Bryonn Bain's 'Lyrics from Lockdown" exposes need for reform in justice system through poetry, music, storytelling
Created and performed by acclaimed artist and activist Bryonn Bain, the theatrical hip-hop and multimedia production, “Lyrics from Lockdown” conveys a powerful and evocative message inspired by Bain’s life-altering experience with New York police officers who wrongfully arrested and incarcerated him multiple times, beginning when he was a second-year law student at Harvard University. The performance, which spotlights the devastating impact of prison injustice and racial profiling, will take place Saturday, Sept. 30 at 7:30 p.m. in the Bayou Theater at University of Houston-Clear Lake.
Along with visuals choreographed on stage, Bain fuses hip hop lyrics, calypso, jazz, and blues singing, as well as poetry, comedy and the spoken word to tell the story of his arrest, his interaction with the police, his experience with public defenders and judges, and the ultimate dismissal of his case.
After his release, one of his Harvard law professors encouraged him to write about racial profiling and law enforcement. His exposé, entitled “Walking While Black,” was published in the Village Voice. It became the most widely-read article in the paper’s history. The response from others sharing similar experiences nearly overwhelmed him, and it planted the seeds that grew into “Lyrics from Lockdown.”
“This is my life’s work,” Bain said. “This has evolved from Rikers Island and Sing Sing, to the National Black Theater, to Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and the Apollo Theater, with feedback from people incarcerated all over the world. There are three musicians playing live, and a video DJ who is mixing images in real time from images that have been curated over the last 20 years. It's a visual journey that we go on, as I tell two stories of wrongful incarceration—my own and that of a friend who was sentenced to death row at age 17.”
The difference, Bain said, is that he got out quickly, but the other person remains incarcerated.
“One of the most important takeaways for the audience is to learn how the justice system works,” he explained. “This is the civil rights and human rights issues of our time. Fifty years from now, they will be asking, what did you do to address the caging of human beings? Were you part of the problem or part of the solution? Coming to this show is a step towards answering those questions.”
Bain’s subsequent work linking prisons with institutions of higher education, including Columbia University and New York University and University of California at Los Angeles, focuses on applying the arts and activism to create movements for criminal justice and social reform. He is currently associate professor and founder of the UCLA Prison Education Program and co-director of the Center for Justice.
“I think this is a great time to come to UHCL because it’s the 50th anniversary of your Transforming Lives by Degrees program, which coincides with the 50th anniversary of hip hop,” Bain said. “The two have a lot in common. Hip hop emerged in the 1970s in New York and became the voice of people others had given up on—black and brown people, those whom the media did not see as humans, and those who were written off as hopeless.”
What emerged from that culture, Bain continued, is a multibillion-dollar phenomenon that is now among the most listened-to music on the planet.
“This music is about people who are considered less than human, just as people in prison are,” he said. “Hip hop culture is linked to the same humanity that prison education programs shine a light on. The graffiti, the music centered around a DJ, the poetry, the lyricist, the storyteller—it’s all included in the movement. The show embodies all elements, along with a world-class band and world-class beat boxers, a bassist, a cellist, a guitarist.”
He said the piece would speak to all those who have been written off by humanity. “We are all created by a creator who has made us creative,” he said. “Our creativity comes alive in the arts.”
Bain said that he imagined a world in which human beings aren’t put in cages because they’re poor, drug addicted, or from communities that have been marginalized. “Let’s think about creating a more humane society. Education and the arts are proven vehicles to change the experience in prison,” he said.
“Over 95% of people who are in prison will be released,” he continued. “Don’t we want them to have more education? Shouldn’t we allow them to be inspired by art and creativity? No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, we should all be interested in those who are incarcerated, in building communities where everyone is safe, and in finding ways to support the reintegration of incarcerated people into society.”
The performance will culminate in a panel discussion about advocacy for criminal justice reform and prison education, featuring Bain and Rob Reiner, Emmy-winning actor and Oscar-nominated director of blockbuster movies including, “When Harry Met Sally,” “The Princess Bride,” “A Few Good Men,” and “Spinal Tap.” Reiner devotes considerable time to causes related to social justice, and the advocacy of more just and equitable laws.
The event is adjacent to the opening reception for Texas Appleseed’s “I HeArt Justice” poster exhibition, and UH-Clear Lake’s 50th anniversary celebration of its Transforming Lives By Degrees program, which is committed to offering higher education opportunities to incarcerated students. The exhibitions are from 6-7:30 p.m. in the Art Gallery located in the Bayou Building.