Books Not Bars, Norfolk Not Norway, Songs Not Bombs

This Week — mass incarceration history and prison education — with Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Donna Murch, Kaia Stern, and Andrea James. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

Zach Goldhammer: Inspiration for this week’s program came primarily from the work of the historian Elizabeth Hinton, who was been working tirelessly to promote the cause of prison education. As Hinton wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times this week, prisoners should not just receive minimal vocational training—they deserve a first-rate liberal arts education, no different from her students at Harvard:

Imagine if prisons looked like the grounds of universities. Instead of languishing in cells, incarcerated people sat in classrooms and learned about climate science or poetry — just like college students. Or even with them […]

If we believe education is a civil right that improves society and increases civic engagement, then the purpose of prison education shouldn’t be about training people to develop marketable skills for the global economy. Instead, learning gives us a different understanding of ourselves and the world around us, and it provides us tools to become more empathetic.

Hinton’s proposals are not utopian fantasies and nor are they based in some sort of foreign Nordic import that’s doomed to fail in America, as critics sometimes suggest. Instead, they are grounded in local history. In Massachusetts, the Norfolk Prison Colony in the early 20th century once served as a model for incarcerated education. The prison’s first superintendent, Howard Belding Gill, had imagined a “prison without bars” in which inmates could wear civilian clothes and have access to a broad variety of educational as well as occupational opportunities. They were also encouraged to participate in the prison’s jazz orchestra, team sports, and of course the legendary debate team which routinely defeated its Ivy League counterparts.

Norfolk’s most famous resident—Malcolm Little, aka Malcolm X—described the benefits of Belding’s vision in his autobiography:

Norfolk Prison Colony represented the most enlightened form of prison that I have ever heard of. In place of the atmosphere of malicious gossip, perversion, grafting, hateful guards, there was more relative ‘culture,’ as ‘culture’ is interpreted in prisons. A high percentage of the Norfolk Prison Colony inmates went in for ‘intellectual’ things, group discussions, debates, and such.”

Malcolm became a champion of rhetoric in Norfolk’s famous debating society—which he credits with giving him his “baptism into public speaking.” He also began writing poetry inspired by both his love of music and his newfound Islamic faith.

The humanistic inclinations of Norfolk were not perfect—Malcolm demanded more, both inside and outside the walls—and they were not long lived, either. The punitive turn in penitentiary politics through the latter half of the 20th century gradually eroded the foundations Belding had built. When Belding returned to visit Norfolk in 1980, he saw a system that seemed increasingly inhumane—“what have they done to my place?” he asked.

In 1990, Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate and eventual governor Bill Weld outlined a rather different vision of what incarceration should like in this state: “Prisons should be a tour through the circles of hell where inmates should learn only the joys of busting rocks.”

Weld and other tough-on-crime politicians of decades past are now beginning to change their tune—backing away from mandatory minimum sentencing and other policies that created our modern crisis of mass incarceration. But the broad vision of a qualitatively different kind of penal as well as educational system is still largely missing from the conversation.

Read/Listen: NYT Mag’s 25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going

In the era of limitless access to streaming sounds, modern music journalists have been given a tough job. The constant barrage of instant releases online can rope-a-dope even the most dedicated critics into submission. Sorting this endless surplus and trying to find what really matters seems like a nearly impossible challenge.

Thankfully, the New York Times Magazine’s annual “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going” lightens the load a bit for lay listeners. Unlike other year end lists—in which professional music critics try to enforce some form of musical hierarchy by arbitrarily sorting and ranking the songs, albums, and artists of the year—the NYT collection doesn’t aim to tell you what is qualitatively or quantitively “good music.” In fact, many of the songs on this year’s list could be uncontroversially labelled as Bad (see the write-up on the viral media star Jake Paul’s “It’s Everyday Bro,” the third most disliked video on YouTube).

Instead, they present us with an eclectic collection of pieces by mostly younger essayist who read our current cultural moment with forensic detail. Some of my favorite pieces include James Lauren Keiles on Cardi B’s bossy, self-reliant “Bodak Yellow” as an antidote to anodyne and falsely-universalized feminism of Hillary Clinton’s campaign anthem “Fight Song”; Jenna Wortham on the adolescent warmth of the teen pop heiress Willow Smith’s “Warm Honey”; and Jazmine Hughes on Smino and the voyeuristic joys of seeing other people’s sex playlists on Spotify. The most disturbing piece might be Charles Aaron’s review of Lil Pump and the Xanax-fueled, nihilistic generation of teenage SoundCloud rappers. The discomfort stems in part from a trend which the NYT editor Nitsuh Abebe outlines in his introduction to the essays:

Millennial pop was a ball of earnest confidence and self-assertion; it even managed to make Katy Perry, who hit it big dressing like an elaborate dessert and singing about parties, turn woke. But a certain skepticism has collected around its pantheon of stars: One false step, and the world is more than ready to roast them online and laugh them back to irrelevance. The artists emerging to replace them seem interested in darker things — doubt, depression, failure.

Then there’s the really fascinating part.People in their 20s are having a new experience: They are, for the first time, noticing some of the things actual teenagers enjoy and are being completely appalled, both morally and aesthetically. A flood of young rappers is scoring hits with music that baffles grown rap fans with its slurry boneheadedness — plus they’re as alarmingly devoted to pharmaceuticals as rock stars once were to heroin. Various bits of viral jackassery (Jake Paul’s hit YouTube channel, Danielle Bregoli’s troubled-teen appearance on “Dr. Phil”) turn nonmusicians into pop forces, too. While 20-somethings were earnestly debating the intersectional politics of Beyoncé videos, some number of their younger counterparts were trawling the internet wilds, fixating on kids with face tattoos eating Xanax like popcorn and setting things on fire.

If the last version of pop was driven by people who desperately wanted everyone to care and everything to matter, it’s only natural for the next wave to be interested in what it looks like when you don’t care, and nothing matters. There are areas of pop that could use a yank back toward wrestling with the stranger, murkier parts of human experience. Not that any adult can tell you whether that’s in the cards: Keep scanning along that birth chart, and it will emerge that the highest number of births in American history seems to have come around 2007. If you want to know where music is going, ask an 11-year-old.

It’s strange to feel old and conservative about your music tastes while still in your twenties. Still, I’m grateful to have so many amazing, thoughtful writers in my own generation guiding us through this Brave New World.

Misc. Links:

Jane Meyer on Christopher Steele and the Trump Dossier. Jedediah Purdy on West Virginia teachers + Sarah Jaffe on the rising ghosts of labor. Jon Michaud on the miracle of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. The archives of Radical Philosophy now available online. Chicago rapper Vic Mensa on Palestine and American racism. A former Sex and the City star challenges Governor Cuomo in New York. Mariame Kaba (aka Ida's Disciple) on Johnny Cash’s legacy as a prison reformer.

Keep on rocking in the free world,

The OS Abolitionists



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