On Music, Freedom and Incarceration by Naima Shalhoub


My parents were both born in Sierra Leone, and grew up in Lebanon. They fled the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 and ended up in the United States where my brother and I were born. My relationship to transnationalism and cultural hybridity shaped me at a very young age and continues to inspire the soul and sound of the music I’m drawn to create. I began pursuing music full-time after four months of deep emotional work and breakthroughs during a visit to Lebanon. I have musical elements from many different places. I have also had to learn how to navigate the borderlands inside myself and to build intimacy with longing, belonging, and identity. Music became a place to explore and express my deepest prayers, hopes, rage and sorrow for the worlds I am connected to. There’s always been an element of searching for freedom in the music I’m drawn to write and create. Sometimes the search and expression feels very clumsy, frustrating and enraging. Other times it’s sweet, tender, peaceful. Songs have been such medicine in my life. The last five and a half years have been a journey of deep healing, reflecting, growing, learning, and I feel humbled and grateful to be able to have a life where I can pursue what I am most passionate about.

Several years ago, I started learning about the grave conditions that the prison-industrial complex poses for justice in the United States today, rooted in a long history of racism and exploitation. There are currently 2.4 million people behind bars and under the watch of the criminal (in)justice system on any given day, an estimated 700% increase since 1971. Women–especially women of color and Black women have experienced the fastest rate of growth in imprisonment in the past few decades. The United States holds 5% of the world’s population but 33% of the world’s incarcerated women. Most of these women are in the system because of petty drug crimes, theft or self-defense against abuse. 75% of incarcerated women are mothers, and 2/3 of them have children under the age of 18. What could a justice system look like that restores rather than dispossesses? A system that reconnects community rather than disrupts it? How can music help us to dismantle this unjust system?

Inspired by a whole host of artists who have been doing artistic work with incarcerated people for years such as Ms. Rhodessa Jones founder of the Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women, I wanted to use music as a way to interrupt the isolation and confinement of incarcerated women. I believed that I could create a safe space behind bars where women could express themselves, feel uplifted, and be reminded that everyone is worthy of love and a system that supports them receiving that love. I started facilitating weekly music sessions in San Francisco County Jail in B pod in May of 2014 and continue to build and share with the women there. The sessions have been fairly organic. They’re made up of a lot of singing, requests for songs, sharing poetry, spoken word, dancing, and sharing stories and feelings about life. We try to create an hour every week where there’s a feeling of freedom to be oneself, even if it is in a jailhouse.

About six months into facilitating the music sessions I was also trying to figure out how and when to record my first album. With the support of some incredible people in my life the idea was born to record the album inside the jailhouse, so that I could get my music out into the world in a way that would bring attention to the issues that incarcerated women face. I was honored to have the support of the women in my class in the County Jail, Angela Wilson the amazing program coordinator and spirit sister working inside the jail, and musicians Isaac Ho, Aaron Kierbel, Tarik Kazaleh, Marcus Shelby. I was also grateful to so many dear ones who held me up through the whole process of fundraising and planning, and provided the moral and ethical compasses I could call on when making decisions, to ensure that things were done with as much integrity as possible.

On May 5th, in conjunction with Mother’s Day to honor the lives of incarcerated mothers, we recorded my full-length album. It was blessed by an opening ritual by Rhodessa Jones, MC’d by Angela Wilson, and it closed with several spoken word poems by the women who were incarcerated. 50% of the profits of the album will be donated to re-entry programs and social support for incarcerated women. The album is called Borderlands and is planned for release by the end of the summer. The opening song that we performed, an arrangement of the civil rights folk song Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, is out now as a single so that people can experience what that day was like with us.

My experience working with incarcerated women at the SF County Jail has taught me that my freedom is inextricably linked with theirs. That even though there is a perceived division of what is free and unfree, those lines are blurred when we open our hearts to each other and allow our humanity and stories to be seen and heard. Women behind bars are mothers, poets, artists, friends and companions in the movement for justice. Working for justice for pregnant and parenting people behind bars can take many forms; no matter what our skill or talent, we can use it to build solidarities that break down the borders and walls that are designed to separate us.

Naima Shalhoub is a Lebanese American songstress, musician, performing artist and educator with an MA in Postcolonial Anthropology. Currently based in Oakland, she has performed her music in nationally acclaimed venues and has received theater roles with Golden Thread Productions and The African-American Shakespeare Company. Naima facilitates weekly music sessions with incarcerated women in San Francisco County Jail (CJ#2). Her upcoming debut album Borderlands, recorded live in CJ#2 is planned for release Summer 2015.

Link to listen to single on Sound Cloud.

TedX Talk on freedom and voice "On Making the Caged Bird Sing":

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