by Tahlia Phillips
Sydney hip-hop act Horrorshow spent last weekend running a poetry and hip-hop workshop with inmates at the South Coast Correctional Facility.
The workshop was the latest event in the Unlocked program, run by local arts company The Red Room. One of the main aims was to see how poetry would work as a cathartic activity within jails and provide inmates with new and positive ways to express their imaginations and feelings, according to Johanna Featherstone, Artistic Director of The Red Room.
Last weekend’s program was run by Horrorshow MC Nick Bryant-Smith. Participating were 30 maximum-security inmates who had elected to be a part of the prison’s education program. The inmates ranged in age from 20 to over 60 and a variety of ethnic backgrounds were represented, including Chinese, African, Lebanese Australian and Indigenous Australian.
“This diversity was part of what made the class so interesting as everyone in the room had such different stories,” Nick Bryant-Smith says.
Earlier Unlocked programs – conducted at the Dillwynia and John Morony Correctional Centres in Sydney’s outer western suburbs – taught more traditional forms of poetry. Johanna Featherstone says that she initially approached Horrorshow because she noticed a corollary with poetry and hip-hop as tools for connecting with gritty realities.
“To me, poetry is a type of music with its reliance on emotion, expression and rhythm,” she says.
Mr Bryant-Smith agrees that there are strong links between hip-hop lyrics and poetry. “They’re two expressions of the same sort of urge. I think, today, approaching writing poetry through hip-hop can be an angle which some inmates feel more comfortable with than more traditional poetic forms.”
Dr Tony Mitchell, Senior Lecturer at UTS and expert in global hip-hop, says, “Hip-hop is often used as a tool for enabling disadvantaged people to experience themselves and their problems, fears, life stories and past experiences in a way they are often unable to do in normal conversation.”
Mr Bryant Smith says the prisoners appreciated the opportunity to have their thoughts and their work taken seriously. “They used the workshops as a chance to get some things off their chest about their frustrations with life inside, about people they missed in the outside world, or as a way to imagine what life might be like once they get out again.”
One of the activities he set for the class was to write a rap verse together about their lives at the facility. He says that over the weekend the inmates continued to work on the verse in their own time and even wrote a hook. Mr Bryant Smith then helped the inmates to record the finished song.
At the end of the process, The Red Room recorded the participants reading out their poems, with the aim of publishing all of the pieces in a book to be produced later this year.
The book will be the second edition of the Unlocked Anthology, which was launched in early 2012. Johanna Featherstone says the idea behind it was to produce something tangible that exhibited a constructive use of the inmates’ time within the prison.
“There’s a real pride a person experiences when their work is published in a beautiful object, and to associate the words ‘poetry’ and ‘beauty’ with ‘gaols’ really helps demystify myths that all people in these places are bad,” she says.
In mainstream hip-hop, the language used is often indicative of the subject’s background, social status and culture. So Nick Bryant-Smith says it was important to encourage the inmates to use their own language in whichever way they felt most comfortable.
Dr Tony Mitchell says, “Refugees or migrants are often able to express themselves far better in their own language. If this is mixed with English it often becomes a way of expressing their migrant status.”
Many of the Chinese inmates had limited English so Mr Bryant-Smith worked around this by having them write and read in Mandarin or Cantonese and having another inmate translate for them.
He feels that giving those without a voice a positive means for self-expression may be an important new rehabilitative tool. “When we left the prison a lot of the guys told us they would keep writing and that they’d found the whole process very useful in giving them a different outlet to express things, and maybe one they wouldn’t have considered before.”
Dr Mitchell agrees that such programs could be implemented in a more widespread manner in Australian prisons. He says, “This is a method used globally, especially in Brazil and the USA”, and references the success of the Lifer’s Group in the US, who started out as a professional hip-hop group.
Due to the overwhelming potential of the Unlocked programs the State Government has agreed to trial them at other correctional centres throughout NSW.
“We are trying to achieve this, bit by bit, one centre at a time. Without doubt, an individual who has a better command of their language – English or otherwise – is a more empowered individual,” says Johanna Featherstone.