There’s some remarkable music coming out of Richmond this year, not from a commercial studio or a concert hall but from the city’s jail. The program is designed to spark redemption through music.
Todd “Speech” Thomas hit the hip hop scene with force. This album, recorded in 1993, won his band two Grammies and sold six million copies. His mission was to offer a positive alternative to the violent, misogynistic music called gansta rap, and since then he’s recorded eight more albums, toured the world and traveled to the Richmond City Jail with filmmakers Sam Bathrick and Adam Barton,
"What’s up brothers? How are y’all doing?" Thomas said as he addressed a group of cheering inmates.
" My name is Speech, and I’m from the hiphop crew Arrested Development. We heard about what the sheriff was doing here and how unique it was, and I personally wanted to come here and help out."
The program launched by Sheriff C.T. Woody allows about 65 prisoners to compose and record their own songs in a studio. Among those featured in the documentary is 21-year-old Anthony, who shared his music and his story with Speech.
“So what you’re going to do is record this before you make the beat?” asked Anthony, a young inmate excited to record his first song.
“Exactly,” speech replied.
“Oh you’re a professional,” Anthony concluded.
“That is true,” Speech said with a laugh.
“Look, I started with nothing. Ain’t no pain or discussion,” the young rapper began. “Need to change my direction or just go cause an eruption. I think I’m way too explosive, think it’s too much destruction. I got some pain up on my named, and it’s waiting to crush me. I’ve been dancing with devils up on way higher levels. I need an ax and a shovel just to clear out the rubble.”
Then he told Speech his story.
“I went through 13 different foster homes, seven different group homes. I ran away from every one,” he recalled. “I started playing with guns and started smoking weed every day. Then I was popping pills, and then I was sniffing dope.”
Many of the musicians trace their troubles to childhood trauma – like Teddy who, at 15, saw a man shot on the street.
“A white Bonneville pulled up. A guy jumped out with a revolver and shot him in the head," he recalled. "I’ll never forget the feeling of blood just splattered on my face, and I couldn’t hear because my ears were ringing. I remember walking back to Duvall Street where my Daddy’s house was, covered in blood, and my Daddy told me you have to make a decision. Either you’re going to be a wolf or a sheep, and if I was going to be a sheep, clean myself up and go stay with my Momma. If I was going to be a wolf, lick the blood off and stay with him.”
His composition echoes the Black Lives Matter movement.
“From Charlotte to Tulsa to Cleveland they can’t justify how we die for no reason. Just guilty for speeding, they pull us over, next minute you’re bleeding. No, don’t talk about freedom. Just look how they did to King. They kill all our leaders. Lock a dog in a cage and mistreat him. What you think going to happen once you release him?”
And then there’s Garland – also an addict – who blames no one but himself. Strumming a guitar, his song merges the sounds of country and blues.
“I was all to pieces before you charged me at the door,” he sings. “Man, my smoking members scrape me off the floor. Smoky black lit cabaret stirs something in my soul. The deejay shone the spotlight as you swung around the pole, wearing six inch heels. Please relieve me of my dollar bills.”
Speech has since taken the music he recorded and produced an album set for release next year. The profits will go to the inmate musicians. The film – a double play on prison cells and musical scores – is called 16 Bars. It premiered at the Docklands Film Festival in San Francisco where it won the Audience Choice award.