Music is probably the only real magic I have encountered in my life. There’s not some trick involved with it. It’s pure and it’s real. It moves, it heals, it communicates and does all these incredible things.
My father doesn’t have a lot of happy memories from growing up. Williamsburg, Brooklyn wasn’t a hipster paradise in the 1950’s, it was a place where he got shot at on the playground, where gangs ruled, and where racial tensions often turned violent. My dad smoked a pack a day by 11, and, while he avoided the gang life that claimed some of his older brothers, was addicted to hard drugs by the time he was 14.
But there’s one idyllic part of my dad’s early years that he talks about with a smile: music. No matter what else was going on, he and his brothers would sing doo wop on the corner — their voices blending in harmony. Hearing his stories, I truly believe that, on many occasions, music saved my father’s life. When pain and drugs and crime surrounded him, music brought the beauty of the world back into focus, centered him, and gave him joy.
That’s what music does, and the power it has to transform and save lives. It gives voice to the voiceless.
Nobody knows that better than legendary guitarist and founder of the band MC5, Wayne Kramer. He’s also the co-founder of the American branch of Jail Guitar Doors, an organization founded by Billy Bragg in the UK to bring instruments and music classes to prison inmates.
“What art can do is it can restore you,” the punk legend tells Uproxx, “it can restore you in your relationships with other people in the world.”
Art, Kramer continues, restores your relationship to the outside world, your family, your friends, and your community. “Those are the things that prisons strip away from you,” he says.
Kramer knows exactly how prison can strip away who you are. He’s been there. In fact, Jail Guitar Doors takes its name from a 1977 song by The Clash of the same name — the song’s lyrics include a line about Kramer and his “deals of cocaine.”
“For a few years, I was known as 00180190’,” Kramer says. “I was an illegitimate capitalist. I aided and abetted the sale of cocaine.”
As a recovering addict, and former inmate, Kramer knows the isolation that prisoners feel from society, other people, and their humanity. His new goal is to give them a way to reclaim those pieces of themselves through music.
“I had known Wayne for a long time as a musician, as an activist,” fellow musician Tom Morello says, recounting a benefit concert he played at Sing Sing in New York, “but when Wayne stood before the inmates at Sing Sing Prison, he really spoke in their language in both an empathetic way and a commanding way about the power of rock and roll to liberate the soul.”
This work of liberating prisoners has become Kramer’s ultimate passion project. Jail Guitar Doors, he explains, finds people who work in corrections who are willing to use music as a tool for positive change. Then, they provide the tools, instruments, and teachers needed to help students express their feelings in a non-confrontational way, though music. For incarcerated students, the program gives them a new identity. They become someone who adds beauty into the world, Kramer exlains. That’s a very powerful thing
“You have to only eat with your group, talk to your group, your race,” Montrell D. Harrell, a student of the program at California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, California says of prison life, “So if you’re black you can only talk to the black guys. You can’t talk to the whites or the Hispanics. You have to be tough, you have to be the toughest guy.”
Harrell felt bound by these distinctions before the program. The stakes of not appearing tough in prison were life or death. But joining Jail Guitar Doors, and being able to express himself through music, has changed that reality dramatically for him. He talks to other guys in the program outside of class, and he’s stopped caring about being tough. He hopes he can take that empathy and connection that he’s learned into his life outside of prison.
“It took me a long time, maybe eight years to break that down,” Harrell says. “This program helps you break that down and be how you’re going to be when you get back to society.”
“The skill they learn here is how to listen,” teaching artist Jason Heath tells Uproxx. “And something strange happens when you start to listen, you start to be able to be heard as well. It’s a two-way street.”
Teaching in the program is worth as much to Heath as it is to the men he teaches. “To see some of these guys moved to tears over a song,” he says. “Or just the fact that someone took the time out to do something for them and treat them of value is moving”
Today, Jail Guitar Doors has guitars and programs running in 105 American prisons. And it’s making a difference. Time in class can equate to time off a prisoner’s sentence, and the skills they learn, Kramer says, unlock parts of themselves emotionally that they take with them when they leave. The program, he explains, is “a key that unlocks the prison cell, gate, and the key to unlock the rest of your life.”
Jail Guitar Doors gives its students the chance to be listened to, believed in, and to connect with those around them, and the new skills they learn in class give them back their creativity and a sense of value. Music is a source of liberation in their lives. A vehicle for hope.
“Even though I’m locked up,” Harrell says. “I’m free right now.”