[August Tarrier is co-presenter at our upcoming Sunday 3/11/18 platform]
Ameen hadn't picked up his trumpet in over 5 years. After chatting with some of his new friends in workshop he decided to play again. In June he volunteered to give the opening invocation for our first concert inside the prison, and we recorded his piece to use as the opening for our big concert at the Painted Bride in Philadelphia in 2016.
Songs in the Key of Free is a nonprofit that brings workshops in musicianship and songwriting into prisons. For the past year, we’ve been offering programming at SCI-Graterford, a maximum-security prison in Montgomery County, PA, where the residents live behind a 40-foot-high wall. That’s where we met Ameen and 25 other musicians and songwriters.
The program has transformed many of the participants, and us too. Another participant, Bomani, told us one day, “I felt like I was buried alive in here, and when you people came along, it’s like I rediscovered my humanity.” He and others in the program tell us that they had lived on the same block for years with guys, but had never spoken. And now, because of friendships forged in the program, they’re regularly meeting and playing music with people who had been strangers only weeks or months ago.
Today, after more than a year, we’re recording an album and a podcast, and we’re bonded to one another. Our community is one of trust and reciprocity. The foundation of Songs is built on the radical notion that while a person may have been convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison, even sentenced to life without parole, he still has the right to love and be loved. He still has a right to claim the dignity of being human and right to claim the inherent goodness that is our human birthright. Creating and performing music together allows those who have been dehumanized , silenced and marginalized to step into a position of power so that they can transform us, the audience, to shine so brightly that we ourselves are lifted and changed.
Songs exists to make an intervention in the ways in which people on the outside view those on the inside (e.g., as less than human, or as deserving of punishment or privation). As another participant, Paul, says, “There’s a lot of good lives being wasted in here. If we can stop looking at prisoners as a liability and instead see them as assets, then we can make a positive impact on the communities we come from.”
Paul has spent 40 years locked behind bars. As he says, “it’s still my priority to go home, but my real priority is that I’d love to leave a better legacy than when I came to prison. Even if I die in prison . . . I mean, I have a lot of things to make up for, but I spent the last 25-30 years of my life trying to serve. It keeps my sanity. Serving others gave my life meaning and purpose . . . prison’s not a place where you’re happy but it’s a place where you can find meaning and purpose.”
Songs in the Key of Free has brought meaning and purpose to our lives, and we consider ourselves fortunate to know such wise and generous men.