Growing up, prison wasn’t a concept my parents had to ease me into with a trepid, careful talk — it was something I was used to, something I knew on an intimate level. In 1997, when I was just five years old, my uncle Rick was sentenced to life in prison. There was no “your uncle is going away for a while” — it was “your uncle is going away and never coming back”. I have only one memory of being with him as a free man: We were at my aunt’s house — I was sat on his lap as always, and Biggie — who had just died — was playing on the radio. He was trying to teach me how to draw a Precious Moments doll but all I could do was hum along to the chorus of ‘Hypnotize’ and trace the outline of his tattoos with my fingertips.
My bond with my uncle is strong. We love music, illustration and dogs. On paper, those mutual interests seem trivial, but those are the things that made our relationship stand out, as I wouldn’t say I have much in common with the rest of my family. Given the circumstances, our relationship is one that required considerably more maintenance than others. I grew up speaking to him only once a week over the phone for about five minutes (ten if we were lucky) and I’ve only seen him face-to-face three times since he was imprisoned. I’ve never been able to share any coming-of-age moments with him, or ask him for advice on how to damage control my mom when she inevitably found out I’d gotten a tattoo behind her back at 16. Nor have I been able to introduce him to any boyfriends I knew he wouldn’t approve of. However, there was one subject we always seemed to fit into our brisk phone calls: Music.
We spoke about everything to do with it — what I’ve been listening to, what’s been popular, what he’s missing out on. For a while, having conversations about music used to upset me, as I would in essence feel survivor’s guilt for being able to enjoy things that he couldn’t. I would always try — and fail — to be discreet about how excited I was about an artist out of fear of boasting my freedom in his face. From a young age I was very aware of the nuances of suffering. I saw my family feel helpless over his sentencing; I saw them nearly go bankrupt with lawyer’s fees; I saw them shake their heads in disappointment one day — then in anger the next. Most of all though, I saw them ache with a quietude that taught me to check my privilege.
Uncle Rick’s case was a difficult one. I didn’t know the reasons he was incarcerated until I was much older. My uncle was convicted under the three-strikes law (also known as the habitual offender law) active in certain states that results in a life term if you have offended twice before. His offences were related to drug possession, theft and, on the third strike, breaking probation. In short, his sentence is fucking ruthless. This is a law that exists in a judicial system that allows sex offenders and murderers to roam free whilst my uncle rots in a cell, probably listening to albums that came out ten years ago, hating himself.
I had always assumed — thanks to America’s track record and my own naivety — that being an inmate was a completely restricted, oppressive environment; one that didn’t allow for art to manifest, and one that especially didn’t allow for music or alternative ways of thinking. When I asked my uncle if there was any music in prison, he laughed at me in a way that basically said there, there. “A lot of people talk about music in prison — especially about new things that we become aware of. In my division, it’s always about speculation. We’re constantly trying to figure out the references in new songs because sometimes we don’t understand them — being in prison makes you keep on the ball, but sometimes we get our news and pop culture references a little late,” he told me over the phone.
Initially, this came as a surprise to me, but soon that feeling turned into blind rage. Why are inmates being deprived of basic art? This treatment isn’t an extension of their punishment or a legal mandate, this is cultural emaciation. “You don’t have to be so angry, honey. There are so many ways to sneak things into this place — and it doesn’t always have to be physical. We bring in ideas, art and information. The longer people have to think, the smarter they get.”
However, it’s not the censorship that bothers him — it’s the discrimination that comes with playing certain music that fills him with resentment. “Sometimes there’s music played here, but it’s shit we don’t want to hear. I want to listen to Kendrick, Tupac, Biggie. I want to listen to something that will help my mind grow, make me think. But of course, the Head of State and prison officers think that hip hop will corrupt our minds, as if we’re not already in damn prison. They think listening to people talk about the streets will make us act like we’re in the streets. This place is tougher than the streets. Guess what? I really like Duran Duran, but when I play Duran Duran, no one turns their head. But when I play good kid, M.A.A.D city, I have more eyes fixed on me.”
He went on to tell me that to the prison guards, he has two sides to him — the ‘white’ music fan and the ‘black’ music fan. The white side is orderly, obedient, and compliant; meanwhile, the black one is unruly, aggressive and dangerous. This is a narrative that plagues his correctional institution and bleeds further into the very essence of racism in America. When I asked him if he looked to any particular music to cope with the racial prejudice he faces daily, he simply replied: “To Pimp A Butterfly. I don’t need to explain that to you.”
With my family being from a mixed race background, we’ve always been exposed to so many sides of culture — white, black, Hispanic, European — which in turn has resulted in eclectic music tastes across us all. When I spoke to my mom about what kind of music fan Uncle Rick was like growing up, she told me he had a deep connection to hip hop. “He used to blast rap in his car, really loud — you know, so loud that it would override the music in your own, even with the windows up. It was irritating, but over time I realized he just liked music that made him feel powerful — music that made him feel like he mattered.”
My uncle has always been there to experience all my musical triumphs and habits. He taught me that it’s okay to worship Usher as much as I worship Underoath; he taught me that there’s no such thing as “boy” music and that I can rap along to Big Tymers whilst I brush my hair. I used to spend a lot of time dwelling on what things would’ve been like if he didn’t get in trouble. I wondered if I would’ve been less interested in music if it wasn’t for him, or if I would’ve developed the same taste, or if I would’ve felt more comfortable growing up as myself. This thought process used to consume me until I realized that our bond isn’t any less strong because he’s in prison — music still possesses us both, kindred in seclusion. We’re not together but we still dance.