4.03.2010

Lyrics from Lockdown:: One-on-one with Brooklyn's own actor and prison activist Bryonn Bain

(Bryonn Bain is Brooklyn's own prison activist, spoken word poet, hip hop artist, actor, author and educator. His one-man show "Lyrics From Lockdown" is coming to Houston on April 5 at the University of Houston campus. I went one-on-one with him about his talents, his wrongful imprisonment and the prison industrial complex of America)


Jesse Muhammad (JM):: First thank you for doing this interview with me. Can you give me a little background about yourself and how you became a multi-disciplinary artist?

Bryonn Bain (BB):: From the time I was seven years old, I sang calypso songs I learned from my dad and Harry Belafonte. Songs like “Bun Dem” and “Matilda”. My brothers and I loved the Jackson 5 and New Edition and did our own versions of their hits at every talent show we could find in New York. My father actually won his way to Harlem’s Apollo theater stage 40 years ago -- singing his own calypso songs in Trinidad under the stage name “Lord Crepsole” – which means “Lord Sneakers” back in the islands. Pops got the name wearing black chucks on stage with a black suit. We heard stories like that growing up and performed in Hip Hop and R&B groups since we were shorties.

Watching my cousins – The Fu Schnickens – leave Brooklyn to tour the world with Tupac and Digital Underground made us believe anything was possible at an early age. We started performing in prisons during the holidays back in ‘89. Nothing political, just wanted to show brothers on lock some love. Had no idea I’d be doing “Lyrics from Lockdown” over 20 years later.

JM:: During your second year at Harvard law school, your life took an interesting turn involving a wrongful imprisonment. What happened?

BB:: My brother, my cousin and I were locked up for a crime we did not commit. We were Black and Latino and happened to be at the scene of the crime – in a mostly White neighborhood. The cops figured as long as they locked up the first ni--ers they could find, it wouldn’t make much difference. They were wrong. My mentor, warrior lawyer Lani Guinier, encouraged me to publish my story and it received more responses than any other articles ever published in the history of the Village Voice – the most widely read progressive weekly newspaper in the nation. The following week, “60 minutes” called me and said Mike Wallace wanted to interview me about the story- - “Walking while Black: The bill of rights for Black men.” I agreed, but only if my brother and cousin could be interviewed too. A few months later, 20 million viewers saw us retell our story on national television.

JM:: How have you used that incident to liberate yourself and others instead of letting it take you down?

BB:: I started the “Lyrics on Lockdown” prison tour -- initially with the support of the open society institute – (big shout to soros and osi…). My fam organized artists, activists and educators to perform and facilitate workshops in prisons around the country with the non-profit organization I founded with my fam – Blackout Arts Collective. We spent five years raising awareness about the prison crisis this way.

It’s a shame that even with this historic Presidential victory, we hardly hear a peep from elected officials about the fact that the U.S. imprisons more people than any other nation in the world – while fighting wars in the name of freedom and democracy overseas.

Ultimately, Blackout decided to work with activists like Nanon Williams, with the support of groups like Nawisa, Prison Moratorium Project, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Critical Resistance, and the
Ella Baker Center for Human Rights (big shout!), to “localize” these efforts to be more effective. Courses were created to link university students to incarcerated teens, women and men in states around the nation. Students at Columbia University, New York University and the New School University for Social Research, for example, facilitate arts-based literacy workshops in college and graduate courses offered to young folks incarcerated at Rikers Island Prison – the largest penal colony in the world.

JM:: When you play a particular role or write a particular script, what do you want your audiences to walk away with?

BB:: Generally speaking, to deepen understanding and expand consciousness through art and entertainment. But it depends on the project and the story. In theater and film, part of the magic is to utilize the art of the illusion to get to the truth. Inspiring thought and action intended to improve the human condition is one of the important goals of activist-oriented projects, but sometimes even our laughter can be the medicine necessary to see ourselves and new solutions to old problems. Paul Mooney and Dave Chappelle are masters of this. Before them, Richard Pryor was the greatest sociologist of the 20th century because of his ability to make us think about the problems of our world in unconventional ways. That’s the spark necessary to the honest dialogue social movements can be built around. Augusto Boal used interactive theater to achieve this in Brazil. Black folks in this country use the same interactivity in the call and response practices of our Hip Hop concerts, poetry venues, churches, mosques and even movie theaters. You know we love to talk to the screen!

JM:: I read that you have been bringing a message of upliftment to the prisons. Do you think this country's prison system is truly about reform? How have you used your experience and gifts to enlighten those on lock down?

BB:: The prison industrial complex is not intended to reform or rehabilitate. It is the best place to learn how to commit crimes of all kinds in the nation. The twisted irony is that the prison population has exploded from 200,000 in the 1970’s to over 2 million today by locking up people charged with non-violent, victimless, and mostly drug-related crimes. Some of the folks I have met in prisons around the country have enlightened me far more than I have them; like Nanon. The brother is an inspiring poet, author, activist, and the valedictorian of his college class. And it is not uncommon to find this kind of intellect and passion behind bars in the U.S. today. In Springfield, Ohio I met a 15 year old kid at the Clark County Detention Center in November who blew my mind. James Calinowski was sentenced to 98 days, but after I performed part of the show I’m bringing to Houston on April 5th, he decided to stay behind bars for an extra day– just so he could participate in the poetry slam I was hosting later that week. On his 99th day locked up, James competed with a poem he wrote in our workshop -- and won.

JM:: That’s awesome! Explain what gave birth to the idea of "Lyrics from Lockdown". Why did you choose to focus particularly on the case of Nanon Williams when there are so many young brothers like him in the U.S.?


BB:: Nanon started writing me from prison several years ago. In one of his first letters, he told me that he was circulating my Village Voice articles to brothers on death row. I was so humbled by their response that we started exchanging letters on the regular. I went down to visit him in Palestine, Texas. A Swiss activist who worked with Nawisa and Amnesty International, Andrea Huber, had already introduced me to his writings, and, Kennedy School professor Nolan Bowie suggested that I write a “Hip Hop opera” about the unbelievably true story of my wrongful imprisonment.
I know how I felt terrorized by my brief stay behind bars, but I couldn’t imagine telling my own story without sharing some of Nanon’s experience with the world through his moving letters and poetry.

JM:: Do you think more artists need to shed light on serious issues?

BB:: We shouldn’t be trapped in that because there is subversive power even in comedy. That said, Abiodun of the last poets said it best after we closed the Hip Hop Theater Festival in NYC last November. Brother dun (who wrote “ni--az are scared of revolution”) came on stage and said that he realized when he was serving time – or rather, letting time serve him – we are living in serious times and we need to use our art to address what’s going on in the world. It is an honor to walk on that path and be supported by the elders who have inspired me. The disconnect between the civil rights/Black power and Hip Hop generation has been one of our greatest limitations. Artists who do make that connection end up being carriers of the tradition of griots passed on by not only the Last Poets, but Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Haki Madhubuti. It goes back before Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and comes up to the emergence of Hip Hop generation legends like Rakim, KRS-One, Public Enemy, Outkast, Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and the beat goes on...

JM:: When we sit down and watch "Lyrics from Lockdown" on April 5, what do you want us as a Houston community to do?

BB:: Free Nanon Williams! That’s the strategy session I would like us to have with those who have been working on his case for over 15 years. Folks like Gloria Rubac and Nawisa. Other activists who have gotten involved in the last decade or so – folks like Hahleemah Wright and Houston artists like Saavy and Equality.

We are living in the midst of modern-day slavery – that’s what the prison system in America is. And we need to make this common knowledge and recruit as many “Harriet Tubmans” as possible to come out and collectively work for the freedom of our folks who don’t deserve to be incarcerated. But we can’t just tear the system down without envisioning what we will replace it with afterwards. We have to begin building healthier communities. This starts with each of us facing our own demons and tackling our own personal contradictions. I know I have mine, and many of them come out in the show. We need to build an abolitionist movement around the nation that is committed to de-carceration, but each of us has our own prisons we have to work on liberating ourselves from as well.

My prayer is that everyone who watches the production will be moved to ask “what can I do?”” and be willing to get involved in some way to help bring brother Nanon and others like him home where they belong. Take a day off from work and show up to his court date – whenever it is rescheduled. The date was originally planned for April 6, but was recently postponed. Show support for another brother wrongfully convicted for a crime he did not commit.

You shouldn’t have to have the same Ivy League education as our beloved President Barack Obama just to get justice in the 21st century. That’s the world I want to see and the change I want us all to breathe in. Come through and build. We got work to do, family.

JM:: Deep words. Thank you and I will see you at the show!


(See Bryonn perform "Lyrics From Lockdown" on April 5 in Houston at the University of Houston campus at 7PM. For more information please visit www.BryonnBain.com, www.LyricsfromLockdown.com, and www.BlackoutArtsCollective.com)