointing us towards the organizations that we're supporting with this project. It's just what really excites me about this collaboration. I think we talked about it for a second in the liner notes. It's going right to the best of our shared humanity. Our resonance, our empathy for each other, our ability to do something, to try to make a positive change.

I really feel like if you listen to the whole journey of the album from beginning to end, you feel each other and the stories and the tragedies that are created with this current criminal justice system. Instead of just knowing that there is something called mass incarceration out there, or intellectually believing that we need to reform the system, you feel what it means. That's the thing you can get with true collaboration. And like Zoe said, just trying to amplify the stories of people who have lived it, who live it.

Zoe, this has been a 10-year project for you. That certainly was not your intention the first time you entered that prison. What was it about this experience that took hold of you, and how did it evolve into what is now coming out this week?

Boekbinder: The first time that I went in, I went in to play three concerts in one day. I didn't know that I would ever go back after that. I thought I was just going to have this experience. I didn't even know there were possibilities beyond that. That's just all I was thinking. That one day changed my life significantly, more than any other experience I've ever had. At the time it was just purely emotional and there were no real words for it. The way that I sort of explain it now is I went in offering music, but I didn't really feel like the music was necessarily the most important thing that I was offering.

Music can carry this too, but I think the most lacking thing inside our criminal justice system and inside prisons is people from the outside, who are not incarcerated, treating incarcerated people like actual, fully dimensional, emotional beings. That was so clear to me in an emotional way that first day, that there was a big lack of that. When I treated these people I was meeting like anybody I would meet anywhere, they acted very surprised and relieved and sort of confused. There was a range of things, but I could tell it was not normal for them to feel seen by someone who was coming from the outside. Since that first day, I've had that reflected back many, many times by multiple people.

That's really why I kept going in. I went in with whatever excuse I could come up with. I was teaching songwriting workshops, but I didn't really feel like I was teaching. We really just would sit in a circle and share songs and workshop together and toss ideas back and forth. Through all of that, I was getting to know a lot of these people. Many of them I would see over and over again. I was learning their stories. And what struck me is that the perception in the outside world is that people in prison are violent people or bad people or dangerous people, first of all. This was not at all what I was seeing in there. What I was seeing was most of these people were lacking opportunity before they got to prison. And that's what led to them being in prison. Systemic racism, classism — mainly those two — impacted them ending up in prison. That was something that I felt like I needed to bring with me. And not just in statistics, not just in facts. I wanted to bring it in story, because like Ani said, it's much more powerful to feel the knowledge.

For the most part, this album is stories of men. And for the most part, the voices on it are feminine. Some of that must be intentional, and it speaks to a really important statement that we need to be making right now in terms of intersectionality.

DiFranco: I guess I'm just instinctually drawn to it. Breaking down barriers is so much a part of this project — incarcerated or free, masculine, feminine, just to hear the story of a human being struggle and pain. I love the idea of the juxtaposition of a female voice singing the story of a man. I love to break down gender barriers like that as well, along with all the others that this project addresses — black, white, privileged and poor, and about human and humans.

Boekbinder: We're addressing systemic oppression and challenging the binary at the same time. Recognizing the identities and the people that are being oppressed, at the same time as asking why.

How does this project feel right now, this week, within a project that began in a different kind of place in our history? We are right now in the midst of a pandemic; we all are really looking to what justice looks like and what injustice looks like. What are you thinking right as this comes out into the world at this very unique moment?

DiFranco: I'm really hoping we can help propel the transformation. The American apartheid is coming to a head. It just cannot be sustained any longer. I think nature itself tells us grand imbalances are unsustainable. You have to reach balance. We will reach balance one way or another. We are presenting, through this project, things like restorative justice. [It] is an alternative methodology and system to our current justice system, based on dialogue, communication, reparation, amends, and transformation. [It's about] actually moving closer after violence and crime have occurred and working through it towards healing, instead of isolating and punishing and a continuation of cycles of violence, which fundamentally does not heal.

All week long leading up to the album, we have interviews and podcasts and explorations about things like restorative justice. We're hearing from all kinds of organizations that do arts and education programs in prisons and are trying to do criminal justice reform. Hopefully, through presenting all these visions and these beautiful life-affirming actions of reform and ideas, we can help propel the process of evolution.

Boekbinder: When I first went into the prison and for the first few years, the criminal justice system was not something that people were talking about in mainstream media. There hadn't been big-time documentaries about it yet. It was still really shrouded, and is much more revealed to us now, which is great. We need to do way more of that because when I talk about the things that I saw inside, people are still shocked. It's shocking, of course. Even if I don't want to, just by breathing and living in this country, I am participating and in a way benefiting from [that system], just because it's part of white supremacy. We are sharing these voices and these feelings, and hopefully it gets a bit closer to people really understanding what that feeling really is.

"The Prison Music Project: Long Time Gone" is available now, and an album release concert will air on Righteous Babe Radio June 12 at 9pm Easter/8pm Central.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Ani Difranco Independent Music Mass Incarceration Prison The Prison Music Project Zoe Boekbinder