How One Hip-Hop Video Punctured the US Prison System

It might seem like just another viral clip, but the WorldStar video filmed inside a cell tells us a lot about the incarceration of black men in America.

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Oct 16 2014, 12:15pm

With five percent of the world's population, the US incarcerates 25 percent of the world's prisoners. In a report by the Sentencing Project on racial disparities in the criminal justice system, they found that one in every three black males born today can expect to go to prison at some point in their life, compared to the one in every 17 white males. People in the United States are serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the western world.

Last week, as I went to dip my spoon for the third time in the tub of peanut butter I keep at my side during my usual WorldStarHipHop.com evening ritual, I came across a video called "South Carolina Inmates Film 1st Ever Music Video In Prison!"

Knowing WorldStarHipHop's tendency for over-zealous hyperbole, I was expecting some kind of disapointment. But when I clicked, it had this really infectious, explosive energy. Kinetic, bopping inmates - even the cameraman jumping in unison. The song builds and explodes, and they seem to feed off each other, as the guy with his back to the wall creates a backing track out of nothing.

At a time when a lot of hip-hop is becoming standardised under the watchful eye of the radio playlists and music industry executives, this video felt unlike any rap music I'd listened to in years. With over a million views on YouTube, it's an example of underground hip-hop at its most energetic, expressive, and powerful.

What's most striking about this video is how it undermines the oppressed, beaten, backward, or thuggish images of African Americans prisoners that are put out to us. Images of prison in the media tend to be either of violence or mental illness, but their performance is neither brutal nor broken. These guys don't pose a threat to the viewer but together represent positive pillars of strength within the small confines of their cell.

The stigma of prison is so great, because prisoners have no means with which to humanise themselves. Disenfranchised by their criminalisation, they have no way of having their lives seen, their voices heard. This video, filmed within the walls of a cell without permission, offers a small transference of power, a threat to the slick tools of disempowerment used in prisons.

Perhaps the most powerful thing about the video is how it doesn't mention prison, at all, it could have been made by anyone. It doesn't seek to provide an explicit political commentary, because it understands it's mere existence—given the context—is political.

Contraband isn't anything new. Prisoners and guards have, inevitably, been smuggling forbidden items as currency since prisons have existed. Yet local newspapers, internet forums, and most noticeably the Department of Corrections have been in a state of panic since the release of the video, and I don't think its because someone had a mobile phone. After the video surfaced online, SCDC increased security at its facilities this week. Director of Corrections Bryan Stirling put officers back in the guard shacks as one step to increase safety and slow the flow of contraband into the prisons. "We're also using cameras," Stirling said. "We're going to purchase some thermal imaging cameras. Governor Haley in last year's budget gave us some money for some towers outside of Lee Correctional Institute and that will help also." The department is also starting to use portable metal detectors that can scan people and items being brought into the prisons for anything hidden inside.

"I think it sends a signal that we need to be more vigilant in our looking for contraband and that's one of my priorities as the new director, to be more vigilant with contraband," concluded Stirling. The corrections department is trying to have the website pull the video, but it's probably too late now that it's gone viral with over a million views.

WorldStarHipHop were wrong to call this the first video recorded in prison. The Lifers Group (pictured from video below) filmed their 1993 Album Living Proof behind bars. T.I. also managed to pull off the filming of the first ever video from a corrections facility in 2004 while incarcerated in Georgia. The difference, though, is that they both got permission from their correctional offices and their tone was largely apologetic. The recent video is unique in that they are current inmates who apparently came together to produce, film and star in the video without permission. Filmed using contraband in secret and leaked onto the Internet, it was an act of rebellion against those in charge –and it is that subversion that captures the true essence of hip-hop.

Hip-hop has always been a voice against the incarceration of black men in America. From Dead Prez's "Behind Enemy Lines" ("Look how we livin, 30 thousand niggas a day/Up in the bing, standard routine/They put us in a box just like our life on the block") to Public Enemy's show at Rikers Island prison in New York to Kanye West's line in "New Slaves": "They trying to lock niggas up, they trying to make a new state / See that's the privately-owned prison, get your piece today."

Michelle Alexander recently released a book called The New Jim Crow, which criticizes America's use of mass incarceration saying "in the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don't. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color "criminals." Once you're labelled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow." Ultimately America is not post racial, it's just re-designed its' caste system. In 2014, America imprisoned a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.

Whilst a lot of the annoying online commentators have criticised the repetitive refrain (pshh) or what they see as the glamorization of "The War on Drugs" and prison life, I think it represents a much wider socio-political story—perhaps just not one of repentance. Although the inmates broke a rule, I somehow think if they were caught playing snake on a Nokia 3310 they may not have had the same reaction. It wasn't the breaking of contraband rules, but the threat to power that the footage invites both literally and ideologically. They are breaking the rules by filming without permission, but mixed with recording equipment and access to the internet; the silenced black prisoners have a voice to express themselves on a global scale through hip-hop. Rosa Clemente, a hip-hop activist and journalist, said, "Hip-hop culture inherently speaks truth to power and tries to act against power." When understood in its full context, hip-hop has huge subversive potential.

This viral music video is the touch paper for a growing debate, and a symbolically powerful cultural act by disenfranchised prisoners that subverts the power structure of America. The celebratory images the inmates present of themselves reflects an example of literal and ideological subversion at a time when police disproportionately shoot unarmed black young people, and media rhetoric works to feed its readership with images of "inherently violent" African Americans, used to justify the criminalization of so many people.

Having spent the last few months obsessively following live tweets and video uploads from Ferguson—along with all the other racially charged shootings, beatings and choke-holds by police—I felt like this was taking a bit of the power back. We're at a very difficult time in the world right now: Our autonomy and freedoms are continually under threat, as the nooses from top down power are being pulled tighter. But it is expressions like this that shake the structure of power. These guys have got an identity that isn't the cultural property of the music industry, or of their correctional facilities officer, or of the Establishment.

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