"Never ran, never will!" is the gangster-bravado motto that people use to explain Brownsville, Brooklyn, with its blocks and blocks of low-income housing projects. Even the grungiest hipster artisans, who've pretty much invaded Brooklyn in recent years, still stay away from Brownsville. Growing up there in the crack era of the 1980s, Joseph Wilson was surrounded by crack dealers and addicts. His mother was an addict, so his grandmother wound up raising him—and teaching him to love music. She made him go to church, and he sang in the junior choir. Joe's grandmother also had an eclectic record collection—Delfonics, Herbie Hancock, Musical Youth, Andre Crouch—and she would have him play them when he helped her clean their two-bedroom apartment. When he was 11, his mother had twins, who were also handed to grandma. By the time the twins were one, Joe remembers, he and his younger sister, Myosha, would watch the movie Five Heartbeats together, and she'd sing along.
Soon, Joe's grandmother died, and the twins wound up in foster care. Joe went to live with his uncle, the neighborhood preacher, a massive man who owned a storefront church. In the two apartments above, Joe shared the living space with a football team's worth of other boys whom his uncle took in from the neighborhood. Many of their mothers looked to the preacher as a positive male role model; Joe's father, like all the other boys' fathers, was out of the picture. The others would tell Joe that, to make some cash, he could let one of his uncle's friends from the church do things to him. Before long, Joe's uncle was giving him a one-on-one tutorial on how to masturbate. Then there was the time when Joe's uncle caught him fooling around in a closet with a girl and made them act out what they were doing in front of him.
Joe became uncomfortable in his home environment and, to escape, he listened to a Walkman and headphones, all day and all night, paying close attention to the different rhythms of reggae and hip-hop. He consumed music in a dark, hopeless place; he would one day learn to compose it in an even darker place. At 16, he turned his back on the church and turned to the streets. By 17, he was serving his first prison sentence, one to three years for robbery. In 2005, Joe killed a 21-year-old man in a dispute over a Brownsville drug spot. In 2012, an NPR investigation revealed that Joe's neighborhood had the highest concentration of incarceration: "million-dollar blocks," they were called, because that's what the city and state of New York were spending annually to lock up the people who used to live on those blocks.
By the time the story aired, Joe had become a part of that statistic, seven years into his 25-to-life bid for murder, tucked away in a maximum-security cellblock, where he would begin his unlikely career as a songwriter.
In Concert at Sing Sing
The Sing Sing cellblocks are piles of brick and slabs of metal and steel and concrete, built on a hill of prime real estate overlooking the Hudson River. At four open tiers high, with two sides of 88 cells that stretch the length of two football fields, Cellblock A is the largest in the world, per the Sing Sing Prison Museum. Pipes snake along the wall hissing heat; cell radios tuned to Hot 97, New York City's hip-hop station, bump Nicki Minaj rapping about her privates being wetter than puddles; Bloods yell out roll calls ("Whoopti!" to responses of "Can't stop! Never stop!"), while the rest of us wait impatiently, screaming out cell numbers for corrections officers to open.
"Gallery officers, release the event down to the flats" crackles over the loudspeakers for the second time.
My cell buzzes open.
It's a Friday night in January of 2017. I'm on my way to see my first-ever Sing Sing concert sponsored by Musical Connections, an outreach program from Carnegie Hall's Weill Music Institute, in which professional musicians visit prison to compose and perform with prisoners. A group of us shuffle out of the cellblock, funnel through a dark brick tunnel, clear a metal detector, and enter the auditorium, where a prisoner-usher hands out playbills. It's a dingy, high-ceilinged room with peeling paint and blue plastic pushdown seats, but the lighting and sound system are top-notch, set up by the sound designer for Hamilton on Broadway. Tonight's concert, like the others scheduled for the season, has "roots" as its theme.
Rob, in state greens (the prison uniform), with Holy Ghost energy and dread locks hanging down his back, takes the mic and starts a hand-clapping rally. Joe Wilson, the boy from Brownsville, is on the keyboard. "My roots are from the church!" Rob yells. "How many of us up in here are sowing some good seeds?" Then he breaks into the opening tune, flexing his smooth R&B vocals. The songs that follow have Haitian, African, and Latin roots. One of the visiting musicians, Camila Meza from Santiago, Chile, jams on a guitar and sings a beautiful tune in Spanish from her 2016 debut album, Traces. I don't understand it, but I feel it. "This is as good as it gets, when we can share this human energy," she tells the boys in green, about 150 mostly black and brown faces, except mine and a few others, as we whistle and clap.
Africa (his name has been changed), who refers to himself as gender-non-conforming and has the build of an African marathon runner, takes the stage, sits at the keyboard, and plays Beethoven.
"Oh, man. Check this shit out," a voice grumbles behind me. "They got the Mooc nigga playing this bullshit." (Mooc is prison-speak for a gay man.)
My favorite song of the night is a jazzy duet about a complicated romance, "Binary Stars," written by a formerly incarcerated man and performed by a currently incarcerated one named Kenyatta Hughes. Sarah Elizabeth Charles, a Carnegie artist, sings it with him. When Charles isn't performing in the Big House, she's singing in splashier joints—like the Apollo Theater and the White House, as she did when Barack Obama was president. The chemistry between Charles and Kenyatta is like poetry, cute and sexy.
"Can we avoid all pretenses," she sings. "Can we complete each others' sentences?"
"Like our day job..." adds Kenyatta.
"...was mind reading," she sings.
"...in the park," they sing in unison.
A smile pushes tears in my eyes. My throat tightens.
When you're in prison for a long time, nearly 17 years in my case, serving 28 to life for murder and selling drugs, your emotions can get stuck, blocked by a whole bunch of macho meaninglessness. It was odd to feel genuine joy in that moment, almost as if I didn't deserve it. Maybe you are reading this and agree. If my peers and I are here because we are responsible for taking lives, should we have opportunities to create, to reflect, to experience brief moments of joy?
The answer, I think, is that many of us took lives because we didn't value life, whether that of others or our own. Prison culture can be hard on one's humanity, what with gangs, getting high, and gossiping about prison's pecking order (this guy's a rat, that guy's a rapist). Yet I've observed how music can restore what's missing in prison: a respect for humanity.
How Music Came to Sing Sing
For over a year, as a prison journalist, I've sat in on rehearsals, attended concerts, and conducted interviews with prison musicians, their mentors, administrators, and artists. I've observed men discover a passion and confidence that came from performing and creating, whether it was playing Chopin in concert or composing an opera from which a Grammy-winning star sings an aria. There's also a sort of catharsis that happens in the creative process itself: the lyrics that can only stem from a painful past; the dark sounds of a cello sparking feelings of remorse that might otherwise have stayed repressed.
I get it because I experience a similar catharsis when I write first-person reportage—placing myself in the story, trying to understand my subjects in hopes that the reader will too. My musician peers benefit by belonging to a creative group, and while my writing is often a solitary act, it's also true that I get sustenance from their stories.
It all began in 2009, when a Sing Sing programs administrator invited a group of Carnegie Hall musicians to come in and play with the prison band. As the inmates and staff recall, there was an instant connection. Soon after, the Sing Sing Musical Connections program was born. Musical Connections is one of various programs run by Carnegie Hall's Weill Music Institute that reach more than half a million people across the globe. "The program allows for creative expression and celebrates the artistry in all of us," says Sarah Johnson, director of the Weill Music Institute, who sports a bob cut and wears her passion conspicuously. "We believe the arts can be a tool in moving toward a more inclusive, restorative approach to justice."
Take Jason Marshall, a bari sax master with a head wrapped in dreads, who I spoke to at a rehearsal before a recent concert; he's one of a handful of Carnegie's musicians who takes the Metro North from Manhattan up to Sing Sing every other Saturday. Marshall, who's on a break snacking on dried fruit, has recorded and performed with musical royalty like Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight. I ask him why he spends his weekend with men in a stuffy prison room with caged windows. "I guess you can call me a wellness advocate," he says. "I'm all for whatever helps heal the human spirit."
Social scientists believe that arts programs can do just that. A 2010 qualitative study on six men in a California prison music program suggested that participation taught work ethic, improved self-confidence, and created friendships across racial lines. A 2012 quantitative study on Sing Sing's own Rehabilitation Through the Arts, a drama program founded in 1996, showed that its participants tend to pursue educational achievements in the college programs that the facility offers at a higher rate than their counterparts in the general population. RTA claims that these benefits are the result of the positive social network that the program makes possible.
Around the same time as the quantitative study, Sing Sing's music program was expanding its network. In 2012, Sing Sing launched a sister program called Musicambia, which focuses more on composing and music theory. Although Musicambia director Elliot Cole teaches at the New School and Juilliard's Evening Division, he tells me that he's more excited about the weekends he spends in prison. Musical Connections and Musicambia alternate Saturdays and meet with the same group of 30 men in the band room. Outside musicians from both programs help prepare and often collaborate on performances with the men, in four or more annual concerts.
Kenyatta Hughes, of the Sarah Charles duet, is an events clerk in the school building, next to the vocational building, where 614 people were executed back when it was the death house. The school is a three-story brick structure, old and ugly, that sits above the Metro North railroad tracks. Prisoners bustle through it day and night, going to college classes, the computer lab, drama workshops, the band room, the law library.
One afternoon I visit Kenyatta's office on the third floor. Technically, I'm "out of place"; I should be in the computer lab. But Kenyatta has a good rapport with his boss, the go-to guy for special events at Sing Sing, a jeans-and-jogging-sneakers white guy with shaggy hair whose vibe can go from friendly to fed up in seconds. Kenyatta is his graceful assistant, bright, self-effacing, obedient. He has a desk and a computer, and taped on the wall behind him is a photo of him and several others who took part in the Sing Sing TEDx talk in 2014. Kenyatta's contribution was a short testimonial called "Connecting Through Art."
Kenyatta grew up in a poor section of Kansas City, Missouri, with his younger brother and their mother and father, who listened to all kinds of music: jazz, rock, Stevie Wonder, the Police. The impressive man that Kenyatta is today—he has earned a bachelor's and a master's in Sing Sing—has come to understand the foolish young man he was when he committed a senseless robbery and murder 21 years ago. In 1996, he came up to New York to visit some relatives and wound up getting drawn into the streets, selling weed, partying. Soon he illegally bought a handgun, a .380 automatic, brand new in the box. Not long after, Kenyatta and a cohort were looking to pull off a robbery. He hailed a cab. There was a lot of fear and nerves, he told me, as he sat in the back seat, waving his gun and demanding money from the driver, a Nigerian man named Moses. Kenyatta shot him in the head.
"I had no value for life back then," he tells me, staring over his computer screen. "No value for my life, his life, any life." Around the same time, his younger brother, also running the streets in a different part of New York, was shot and killed.
Early in Kenyatta's sentence, in another prison, he tried to hang himself. "It seemed like a reasonable thing to do at the time," he tells me. "I felt like—why am I sticking around here for?" After he transferred to Sing Sing, things got better. The first time he tried to sing in the prison talent show, in 2006, he was booed off the stage. "It was a tough crowd," he says now, laughing. In 2009, Kenyatta and a few others who had formed a band were the ones who met with the Carnegie musicians for the first time. "The best year of my life was 2013," Kenyatta says. "I was composing music and really found my voice, not only as a singer but as an artist."
Kenyatta can be a bit cerebral. When he tells me about a song he composed titled "What Are We Fighting For," his frame of reference ranges from the conflict in Israel and Palestine, to the Syrian civil war, to Cain and Abel, to racism, to Donald Trump. I ask to see the lyrics: "We're killing each other for the sake of a God / We can't agree on His name, but let him shoulder the blame / And heaven knows it's a shame / And I don't even believe you believe in the words that you preachin' / The lies that you teachin' / To the people you deceivin'." The lyrics are a riff on the absurd hypocrisy of religious conflicts, and on the sort of demagoguery in politics that helps to divide society; but they also speak to a clear-eyed wisdom that comes from a man who's pursued self-reflection and seemingly prevailed in his own inner fight.
On a Friday night in February of 2017, Rhiannon Giddens, a Grammy Award-winning folk singer-songwriter, debuts her second album, Freedom Highway, in Sing Sing. For one of the last songs, Giddens introduces Shedrick Blackwell, a stout 50-something prisoner who looks 40-something and sports a shadow beard, a shaved bald head, and cocksure eyes that fit the confident man he once was. Today he's the funniest man on the cellblock, known to switch up dialects—now Rasta, now 'hood, now intellectual—depending on his audience. His prison name is Panama, but he's actually Puerto Rican and black. The nickname is ubiquitous in prison, usually attributed to the dark-skinned Panamanian guys who speak Spanish. Being called "Panama" is useful, he tells me, because he's done a lot of dirt on the outside, and the common nickname will, at least initially, throw off old foes who he might bump into again on the inside.
In the 1980s, Shedrick's stomping ground was Manhattan's hardcore music scene in the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village. The bars, the bands, the drugs—it was the cocktail that initiated Shedrick into a life of addiction and crime. His partner in crime was his lady, who's served four prison stints alongside him, always the same sentences, always for robberies, including their current 20-to-life bid. On the West Side, they'd strong-arm soft targets like white couples leaving ATMs or art galleries: the cash, the wife's diamond, the husband's Rolex, all theirs.
Back in the Lower East Side, they'd run cons on seedier types: "I'd see the fence on the street, jump out the cab, act like I'd just done a smash and grab—hit 'em with the ol' wet-newspapers-stuffed-in-camcorder-boxes trick," Shedrick tells me, laughing. "I'd be like, 'Hurry, give me $400—it's a steal!'" After dealers learned the duo were selling dummy packages of heroin, they shot his lady in the chest and pumped five bullets into Shedrick. Out of the hospital just hours later, they were back at it. Today, Shedrick regrets screwing over the people of his past: musicians, club owners, even those white couples trying to enjoy a bit of art themselves.
In 2012, he transferred to Sing Sing, and his knack for music landed him a spot in Musical Connections. In 2014, he took part in a TEDx event at Sing Sing and gave a presentation about the power of music. He explained how it's like a soundtrack for life—that when he hears David Bowie's "Changes," it takes him back to the precinct where he heard it while he was being booked and finger-printed. Giddens had first come to a Sing Sing concert in 2016, and Shedrick told her then that he was a fan. Before Giddens came back to perform, she sent an invitation to Shedrick: Would he write a song and sing it with her? "I couldn't believe it," he tells me. "I turned to Joe Wilson, and he helped me bring out the song's honesty.... [Joe] is like the Rainman of music theory."
Back at the concert, Shedrick takes the stage with Giddens. "I can cross this off my bucket list!" he tells the crowd. "'Mary's Cry' is a song I wrote about domestic violence." The audience grows quiet. Giddens hums into the mic. Then, Panama bangs on the keyboard and, from his deep within his belly—raspy, bluesy—he belts out the lyrics.
After concerts, Shedrick tells me, he's back in his cell in a daze, amazed about who he just jammed with, and says he cherishes the relationships he's built with the Carnegie folk.
"After so many years of burning bridges," he tells me, leaning on the bars of my cell one night, "it feels great to now be building them."
When I interview men and write and rewrite their stories in my cell, I often pace and ponder about story arc and what the characters are trying to achieve with the music when they play. When he picks up the cello, Alex Martinez, 31, tells me, its sounds bring him to an emotional place, thinking of his son. Alex's nickname is Poo. He picked it up in a group home when he was 13. "We had to ask to use the bathroom," he told me, "so I used to say I had to 'poo'—and the name stuck." Alex is brown-skinned, of Dominican descent. He's also bespectacled and a bit quirky—think Steve Urkel, the nerdy kid from Family Matters, but with muscles. He's the black kid who grew up around white kids, in Hudson Valley towns north of New York City: skateboard sneakers, off-roading, smoking weed from bongs. Mom was a social worker, dad wasn't around much. In 2009, Alex married Angela, who at 21 had recently given birth to their son, Draven. When the recession came, their jobs disappeared. Angela was laid off from Panera Bread, Alex from his assembly-line job at a pill manufacturer. In an argument over what Alex now says was about nothing, he lost control and strangled Angela to death. He pleaded guilty and received 20 years to life.
After serving a few years in a prison near the Canadian border, he landed a transfer to Sing Sing in 2012. Soon after, he saw a Carnegie Hall flier and went to the concert. "I thought it was so cool," he told me. "I wanted to be part of something"; before getting into music, he says, "all I did was work out." Alex began by placing his name on the waiting list for the Carnegie program. Meanwhile, he saved his mess-hall prison pay—45 cents an hour—to buy a used cello. It took about six months to pay it off, even with his mom sending him half the money, but once he got it, he liked the sound.
Recently, I moved to a quasi-honor block, where I was placed a few cells down from Alex. Recreation is allowed on the gallery, a low-ceilinged strip with Grey Poupon-colored walls and metal picnic tables. The floors are leveled off, and the cells have windows and face one another, unlike the cellblock where I lived when I first arrived at Sing Sing. Above the ambient sounds of smack talk and dominoes rattling on a table, I hear the tones of a cello, rich and deep and dark. I follow them and stop at Alex's cell. He's sitting on his bed, shirt off, his back upright, his left hand gently cradling the instrument's neck. I ask him about the boy in a photo taped to the wall, above the score from which he plays Bach's Suite No. 1 in G Major. Alex tells me that the boy in the picture is his son, Draven, who's nine now and living with Angela's parents. Alex says his mother visited Draven recently and then sent Alex the picture. I ask Alex if he thinks about his son when he plays.
"I do..." he says, tilting his head, "I wonder what I'm going to say to him when I see him again."
"Do you think of Angela?"
His eyebrows rise. He nods and looks down. I ask him what she looked like. He pulls out a photo album from under his bed and shows me an Italian girl, eyebrows waxed, beautiful and glowing with youth. The photo was taken just weeks before Alex lost total control and ended her life.
As time passed, I'd continue hearing Alex's cello, and Bach's melodies made me think of him thinking of Draven and Angela, the plaintive strains of remorse.
When Africa is playing classical (or Baroque, as he corrects me), he finds a solace that has otherwise eluded him in prison. Although Africa is black—he's of Ugandan descent—he's way out of place in prison, even among the disproportionately large African-American prison population. He grew up in an upper-middle-class Westchester home, not far from Sing Sing. He had a loving mother and six siblings, all of whom were physically and emotionally abused by the father, a surgeon, who, by many accounts, was a strict and even sadistic man.
At 24, Africa had had enough. He strolled into a neighborhood park and sat alone on a bench and slit his wrists. When he started feeling lightheaded, he called 911 and was taken to the hospital. He was put on antidepressants. A year or so later, Africa failed to do his chores, and, to punish him, his father cut off his meds. Weeks later, in August of 2005, while his father slept, Africa smashed in his head with a baseball bat and slit his throat. After the prosecutors heard that the nightmarish crime was the result of wicked abuse that had been going on for years in his household, they offered Africa a manslaughter plea, and he received 20 years.
In prison, Africa serves tougher time than most. It bothers him, he tells me, that the same men who complain that society judges and demeans them often say and do mean things to him. He's been insulted. He's been assaulted. He's been robbed. Most prisoners think he's gay. He tells me he's not. He usually stays at the back of the crowded and noisy yard line. In the yard, he jogs for half an hour and then takes a shower. In the summer, crowds of men in their underwear—lathering up, talking smack, rinsing off—share four shower heads. When Africa comes, men avoid him and crowd under the other three showers, like a bunch of dicks. He towels off and then sits alone, legs pretzeled, in the corner of the yard.
At a smaller concert in the prison chapel, Africa sits down at the keyboard and plays Chopin. He seems at peace. Africa tells me that, when he plays classical music on stage or practices in his cell, he thinks about humanity of a higher nature, in contrast with the lower state of nature that he says we find in prison.
"Music is a tool that helps remind me of the good in this world," he tells me, as the lower nature of our environment causes me to have shitty thoughts in this very moment—do the others in the yard think I'm gay because I'm talking to Africa alone in the corner? "But it also helps nurture the good within me."
I understand this, I suppose, because writing helps me do the same thing.
On a Friday night in October of 2017, Joyce DiDonato, a blond-haired, blue-eyed, two-time Grammy winner and one of the biggest names in American opera, stands on the stage next to the NFL-built Joe Wilson, formerly of Brownsville. Joe and DiDonato are rehearsing an aria they are performing tonight from Joe's opera, Tabula Rasa. It's a story about murder and retribution, set in a futuristic dystopia.
"I can be free again," Joe sings, portraying a character who's killed a man. "If you can forgive me."
"I will not forget, I will not forgive," DiDonato responds, as the lover of the murdered man. Then with that gorgeous voice, she lashes out: "I want revenge."
During a break, I speak to DiDonato, who's sitting on the stage. She tells me how Joe impressed her after her first Sing Sing performance in 2015. He had written a song, "Starlights," in response to her 2016 filmed concert In War and Peace: Harmony Through Music. I ask about the aria from Tabula Rasa.
"It's good," she tells me, "but it could use some polishing."
"Do you think his full opera could someday be performed at the Met?"
"It would need to be really good. When it's done, we'll see."
In prison for the past 12 years, Joe has reconnected with the church. His prison name is Preacher, and he says he's forgiven his uncle, the preacher who betrayed him by touching him. (His uncle was eventually pushed out of the Brownsville church.) When Joe transferred to Sing Sing in 2014, he got involved with the Carnegie musicians via Musicambia Director Elliot Cole, who gave him his first music theory textbook. Joe devoured it. Just as he had escaped the ugly reality of home through his headphones, Joe escaped everyday life in prison by listening on headphones to WQXR 105.9, New York City's classical station. Cole became his mentor, unpacking music theory with him every other Saturday. Joe tells me how he used to see Cole lying on the cold floor of the band room when he and the others would return from their cells after the lunchtime facility count. Cole had never left after the morning session: "I really respected his dedication—and I wanted to match it."
To that end, Joe is working on a full opera, Tabula Rasa, from which he and DiDonato performed excerpts at Sing Sing last fall. Writing an opera requires a grasp of complex musical ideas, vocal and instrumental, and an understanding of how these elements work together with the drama on stage. Can Joe do it? He tells me how he listens for harmony, melody, and timbre in classical music. He adds that writing the libretto [the story text] for Tabula Rasa was a different process from writing the music and the vocal lines. "Every voice, whether an instrument or a human, has range," he explains. "I know the ranges for all the instruments, and I know Joyce's singing range is between A3 to F5, and that makes her a mezzo soprano."
But Joe doesn't just compose classical. He's written a song called "Gnarly Knees," which has a Lumineers, indie-pop vibe and addresses various controversial or political issues. One is homophobia. Myosha, Joe's younger sister, a singer who recently graduated from Brooklyn College, came to visit him two years ago and told him she was gay. Joe thinks homosexuality is sinful and while he says he may have expressed disappointment to Myosha, he didn't mean to reject her. He loves her—yet they didn't talk for two years after she came out. Curious, I ask Joe whether Myosha knew that his uncle had abused him, and he says she probably heard the rumors. "It's a high probability that the experience I had with my uncle trickled over into that moment with Myosha," he tells me of their last visit before the long silence.
By the end of the season, Joe and Myosha are talking again. In the lyrics to "Gnarly Knees," Joe reflects: "Who am I to tell you who to love? / Who am I? / God's our only judge / But if tolerance is key / It can't be hate to disagree / Love doesn't like everything it sees."
It's Friday, June 22nd, the last concert of the season. Joe Wilson's getting ready for tonight, putting his keyboard in its case. I'm leaning on the bars of his cell, watching him. On his wall are some recent pictures of Myosha, and a couple of his wife beaming with Joyce DiDonato backstage at the Met.
Later, I file into the auditorium with the rest of the population, and Joe's talking to one of my journalist friends, who's been cleared to come in with radio equipment and tape Joe for a podcast. I greet Sarah Johnson, the Carnegie boss, here to enjoy the performance. The lights dim, and it's as if prison fades out. We're in concert. Shedrick the showman introduces a song he wrote called "Love to the Rescue." Africa plays Bach's Prelude in D Minor, Alex does his thing on cello. Then Joe introduces "Bright Dark."
He tells the crowd how his little sister Myosha told him she's gay, and how that news changed his dreams of what her life would look like. "This program gave me the outlet to say what I needed to say about that situation," he says, explaining how she was the muse for "Gnarly Knees"; how the song was selected and performed in March at Carnegie Hall; how Myosha attended, was moved, and finally came to visit Joe. "We wrote this song together on visits," Joe tells the crowd. (He tells me they wrote lyrics and notes on napkins and paper plates; I once saw him on the gallery pulling the keyboard up to the phone receiver.) "It's love in the dark, man!"
Joe steps off to the side and watches the ensemble play his tune. A horn intro, led by Jason Marshall on sax, is followed by Sarah Elizabeth Charles. I watch her, slack-jawed. God, this girl can sing. "All the things meant to keep me from you just couldn't do it...." It's a love song that makes me miss being in love.
Kenyatta closes the night with his song, "Holding Out Hope." Kenyatta is in the middle of the stage, the Musical Connections Ensemble on both sides. "Holdin' out hope," the choir sings, after Kenyatta's passionate rants: "How many guns does one man need? / And how many children have to bleed and die before we concede? / But I'm holding out hope that this is all some passing temporary insanity / And I'm holding out hope that, deep inside, we'll recognize our own humanity."
It's not easy to make prisoners cry—but Kenyatta does it tonight. The concert is over, the lights turn on, and we're back in prison.