The Book

Prison Music: Containment, Escape, and the Sound of America by Jeb Aram Middlebrook is a cultural history of prison in the United States from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century, told through the sound of incarceration in American popular culture, policy, and protest. The book explores the popularity of prison in the United States through an examination of the aesthetics and politics of incarceration, and argues that prison is a foundational organizing principle for conceptions of freedom, justice, citizenship, democracy, and culture in the United States. The book makes this argument by analyzing sounds from and about prison in relation to: 1) music containing themes, lyrics, and/or sonics referencing the criminal justice system,  2) policies and practices of policing, imprisonment, and detention, and 3) organized protest and resistance to the prison state. The project offers an interdisciplinary and transhistorical approach to studies of music, prison, and race.

The chapters draw a sonic arc between the increase of prisons post-Civil War to the increase of detention centers post-9/11 by tracing sounds of prison across otherwise assumed boundaries of genre, discipline, nation, and race. The book analyzes how music, sound, and noise inform the possibilities and limitations of collective escape from the United (carceral) States. Prison Music draws from historical and community archives, prison literature, field recordings, popular music, and law in order to read sounds and images of prison music as analytical metaphors to think through the role of prisons in U.S. society and beyond.

The Blog

The Prison Music Blog (prisonmusicblog.wordpress.com) is a collection of research objects inspired by the book, Prison Music: Containment, Escape, and the Sound of America, by Jeb Aram Middlebrook. This online collection references sounds, sights, and songs from or about prison past and present, and together help define what the author terms “prison music” or “states of prison”: political and aesthetic formations that materially and culturally structure the prison state in and beyond the United States. Contributors include students studying justice, race, and sound at California State University, Dominguez Hills, among others. View the research objects below.

Warning Bars from Behind Bars

Aleem #207015, Knowledge Born Allah,#210748, Tarell ‘Amazing G’ Baker #212238, Basil ‘B-Wise’ Al-Kudair #200662, Original #219625, Rocky D #200394, Chuck X #215476, Nathan ‘Merciful’ Moore #212834, Almighty L, #209021

The Lifer’s Group are real-life inmates at New Jersey’s infamous Rahway State Penitentiary who recorded an album and this music video from behind bars. This video was supposed to be a hip-hop equivalent of “Scared Straight!“, showing what happens if you are juvenile living the gangster life on the streets. When these inmates describe the hell of their day-to-day existences and what led to their incarceration, it’s clear that they’re actually living the nightmare they document. The Lifers’ message to young felons on the outside it clear: ‘change your ways before you end up like us

The TV series “Beyond Scared Straight” adopted this in-your-face deterrent method that the Lifers Group were doing, but took it further to where family members sign their misbehaving adolescents into organized programs at their local prison to be exposed to what can possibly be at the end of the road that they are currently walking down. Although, a 2002 study examined the effectiveness of programs comprising organized visits to prisons by juvenile delinquents or predelinquents, aimed at deterring them from criminal activity. It was concluded that programs like that used this ‘Scared Straight’ method are likely to have a harmful effect and increase delinquency relative to doing nothing at all to the same youths.

-Teddy Bomber




A light in the dark

The lack of privacy, being told what and when to eat, and the constant threat of violence is a dark dehumanizing experience of a prisoner. Every now and then, a light in the form of musical artistic expression illuminates the need for creativity and hope in these darkened dens. Above is a live recording of when Johnny Cash played his song ‘Cocaine Blues’ at a performance for the prisoners at Folsom State Prison in Northern California. Johnny Cash performed at dozens of prisons throughout his career, but first became enamored with Folsom Prison after watching the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison in 1953, and was inspired to write “Folsom Prison Blues”.  The song in turn became hugely popular among inmates, which many of whom frequently wrote to Cash begging him to perform at their jailhouses.

This yearning for the creative arts like music, has lead to the creation of programs across the nation in many prison institutions that instruct and encourage the fine arts. There has been growing pressure on policy makers and practitioners to support evidence-based programs shown to be effective in helping incarcerated men and women develop positive attitudes and life-effectiveness skills to prepare them for reentry into their communities. There is literature that shows “cognitive, social and personal competencies are cultivated through arts instruction and practice”, and there is evidence that these enhanced competencies extend to inmates involved in prison fine arts programs. These programs often provide authentic learning experiences that engage the minds and hearts of the incarcerated. This study showed that inmates in a Norway Prison benefited in a number of ways when educated in the arts, and that the “educators have a unique opportunity to reach many individuals who have high educational priority” who have been discouraged to seek the education themselves given their situation.

-Teddy Bomber


Overcrowding of American Jails

Brand Nubian is a rap group that consists of Grand Puba, Lord Jamar, and Sadat X, as well as DJ Alamo and DJ Sincere from New Rochelle, New York. The group is known for its political content and its adherence to the doctrine of the Nation of Gods and Earths.

Their 1994 track ‘Claiming I’m a Criminal’ sheds light on multiple issues of American Prisons and the experiences of being incarcerated in a broken system. One of the key issues that is brought up in the first verse by Lord Jamar is the overcrowding of jails throughout the nation, with the line “overcrowded jails but for me they’re making space.” This is insinuating that due to the current overcrowded jails, either they will cruelly add him along with other prisoners to these jails or just create more private prisons that will eventually reach over-capacity as well.

A 1994 study by the Federal Bureau of Prisons found that overcrowding is indeed a problem in many prison facilities, but failed to find that prison density affects the  mortality, morbidity, recidivism, violence, or other pathological behaviors of inmates. Later, in a 2006 study by a Stanford Law Professor Craig Haney, found that a high prison population does indeed have a direct, negative effect on the psychological state of inmates. It was discovered that overcrowding has been known to cause far more stressful situations and has prompted prison officials to react inappropriately on occasion due to being forced to accommodate ill-advised numbers of prisoners. Although the initial study by the Federal Bureau of Prisons found that overcrowding is a real issue, it did not come to the same conclusions as the study by Craig Haney. This suggests that there is some negligence on behalf of the Federal Government on the affects of the social, psychological, and economical implications brought on by the current state of the American Prison system.

-Teddy Bomber


Pluto by Future

Escapism in hip hop used to mean working hard to escape poverty and systems of oppression.  When NWA  had ‘something to say’ it was ‘Fuck the police,’ in response to police brutality in black communities.  When Public Enemy said to ‘Fight the Power’ and ‘911 is A Joke‘it was their way of fighting and escaping white supremacy.  Today, the ‘something to say’ has been drained out of hip hop and escapism has taken on a different form.  West coast rap legend Ice Cube describes escapism in rap today, as talking about weed, getting high, cars, women, jewelry, money- a whole bunch of excess as a way to not deal with your real problems.  Cube’s critique is an analysis from what hip hop is supposed to be, to what it has become.  Future’s Pluto is an example of what Ice Cube described as escapism.  Aside from its pop culture appeal, Future’s debut album Pluto is not a well-received hip hop record.  His overuse of auto tunes, elementary rhymes and stale metaphors demonstrates a lack of authentic hip hop aesthetics.  This has become an over-saturated trend in hip hop fueled by popular and consumer culture.  However, just being a ‘wack rapper’ is not the main issue.  The problem is when one misuses their influence to promote escapism through drugs, crime, and excess lifestyles that are detrimental to the very people you are supposed to inspire.  Ice Cube describes this trend as taking the easy way out when ‘we ain’t really come out of that.’  This phenomenon is also an extension of what Michel Foucault described as the ‘docile body,’  only instead of it being cause by crime and punishment, it is rooted in Capitalist and consumer culture, which is simply an extension of imperialistic modes of control.


The Funkadelic movement

In the 1970’s, headed by George Clinton, the P Funk or Funkadelic movement toyed with psychedelia, interplanetary travel, and “Afronauts” descending to earth. Other groups like Earth, Wind & Fire’s stage show combined Egyptology, African spirituality, and interplanetary travel in their efforts to demonstrate that their extremely successful and incredibly distinctive brand of jazz horn-driven gospel-soul-funk did not recognize borders or boundaries of any sort, whether temporal, spatial, spiritual, musical, cultural, or racial.  Although often overlooked, there are a series of themes revolving around escapism, utopianism, and futurism that run through most of the 1970’s funk that could be more or less interpreted as a music and cultural response to the various crises confronting black people.  In his book, The Hip Hop Movement, Reiland Rabaka contends that culturally and historically, the escapism, utopianism, and futurism from the 1970’s funk are important, in light of the fact that life for black people had become so unlivable that it was only in outer space, or in some other world summoned up by psychedelic drugs, mysticism, and magic. On the other hand, via some quasi-black nationalist vision of a lost Atlantis-like African paradise that it seemed possible for African Americans to finally escape, live in peace and be respected by other people.


The Hip Hop Wars by Tricia Rose

Most of the older expressions of escapism in hip hop involved escaping systems of oppression.  Prior to its monetary profitability, people “did hip hop” for the sake of its aesthetics and cultural appropriation.  For some it even served as a spiritual escape from the ills of the world, even if temporary.  With the commercialization of rap music, hip hop has been transformed from a tool for change of society, to changing the tool into a phenomenon that exploits and destroys society. For example, Public Enemy said to “fight the power” while today rappers like Big Sean say “I don’t fuck with you.”  The moral compass and values system that once was the foundation of hip hop has been replaced with Pop Culture trends that are centered on popularity, narcissism, misogyny and objectification.  In hip hop escapism has always referred to a process that ultimately transcends societal boundaries; whether social or artistic expression, while in pop culture or today’s commercial rap the escape is from society itself to become rich and famous.  In her book The Hip Hop Wars, Tricia Rose details the many discussions against and in favor of hip hop culture, including the commercialization process.  Rose argues that the commercialization of hip hop has become a breeding ground for the most explicitly exploitative and increasingly one-dimensional narratives of black urban ghetto life fashioned by violence, criminality, and sexual deviance.  This is a huge shift from the earlier and more substance based rap music of the 80’s and early 90’s.  She notes that hip hop has gone from being a means of escaping negative stereotypes, to becoming a playground for caricatures of black gangstas, pimps and hoes.


Hip Hop and B Boyin

Image result for hip hop b boying

When hip-hop artists such as Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy critiqued their state of oppression, it also let the listener know that the artist came from a place were justice was expected.  In the book, Urban God Talk, Andre Johnson contends that “when hip hop pioneers focused on themes that centered on partying and having a good time as a method of escapism from frequent inequality, this could also be understood as hip hop’s cultural expectation of equality.”  Inner -city youth knew they weren’t inferior and deserved equality.   Hip hop was the vehicle they used to translate this message.  This was the flip side of the “American Dream.”  As such, in those days hip hop itself was the vehicle of escape, whether the “gathering period” of the early 1970’s or the implementation of the core principles and elements by the Zulu Nation.  Prior to the inception of hip hop, New York city was plagued by deindustrialization, poverty, political disenfranchisement, and gang violence under what Jeff Chang described as urban renewal plans.  B Boyin in Hip hop served as a response and escape from that horrific reality whereby youth found salvation, liberation and a voice that would carry an entire generation.  The focus was not on the subject matter of any particular expression but rather the focus was on the act itself.  Just being a B Boy was the escape.