Halim Flowers was given two life sentences at 17. Now, his art is shown worldwide After serving 22 years in prison, the D.C. poet, author, and visual artist is selling paintings faster than he can create them.
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Halim Flowers was given two life sentences at 17. Now, his art is shown worldwide

"I've had decades to work on my being." Dee Dwyer/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Dee Dwyer/WAMU/DCist

There's a grainy, '90s-era video on YouTube that shows a 16-year-old Black kid in an oversized white T-shirt, prisoner No. 272-113 at the D.C. Jail. A dark-suited reporter asks him whether anyone he knew growing up in his neighborhood "made it out." One person, he responds. Just one.

The kid fidgets with his pants while shirtless men play basketball behind him, and the reporter peppers him with questions about his future. He responds to her with a depressing calculation: if he were to end up serving a 30-year sentence, his mother would likely be dead by the time he was released.

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"I keep appealing my case. I can't win," he says, looking away from the reporter and the camera. "Ain't nothing to live for."

The footage is over two decades old, a scene taken from HBO's Thug Life in D.C., an Emmy-winning documentary by Mark Levin and Daphne Pinkerson that came out in 1999.

That teenager, Halim Flowers, now a 41-year-old author, poet, and visual artist based out of D.C. and Maryland, has plenty to live for.

On a September morning this year, Flowers, his wife Lauren McKinney, and their 1-year-old daughter Nala gather at the DTR Modern Gallery in Georgetown, posing for portraits. It's one of the many galleries around the world where Flowers' work is displayed. The gallery's slogan — "Placing 20th century modern masters within the reach of art lovers of all levels" — is on full display in its intimate, two-room space, where works from icons like Basquiat, Warhol, and Damien Hirst hang on the walls.

Flowers dons a long beard and a prayer bump on his forehead, a dark callus that's developed after years of morning prayers. (Flowers is a lifelong practicing Muslim.)

"They didn't have any Black artists in here before me, besides Basquiat," Flowers says with a thick D.C. drawl, elongating the first syllable so that it sounds like "Baaah-skee-aht." As he talks, he stands in front of five of his own paintings, three of which recently sold to collectors across the country. In total, he estimates he's sold about $1 million in artwork this year alone, a number DTR confirmed.

The paintings on the walls are just a fraction of his portfolio. Used to being confined indoors, Flowers says he has had a creative streak during the pandemic. A room in his house is full of about two dozen canvases he's been working on over the past year.

Just over a year ago, Flowers and his wife McKinney (also an artist) were strolling through Georgetown when they noticed the DTR space. Seeking inspiration, they walked inside to ask the gallery director about how the art was selected and what Flowers would have to do to see his work featured there one day.

It was a bold question. At the time, Flowers had only been out of prison for a year and a half, having been released after serving 22 years of two sentences of 40 years and 20 years to life.

Flowers had started to showcase his work in small galleries in D.C. and New Orleans — but he had global aspirations. It was that conversation and the ones that followed — in which he spoke with wealthy art collectors, gallery owners, and investors — that led the Northeast D.C. native on a path toward becoming what he always knew he could be.

Since that September 2020 day in Georgetown, Flowers has worked with fine art powerhouses like the Phillips Collection — he redesigned the museum's logo for its centennial — and had his work displayed in galleries from Nantucket to London. A spoken-word performer and author, he's given a TEDx Talk and appeared in Kim Kardashian West's documentary about mass incarceration. He's released a collection of NFTs containing his artwork and videos of his performances that customers can buy with cryptocurrency.

"When you become this emerging Black artist that gets commercial and critical success in this fine art world, which normally excludes us, everyone comes to you," Flowers says. "I tell them, 'It's not art. Don't think that it's because of how I paint. It's my being.' I've had decades to work on my being."

Flowers was born on September 1, 1980, into a two-parent household in Northeast D.C. His family lived in a row home his grandparents owned in the Kingman Park neighborhood. The influx of crack cocaine brought chaos to the city, and by Flowers' telling, his youth was surrounded by violence and fear. During his childhood and adolescence, the District became known as the "murder capital" of the United States, recording the highest homicide rate in the country. In 1991, the number of homicides per year in D.C. peaked at 482.

"Growing up in D.C. in the 80s and 90s was very fatal," Flower says. "It made me afraid. I didn't feel safe. I started selling drugs because I wanted to move to where I live at now."

His own father became addicted to crack, which Flowers describes as the first and greatest trauma of his life, the source of his rebellion."Your father is the closest thing to God. Losing him and everybody around me losing their parents to crack cocaine was hard," he said in a 2019 interview.

He scored highly on his PSATs, earning him a spot at Jefferson Middle School Academy, across town. But he soon started hanging out with drug dealers and got kicked out for skipping classes.

"I was the smartest [and] dumbest person you could ever meet," Flowers says. "I wanted to be accepted, so I literally dumbed myself down and got kicked out of all the gifted and talented classes that I was in to fit in with the cool kids."

As an 80-pound, 15-year-old drug dealer, Flowers would have, at any given point, $500 stashed away in a shoebox and $5,000 worth of crack on hand, ready to sell. His hustle earned him respect, but also envy from older dealers — he and his crew often found themselves on the receiving end of gunfire, and sometimes, they were the ones pulling triggers in retaliation, he says.

"Senseless violence darkens our communities like black clouds as the winds blow bullets that tear down lives like a hurricane," he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Makings of a Menace, Contrition of a Man.

Crack broke the fabric of Flowers' family and community — and eventually, it changed the course of his own life.

Here, Flowers stands with his wife, Lauren McKinney, and daughter, Nala, in front of his paintings at the DTR Modern Gallery in Georgetown. Dee Dwyer/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Dee Dwyer/WAMU/DCist

The day after Christmas in 1996, Flowers lost money shooting dice at the Azeeze Bates apartment complex, high on PCP and weed and drunk on cognac and champagne, per his memoir. He was just 16 at the time. Flowers says one of the older guys he was with handed him a nine-millimeter pistol and told him to go rob some of the men who were selling and smoking crack out of an apartment nearby. He had never broken into someone's home to commit a robbery and had promised himself he would never rob anyone again when he turned 16. But here was an opportunity to win back his money — and his pride.

Flowers went into the apartment and pulled out the gun, ordering the three men inside to throw their money on the floor. When Flowers bent down to grab the cash, one of the men tried to grab his gun. It went off, hitting no one, but sending Flowers scrambling out of the building humiliated and empty handed.

Two friends, Momolu Stewart and Kareem McCraney, waited outside, prosecutors alleged.

When Flowers came out, he says he handed the gun back and told the group what happened. "One of the guys that was there took the gun, went back around, and killed one of the people in the house," Flowers says.

Prosecutors said that all three boys ran back into the apartment through a backdoor entrance and that Stewart fired three rounds into a closed bedroom door, fatally shooting 51-year-old Elvern Cooper.

Flowers denies ever returning to the apartment where the killing occurred and declined to name who else was involved. The charges against Stewart were eventually dropped. But even so, Flowers was arrested and booked that January, and in May 1998, at the age of 17, he was convicted as an adult for felony murder under accomplice liability — commonly called "aiding and abetting" — a complicated legal doctrine that makes someone accountable for a crime they didn't commit if they were involved in it.

He understood the gravity of being charged as an adult. Flowers spent much of his youth fearing his fate would be decided by Title 16 — which allows 16 and 17 year olds to be prosecuted as adults for certain crimes.

"Title 16 hangs over our neighborhoods like a dark cloud that swallows young black boys up into its dark hole like an irresistible, gravitational pull of a supernova," Flowers wrote in his memoir. "Once it pulls them in, they never return to our communities again until decades later."

Flowers was sent to the now-closed juvenile block at the D.C. Jail, where he says there was no access to GED programs or mental counseling.

"We was kids, and they treated us like animals," he says. All of us were facing the rest of our lives or a significant portion of our lives in prison. We were destructive to one another. We bullied one another. But we loved one another, too, and we taught one another."

At the D.C. Jail, when he was 17, just over 5 feet tall and barely 100 pounds, Flowers says he got into a fight with a larger man over a jar of peanut butter. Both of them carried knives, but Flowers drew first. He stabbed the man, who narrowly survived the wounds, and Flowers was sent to "the hole," another term for solitary confinement.

"I just remember thinking, like, 'Damn, had this guy died, I would have killed someone and been guilty of it," Flowers says. "Here I am, in jail for a murder I didn't commit, but now, I done bought so much into this destructive, thug character that I may be ready to throw my whole life away."

The two later met again and laughed about the incident, but in the direct aftermath, Flowers remembers fearing for his own life and wanting to change the "negative energy" he carried that kept attracting such terrible situations. He left the stabbing physically unscathed, but mentally transformed.

"When he pulled through, I said, 'Man, I gotta change.'"

Every night from 8 p.m. to midnight at the D.C. Jail, he told DCist/WAMU, the guards played The Quiet Storm on WHUR 96.3. The soul music by Brian McKnight, the Isley Brothers, and Al Green echoed off the prison walls, a stark contrast to the violence-laden songs Flowers played while roaming the streets. Love songs like "How Do You Mend a Broken Heart" and "Never Felt This Way" made him cry while he laid in bed, just a few blocks away from his old neighborhood. "Sound has an impact on your soul," he says.

Flowers started reading the Quran and the Bible, along with a list of self help titles that he can name as easily as he can recall what he ate for dinner. He read Be Free Where You Are, a speech Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh delivered at a prison in Hagerstown, Md. in the '90s, about cultivating one's own freedom. Flowers adopted the mindset that "to harm anyone, even in thought, is to harm oneself."

Soledad Brother, a collection of prison letters by Black revolutionary George Jackson, inspired Flowers to pick up the pen himself. From behind bars, Flowers began writing poetry and letters to loved ones. He self-published 11 books with the help of his mother, who worked at the Library of Congress and helped him create his own publishing company, SATO (Struggle Against the Odds) Communications.

He took government and philosophy classes at the D.C. Jail, and attended humanities lectures through Georgetown University's Prison Scholars Program. He dabbled in fashion entrepreneurship and blogged for criminal justice websites. From 2018 until the end of his sentence, he became a mentor through the Young Men Emerging program, which offers counseling and prepares incarcerated youth to reenter communities outside of prison.

Over the course of two decades, Flowers was transferred to seven different federal prisons in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and California. He wrote to every president from George W. Bush to Donald Trump, making a case for his release. He wrote to scholars at historically Black colleges and universities and Ivy League universities, judges, lawyers, and scientists who studied brain development and criminology.

"If I could get an address on 'em, I would write 'em and share my story," Flowers says. "Man, I wrote everybody. I was trying to get the hell out of there. I knew what I could be on the outside."

In 2016, a path out of incarceration finally began to open up for Flowers.

That year, the D.C. Council proposed a bill to allow D.C. residents who have served at least 15 years in prison and were convicted of crimes they committed before their 18th birthday to petition the court for a resentencing. At first, the law — called the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA) — didn't apply to people convicted as juveniles in the '80s and '90s.

Through local advocates and friends, Flowers started writing letters to the D.C. Council and the mayor, raising awareness on social media and sharing his life story. One supporter even read Flowers' personal testimony at public hearings on his behalf, and in April 2017, IRAA was amended to apply retroactively to anyone in D.C. who'd been convicted as an adult before they turned 18.

The next year, Flowers was sent from the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta back to the D.C. Department of Corrections. On March 21, 2019, after having served 22 years and two months in prison, Flowers was released.

A documentary clip shows Flowers' mother embracing him as he walked out of the jail, crying tears of joy. But when Flowers thinks back to his first day out of prison, he hardly describes it as the momentous occasion it was.

"That day was definitely a monumental moment, but I was just like, 'Give me my iPhone, my laptop, and let me get to work,'" he says. "Let me get to manifesting some things that I've been enjoying in my mind and my spirit. Let me share it with you all now — for all you who still believe in impossibilities."

Flowers had stumbled across a magazine article in prison that mentioned the Halcyon Arts Lab in D.C., which had a fellowship program for artists who focus on social justice. He spoke with a fellow in the program who told him how to apply, and he did.

Accepted into the program, Flowers was given a monthly stipend, an apartment in Georgetown, and studio space. He set out to start creating visual representations of what he felt, first through photos and prints, and then through painting.

Flowers says he has had some catching up to do. He's learning to be a husband and father. He owns a Tesla, but has scratches on the rims, as he's still learning how to drive. Dee Dwyer/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Dee Dwyer/WAMU/DCist

Flowers' wife, Lauren McKinney encouraged him to pick up the paint brush.

"He started approaching the canvas fearlessly and with a sense of urgency," McKinney says. "And the messages were so profound that, although they weren't aesthetically pleasing in the beginning, there was a space for it in the world. It was needed."

McKinney, 31, met Flowers through his words. Flowers' father sent him photos of friends from around the neighborhood to keep his spirits up while he was incarcerated. One of those photos included an 18-year-old McKinney and her friends at a Fourth of July BBQ. Flowers asked his father about her and started writing her love letters and poems. The two married in September of 2019 and now raise Nala, their daughter, and Marco, McKinney's 12-year-old son from a previous relationship.

McKinney often helps Flowers translate his ideas to the canvas.

"I correct him and others all the time when they say, 'This success happened so fast for you,' because it didn't," says McKinney. "The reality is, he's had 20-plus years to sit down and formulate all of these theories, philosophies, and studies, so that he can bring all of those concepts to the canvas. It wasn't an overnight success."

In much of his work, Flowers superimposes the phrase "Superpredator" over swaths of bold colors, images of golden crowns, and other words related to capitalism and U.S. history. He does so in an attempt to reclaim the phrase, coined in 1995 by Princeton scholar John DiIulio, who described "a new breed" of adolescents as "fatherless, Godless, and jobless." The idea of these impulsive and remorseless teens was made more popular by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton in 1996, when she used it to promote President Bill Clinton's crime bill. In a now infamous moment, Clinton said there are "not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids called super-predators. No conscience. No empathy."

In the decades since, the phrase has been widely criticized as a dehumanizing label that furthered stereotypes of Black teens as inherently violent. Dilulio predicted that the rate of teen violence would double or even triple by the mid-2000s, a myth that never became reality. (Dilulio later recanted his own theory and supported the end of mandatory life sentences for juveniles involved in murder cases.)

Flowers has made Superpredator part of his branding — it appears on his social media pages, art collections, and in his spoken word poetry.

"I can take a label or a title that's been given to castigate me and brand me as a human being worthy of inhumane treatment — I can re-create that and make it an agent of love and creativity and productivity," he says.

Flowers' pieces often include dark, abstract figures on the perimeters, which he says represent the Black artists who have been kept on the fringes of the art world — from Marian Anderson, who was denied a stage in Washington in 1939, to talented modern-day artists who will never see a stage at the Kennedy Center or have their work featured in the Smithsonian.

Often, he uses iconography and portraiture to depict perceptions of wealth and commercial success contrasted against images of fear, poverty, and oppression. It's abstract and, at times, terrifying. One of his pieces features an orange-colored prison jumpsuit stretched out across a canvas like a scarecrow with shackles tied to its feet, and a cardboard box for a face. The box once held a pair of shoes from luxury brand Hermès, which Flowers purchased after doing a live painting at the Four Seasons in Georgetown. Scrawled across the face are the words "Superpredator," "Kids For Cash," and "It Takes A Village To Cage A Child," a reference to Hillary Clinton's 1996 book on raising children, It Takes a Village.

Inspired by his work, Maryland public defender Liz Oyer began collecting some of Flowers' art. She discovered his work through Instagram and came to see his exhibit at Homme DC. "[Flowers] told me that he's a poet, first and foremost," she says. "But the poetry really comes through in his paintings."

Oyer has gotten to know Flowers personally and says her husband and 12-year-old son are also fans of his work, which hangs in their D.C. home and her office in Maryland.

"It is just incredible to me that that system didn't break him and didn't crush him," Oyer says. "He was somehow able to emerge from it with all of these hopes and dreams that he was ready to hit the ground running to achieve. And that doesn't happen to a lot of people. The criminal justice system is not designed to raise a teenager into a productive adult."

Flowers says his goal for redesigning the Phillips Collection logo was to highlight women, like Marjorie Acker Phillips and Polly Fritchey, who were instrumental in developing the collection, but didn't always get the recognition they deserved. Elliot Williams/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Elliot Williams/WAMU/DCist

Since re-entering the world beyond the prison walls, Flowers hasn't stopped moving. Friends say he fits two or three days worth of living into a single day. When Kanye West brought his Sunday Service to Howard's homecoming in 2019, Kim Kardashian West invited Flowers to perform spoken word — she met Flowers through her documentary The Justice Project. Flowers spoke at the 2020 TEDx conference in D.C. about prison reform. He visits his old neighborhood often and, between games of Madden and NBA 2K, offers guidance to teens he sees as younger versions of himself. And he's helped introduce other Black artists to DTR Modern, like Clarence James, another D.C.-based, self-taught painter he met at a tea shop last year.

Flowers documents his adventures on his Instagram account, where he goes by "Face," his childhood nickname. (His neighborhood friend Kareem McCraney, the first person released under IRAA, once told Flowers, "man you've got a little face," and the name stuck.)

Momolu Stewart, Flowers' other childhood friend — who was convicted as a teen for the murder of Mark Rosebure, just six days after the first shooting at the Azeeze Bates apartments — also referred to him as Face. Stewart freestyle rapped while they were in prison and inspired Flowers to turn his thoughts into spoken word. After serving 23 years, Stewart was also released as an adult through IRAA.

The D.C. Council has since expanded IRAA, passing the Second Look Amendment Act last year, though it has faced opposition from residents concerned about violent offenders returning to society. The law now allows anyone convicted of a violent crime before they turned 25 to petition a judge for early release, provided they have served at least 15 years of their sentence. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District issued a statement to say the act "re-victimizes victims and ignores public safety in the District." More than 60 people have been released under the law since 2016.

Flowers says people who criticize IRAA have little understanding of people like him.

"Saying someone is a violent offender if they committed an act when they were [a teenager], then you're putting a label on them for the remainder of their life," he says. "A person like myself might shoot somebody one time, and never shoot anyone again. But I'm a violent offender for the rest of my life."

Few people could have foretold that a teenager like Flowers would one day sell paintings for upwards of $10,000; or showcase his work at the National Arts Club in New York; or marvel at the wonders of shopping in New York from a two-floor penthouse apartment in SoHo.

He now owns a five-bedroom, three-bathroom house in the quiet suburbs of Maryland and another home in D.C. Having spent so much of his life in prison, Flowers has had some catching up to do. He owns a Tesla, but has scratches on the rims, as he's still learning how to drive.

When he was released, Flowers says friends and family were worried about him, since he spent most of his time studying at the library, writing down plans, working out, and painting, rarely making time to rest. He told them about his work ethic, which hadn't changed since he woke up every day in a prison jumpsuit.

"This world out here is not gonna break me," he says. "I live a high-charged life, because I want to die empty. You see all the paintings and the books ... I want to die with nothing."

Almost three decades after he was filmed as a 16-year-old in the D.C. Jail, pondering the value of his young life and whether he'd ever see his mother again outside of prison visits, Flowers says he sees his "greatest supporter" regularly. Darlene Flowers now has a college degree. (His dad even got a GED, encouraged by Flowers' success.) After 35 years of working for the federal government, Ms. Flowers is retiring from the Library of Congress. She's a homeowner.

"Mom's doing great, man. She's doing great," says Flowers. "She ain't went nowhere."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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