Yo Gotti On Parchman Prison Reform And Noname On Hip-Hop's Abolitionist Future : Louder Than A Riot Yo Gotti grew up in Memphis just across the state line from Mississippi State Penitentiary (aka Parchman) — so this year, when he learned about the squalor its inmates were living in, he wanted to help. Gotti enlisted Jay-Z and Roc Nation to sue the department of corrections for human rights violations. In our finale episode, we ask how much celebrity activism really helps the prison reform movement, and sit down with rapper Noname and organizer Mariame Kaba to consider the alternate solutions proposed by prison abolition.


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A warning before we begin - this podcast is explicit in every way.



T RILEY: We got a whole fight going on down here in Parchman, man.

MADDEN: What you're hearing is a contraband cellphone video shot from inside a prison cell.


RILEY: We need some help, man. Can't even breathe in this bitch, bro. I can't even fucking breathe, man. It's a whole fight going on down in this cell, man.

MADDEN: Smoke fills the hallway. Trash is piled up on the concrete floor. Somewhere in this prison, something is burning.


RILEY: We've been like this since 1 o'clock this morning, man. It's damn near 8 o'clock. No way I'm going to leave the world like this right here.

MADDEN: This video being streamed on Facebook live shows only one angle, the view from a cell. And all the while, the prisoners are stuck, helpless, not knowing if they're about to be burned alive. All they can do is watch.


RILEY: Not trying to die in here, man. I'm going live for y'all to see this shit, man. I'm trying to stay strong, bro.


This video was from inside Mississippi State Penitentiary - AKA Parchman - Mississippi's most notorious prison, where prisoners have been protesting or rioting - depending on who you ask - over inhumane prison conditions since the end of 2013. And now the prison is under lockdown.


GAYLE KING: Calls for prison reform are rising after a spike in violence in correctional facilities in Mississippi.

MARK STRASSMANN: And critics consider Mississippi's prison system to be among America's most troubled.


MADDEN: Between the end of December 2019 and January 2020, nine people died in Mississippi's prison system due to things like diabetic shock, neglect, malnutrition, even, possibly, a virus that wasn't yet named but would soon become a global pandemic. And the lockdown isn't calming things down. This early morning flight you can hear in the video is between cell mates in Parchman's Unit 29. It's the cell just across the hall from prisoner Travonta Riley. He goes by T Riley (ph). And he told his story to two lawyers after his release.


RILEY: We steady calling for officers to help us, you know what I'm saying? They wouldn't help. So I just took the initiative to go on and make a video.

CARMICHAEL: T Riley is currently 28 years old. And he was serving five years for marijuana possession at Rankin County when he got into a fight and was sent to Parchman. Eventually, he ended up in Unit 29. And he'd been there for about a year and a half before he filmed that video.


RILEY: If y'all care, man, y'all call the police department. We need some help down here.

MADDEN: Unit 29 has some of the most inhumane conditions at Parchman, which is saying a lot because Parchman itself has a reputation. It's Mississippi's oldest prison. It's also the only max security prison for men in the state. And it's one of the most rundown, unkempt facilities with the least amount of resources.

CARMICHAEL: Now, this fight the wakes T Riley up, it's not some quick squabble either. It just keeps going on and on - 4 a.m.




CARMICHAEL: Six a.m., 7 a.m.


CARMICHAEL: Man, these guys are fighting to the death.


RILEY: Don't let that knife go, gangster.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Don't let that knife go.

RILEY: Do not let that knife go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Kill that beef.

CARMICHAEL: So another inmate does the only thing in his power to get the attention of the guards or a nurse to stop the fight. He lights a fire. The whole cellblock starts to fill with smoke. But T Riley has asthma. He's struggling to breathe. He knows they need help. So around 7:45 a.m., he pulls out his contraband cellphone and goes live from his Facebook account.


RILEY: This shit crazy, man. I need all y'all guys to put some - a white towel on your face, bro. Don't let them kill you. You've been fighting for your life for four hours.

MADDEN: T Riley's live lasts almost an hour. And viewers watch as the hall fills up with more smoke.


RILEY: This ain't no way, man. Growing up, man, I ain't never think - never in my life thought I'd have to go through some shit like this, man, never. I never in my life, bro - 28 years old, man, I ain't never think I'd go through shit - experience some shit like this, bro.

We had officers, like, come in the building. Like, you can see it in the video. He went upstairs. And when we said - when them guys were telling him what's going on - you know what I'm saying? - to help us out, so he was like, is he dead? We were like, no. He turned back around and went down the stairs.

MADDEN: You heard that? T Riley says the guard asked if one of the men in the cell was dead. And when they said he wasn't, the guard left. But 36-year-old Denorris Howell was killed in the fight that morning. After nearly an hour of filming, T Riley ended his livestream. That's when the guards finally came to the floor. But by that time, another inmate had already put the fire out. The COs, they searched T Riley's cell. And they found a cellphone and a knife. He says they confiscated both and left him in there in the smoke-filled unit.


RILEY: It's devastating. It was - you know, it's either kill or be killed at that kind of place.


CARMICHAEL: I'm Rodney Carmichael.

MADDEN: I'm Sidney Madden.


MADDEN: Where we trace the collision of rhyme and punishment in America.

CARMICHAEL: In our final episode, we weigh the realities of reforming America's prison industrial complex with the ambitions of abolishing it completely.

MADDEN: And we look at how hip-hop fits in. Does rap's cult of celebrity help or hurt the movement?


MADDEN: That cellphone video taken at Parchman shows some serious human rights violations. But Parchman prison is not unique. This isn't new. As one of America's oldest penitentiaries, the practices at Parchman date back to slavery.

CARMICHAEL: And like we said in the first episode of this series, the growth and explosion of prisons in America has dramatically changed the prison industrial complex. Prison development has gone up even as crime rates have gone down. All series, we've been highlighting stories of rappers impacted by mass incarceration not to show you how hip-hop is under the gun, but to show you all the ways everyday Black and brown folk are under it.

MADDEN: And simultaneously, all year long, Black Lives Matter protests around the globe have been giving us a new language for the struggle. We've gone from fuck the police to defund the police. And to a lot of America, it's impossible to distinguish the two.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #1: (Chanting) Defund the police. Defund the police.

TOM WAIT: They're now chanting defund the police.

TUCKER CARLSON: What do the mobs want?

KELLY ALEXANDER: Policing to be equitable.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Re-envisioning public safety.

RAEISHA WILLIAMS: Moving funds to community resources.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When I say defund, you say police. Defund.


BEN CARSON: What happens if you do that? We have total chaos.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There won't be defunding. There won't be a dismantling of our police.

JOE BIDEN: Totally opposed to defunding the police officers.

BARACK OBAMA: I guess you can use a snappy slogan like defund the police, but you know you've lost a big audience the minute you say it.


CARMICHAEL: Hip-hop was always rooted in freeing Black folks - our bodies, our minds - from an oppressive state that was never conceived for our benefit in the first place.

MADDEN: But as rap became more popular and profitable, it became so immersed in this capitalist come-up up that it makes it harder to be critical of the prison industrial complex, a system built on commodifying Black bodies, just like the industry that's engulfed the art form.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. We shot ourselves to the top of the charts, we shot ourselves in the foot.

MADDEN: But you know what? Black music has always been our voice, our vehicle, our weapon, our solace. And hip-hop, more than any other genre, has been at the forefront of a conversation about what needs to change in America. So in recent years, certain players have emerged to change up the rules of engagement.

CARMICHAEL: When COVID happened, prisons became ground zero for the pandemic. It amplified all the racial inequality that America was built on and that the prison system is steeped in. But it also revealed that some of the reforms that we've been being told for decades were impossible were suddenly not only possible, but necessary.

MADDEN: Yeah, things like letting prisoners out early. And where the state failed, hip-hop stepped up, sending masks to infamous institutions, like Rikers and even Parchman. The fact that hip-hop provided basic safety to people locked up shows how deeply entrenched we are in a prison system that's clearly keeping no one safe. This is too big a thing to fully grapple with in a single episode. But these are the questions that have been guiding us to a path forward.


MADDEN: First, we look into the lawsuit funded by Jay-Z to amend the atrocities happening at Parchman Prison. What does Parchman show us about the history of prisons and the fight to reform them?

CARMICHAEL: Then, we break down how hip-hop's ability to critique America's prison system has changed. Is the celebrity rebranding of the decades-old fight actually hindering real progress?

MADDEN: And finally, we explore a world beyond reform. Noname and Mariame Kaba school us on where the fight to abolish prisons is at and where it can go. And we ask, is it the artist's job to make revolution irresistible?


CARMICHAEL: Back in January, Memphis rapper Yo Gotti's phone started blowing up out of nowhere.

YO GOTTI: People started, like, direct messaging me pictures and videos. And then, like, my brother and a couple of people...


YO GOTTI: ...Was texting my phone videos and pictures.


RILEY: We in this bitch to die, man. 2020, we all going to die.

MADDEN: T Riley's video of the fire and fight at Parchman was going viral. That's how it landed in Gotti's DMs. It was one of a number of Parchman videos flying around the Internet that month. Gotti still remembers watching them for the first time.

YO GOTTI: You wouldn't even want to see an animal living like this - you know, black mold on the sheets, black mold on the walls, feces everywhere, no electricity, the people cold. You don't supposed to go to prison in that. No, you go to prison to get rehabilitated, come home and hope to be a better person.

CARMICHAEL: These videos were an SOS. And for Gotti, they hit especially close to home.

YO GOTTI: Man, I was raised through prisons.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, Gotti grew up in Memphis, practically spitting distance from the Mississippi state line, about a two-hour drive from Parchman. He'd always heard stories about Parchman.

MADDEN: Gotti's pops was in and out of prison. Gotti and his brother were raised by his mom and his aunties. And he says half of them have been in federal penitentiaries, too.

YO GOTTI: I was used to the process of pulling up to a prison, getting searched while being - seeing people, leaving without them and wondering why they can't leave when you leave.

MADDEN: And when Gotti was 15, his brother got locked up, too.

YO GOTTI: Once my brother went to prison, it was like I became the man of the house.

CARMICHAEL: Now, Gotti had been hustling since he was about 12, but with his brother gone, he started getting even deeper in the streets. At the same time, he was watching rap videos on TV - you know, "Rap City" and whatnot. You know, he started spitting a little bit on the side just for fun. His brother's friends were on the streets with him, too. But they started to see music as his out, so they kept pushing him towards it.

YO GOTTI: I remember one of my OGs saying, like, if you go make it in the music, you can then come back and change all our lives. We can't really change your life. You know what I'm saying? And at the time, I was so young I couldn't really understand what he meant or what he was saying.


YO GOTTI: (Rapping) In the club, got them bottles on replay.

MADDEN: Gotti kept at it. And now, years later, he's one of the most respected names in Southern rap.


YO GOTTI: (Rapping) Act right. Act right. Money don't fold if it act right. Act right. Act right. N***** playing games, you can act right.

MADDEN: So when those videos and pictures of what was happening down at Parchman started flooding his DMs, Gotti remembered those words.

YO GOTTI: You can change all our lives. We can't really change your life.

MADDEN: So Gotti says he took that video and he reached out to his management company, Roc Nation.

YO GOTTI: We kind of responded to it, like, real fast. In, like, 24 hours, 48 hours, we was putting a plan together and trying to figure out what was going on, if there was anything we could do.

CARMICHAEL: And what was happening in these videos definitely looked unconstitutional - cruel and unusual punishment. So instead of taking it to Twitter, Roc Nation took that thing to trial. And they went with a law firm that had boots on the ground in Mississippi to do it.

MARCY CROFT: I can remember driving past it and driving through it as a school kid and just hearing the lessons of it. You never want to go there.

MADDEN: That's attorney Marcy Croft. Growing up in Jackson, Miss., Marcy saw how Parchman cast a shadow across the whole state.

CROFT: It's the ultimate boogeyman location that kind of preconditions you as an adult, especially if you stay here, to think, well, that's the default. It's supposed to be like that.

MADDEN: She came on board to start building Roc Nation's case against the Mississippi Department of Corrections, MDOC for short. In January, right around the time T Riley's video was going viral, a reporter at a press conference asked Governor Phil Bryant, who's responsible for what's happening in Mississippi's prisons?


PHIL BRYANT: The inmates. The inmates are the ones that take each other's lives. The inmates are the one that fashion weapons out of metal. The inmates are the one that do the damage to the very rooms that they are living in.

CROFT: I get so frustrated every time I hear the state or the governor or someone try to blame gang violence on what happened when the reality is gang violence doesn't make mold grow on the walls. Gang violence doesn't make it rain through the ceiling. Gang violence doesn't cause rats or roaches or bird feces in their food or lack of delivering medicine.

CARMICHAEL: One of the people Marcy's team is representing in this lawsuit has been inside of Parchman for 18 years serving a life sentence. And he's there now, so for his safety, we're not using his name. So he asked us to go instead by the alias Freedom.

FREEDOM: How you doing? Hey, Rodney.

CARMICHAEL: I definitely appreciate you in this situation being able to contact us. Do you have a sense of, like, how long you'll be able to talk tonight?

We spoke to Freedom by a contraband cellphone, just like the one T Riley had for the video. The quality is pretty rough, so you got to listen closely. Now, Freedom - he's housed in Unit 29. But he's in a different building than T Riley. Still, he's experienced a lot of similar-type fires. He guesses there have been maybe hundreds of fires like that since he got to Parchman.

FREEDOM: Most of the time the fires are started in the buildings where there are lockdowns on, meaning that they're locked behind the gate all day long. And you have no way to go to the officers, so you have to have a chance to get the officers to you. If you set a fire, it's automatic that they have to come.

CARMICHAEL: If you set a fire, he says, it's automatic that the guards have to come. Family members of those inside have said it's pretty much impossible to get information about what's going on inside the walls of that prison. Freedom says that's literally by design.

FREEDOM: Everything here is hidden behind a door. Like, you can call us here or try to come here and ask to see what's going on. For anything and ask to see what's going on or anything. Let me see my people, bro, my family members. And it's not going to happen. They keep it locked up like that. And therefore, they can do whatever they want. And nobody knows.

CARMICHAEL: Freedom says this lawsuit is the first time he's seen living conditions improve somewhat at Parchman. Things only started to change when Roc Nation's lawyer showed up.

So what are you hoping that'll come from this Roc Nation lawsuit?

FREEDOM: It'll change the minds of some of y'all - you know what I'm saying? - get them to actually open they eyes and see that we may be locked up, but we still human, too.

CARMICHAEL: It's a little hard to hear. But Freedom is basically saying he hopes this lawsuit opens people's eyes to how bad conditions are in Parchman, that he and the prisoners there may be locked up, but they're human, too.


CARMICHAEL: Now, in January, Marcy's team filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of 33 prisoners saying that MDOC is violating the Constitution. This class action, of course, means that the ruling could apply to everyone in the prison.

MADDEN: The suit says MDOC created conditions at Parchman that inflict cruel and unusual punishment. The state has allowed Parchman to deteriorate so bad that it lacks basic safety and protection from violence. It deprives inmates of adequate medical care. It fails to provide adequate food and water. To gather evidence for the suit, Marcy needed to go inside Parchman to conduct in-person interviews. The videos, like the one T Riley shot, they could hardly prepare her for the experience of being there.

CROFT: What the videos don't do is they don't give you the smell. They don't give you that burned ember smell in every housing unit. They don't give you the rotting iron smell. They don't give you the sweat, the heat, the mold, the humidity here in Mississippi. You know, I'm standing there in Unit 29, which is supposed to be maximum security. And there are 22 people that have died, you know? And it's been on lockdown. And so you're kind of nervous at first. You don't know what you're going into.

MADDEN: Before her first interview, Marcy carefully read through all the files on the incarcerated men she would be speaking with, including what they were in for. Then she spent the day talking to them.

CROFT: And then after that, I don't think I opened another folder. I don't think I read what anybody else did, because after that, it didn't matter.

MADDEN: Didn't matter because no matter where they came from or how long they were in there for, they're all telling the same story.

CROFT: They weren't getting food. They weren't getting water. They didn't have heat. When we went to interview some clients, it was the first time they had been outside in over a year.

MADDEN: Marcy's firm even brought in experts to assess the living conditions at Parchman. And their reports basically laid it out - this place, it's unlivable.

CARMICHAEL: But in a statement to NPR, MDOC refutes those claims, saying, quote, "the department denies allegations of unconstitutional conditions associated with the Roc Nation lawsuit and will respond accordingly in court." MDOC declined to comment further.

MADDEN: In addition to suing MDOC, Roc Nation is also suing the parent company of the prison's medical provider. It's called Centurion. It's a for-profit, publicly traded company. Roc Nation is arguing that Centurion is failing to provide medical care for the prisoners. Sometimes fires, like the one T Riley videotaped and the hundreds Freedom has witnessed, are the only way that these incarcerated men get medical attention. In order to succeed with the class action lawsuits, Marcy and her team would have to prove something called deliberate indifference.

CROFT: Not bringing prisoners to their medical exams because you don't want everyone to see just how bad off they are, that's deliberate indifference, right? Refusing to call in medical when a prisoner is lying there barely able to breathe and his heart rate has dropped so low, that's deliberate indifference.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. And that intentional neglect, it really matters, especially now under the weight of this global pandemic. And while conducting interviews for the current lawsuits, Marcy's team uncovered a COVID-19 outbreak inside Parchman. If the prison couldn't give people proper medical care before, you could imagine how well social distancing is going inside Parchman.


MADDEN: But you know what, Rodney? Here's the thing - this isn't the first lawsuit against Parchman. And it's far from the first attempt to ever reform it.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. It turns out the history of reform goes way back with Parchman - like, way, way back. You could even go so far as to say reform is built into the very foundation of the prison. Gotti learned this history at the beginning of the lawsuit.

YO GOTTI: As we dig into it, we realize this been going on years and years before the riot ever happened. And it came to lights Parchman was a slave plantation first. You know, before it was even a prison, it was a slave plantation.

MADDEN: Yeah. Gotti's right. Parchman's racist past has everything to do with this egregious present. History really does repeat itself.

RALPH EUBANKS: Well, really, it begins with the - of course, it begins with the black codes that come about after slavery.

MADDEN: That's Ralph Eubanks. He's born-and-raised Mississippi. And he graduated from the University of Mississippi. Now he teaches English and Southern studies there. And he's something of a historian on Parchman. He really showed us that to understand the prison today, you got to understand how it came to be. Parchman prison started off as Parchman Farm. It's named after the family who ran their plantation there on land stolen from the Choctaw Nation. After the Civil War, slave owners like the Parchmans - they did everything they could to regain power.

EUBANKS: Once they run the Republicans out of control during Reconstruction, then they have to have some means of controlling the Black people. First, they take the vote. Then they begin to use this means of social control of putting them to work for the state.

CARMICHAEL: After the war, the South was broke. But they still had a lot of work to do, right? And they needed a cheap source of labor. So they created a prisoner leasing system. They would arrest Black folk for a variety of trumped-up, miscellaneous violations. And those people were leased for $9 a person to farmers and business owners, i.e. former slave owners. And people rarely outlived their sentences. This system of labor was slavery by any other name. Now, at the time, Mississippi Governor James Vardaman was against convict leasing, but - get why - because it made business owners rich at the expense of the state.

EUBANKS: He felt that he wanted to get the Black criminal element off the streets, put them to work and use them, use their labor to make money for the state of Mississippi.

MADDEN: So in 1900 that government began to replace the prisoner leasing system with physical prisons - prisons that were framed as a reform to the leasing system. Let that marinate. If the leasing system was slavery by another name, then this kind of prison reform put the state in charge of that slavery.

CARMICHAEL: Governor Vardaman - he helped plan the purchase of Parchman farm. It officially opened as a prison in 1901, and the money from the prison labor flowed right back into the state's piggy bank.

EUBANKS: For a long time, Parchman, after income taxes in Mississippi, was the second highest revenue driver for the state of Mississippi.

CARMICHAEL: Incarcerated people at Parchman still worked in the same fields that their enslaved ancestors once plowed and tended. The only real difference - fruits and vegetables replaced cotton and soybeans.

MADDEN: And at Parchman, the history of failed reform repeats itself over and over again. It's like a echo. There have been suits to reform Parchman by organizations like the ACLU dating back to 1971, 1999, 2002 and 2005. In each case, the claims of terrible conditions and medical care are always the same. But every time they get called out for it, Parchman comes up with a temporary fix. That means the reforms that come out of these lawsuits - they never last.

EUBANKS: It's a game of whack-a-mole. But that's the way that the state of Mississippi has been confronting the issues in Parchman. We'll close - oh, violence here - close that. Violence comes up there. Oh, close that. And then it just keeps going.

MADDEN: The failure of prison reform at Parchman is reflective of the larger state of prisons. Overcrowding, prison labor and inadequate health care are hallmarks of prisons across the country.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. And we asked Gotti, what are the big-picture solutions to changing Parchman, to changing Mississippi beyond these reform attempts every few years? It's a huge question, and Gotti admitted to not having all the answers.

YO GOTTI: I think all prisons is cages. And I don't think we should, you know - I wouldn't say I want to see anybody in a cage, but I don't know how to, like, you know - I don't think I'm the one to answer, like, how you govern prisons to the outside of, like, where you put people for whatever they do or whatever.

CARMICHAEL: So what role should hip-hop play in reforming America's prisons?


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Charges reduced this afternoon against rapper Meek Mill for driving a dirt bike recklessly in Inwood. This video shows the rapper on his bike Wednesday night, but police did not arrest him until last night, shortly after a charity basketball game.

CARMICHAEL: When Meek Mill was sent back to prison on a minor parole violation near the end of 2017, it became the shot heard around the hip-hop nation.

VAN JONES: Desiree texts me from court that they're going to give Meek two years. We got to do something. And I texted back right away. The first thing I said was, they've messed with the wrong people.

MADDEN: That's Van Jones, the news commentator, political pundit and former attorney. And we should mention, he's also managed by Roc Nation. And right there, he's talking about Desiree Perez, Roc Nation's COO. Now, for every case we've talked about on this show, there's a social media hashtag associated with it - Free Mac, Free Drama, Free Bobby. But the Free Meek campaign put money and power behind hip-hop's relationship to criminal justice reform like never before.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, with Meek being a Roc Nation signee, Jay-Z had a personal and financial stake in the welfare of the Philly MC. The campaign around Meek wasn't organic; it was strategic - an op-ed in The New York Times with Jay-Z's byline, a viral social media campaign, an Amazon Prime documentary. See, Meek's release from prison in 2018, it set the stage for he and Jay-Z's rollout of the new Reform Alliance. Now, Jay-Z's remained pretty hush about his strategy, but you can see it in the moves Roc Nation makes, like funding 21 Savage's legal defense in his high-profile immigration case or raising awareness about the inhumane conditions at Rikers Island with the Kalief Browder documentary.

Now, all these efforts are bankrolled by Roc Nation's deep pockets and cosigned by founding partners of Reform Alliance, partners who happen to be pretty fat cats in the world of sports and tech.

JONES: The Avengers of billionaires, you know what I mean?

MADDEN: And when Reform Alliance launched, Roc Nation brought on Van to lead it. Now, instead of just suing individual institutions like Parchman or even representing individual people who say they're being targeted unfairly, Reform says their goal is to take the fight to the next level.

JONES: Rather than me trying to represent you and you and you and you, just go to the state legislature and change the law to let everybody out or to shorten everybody's time on probation or everybody's time on parole.

CARMICHAEL: For Team Roc, this is a power play they can afford. But it also operates under the system of power already in play. Now, this is a principle of reform - prisons are here, they're part of society, so let's make them safe and fair.


CARMICHAEL: And while reform efforts have failed in the past, Team Roc's lawyer Marcy says it's the money and the influence that makes the difference.

CROFT: Whether it's the ACLU or the Southern Poverty Law Center or any other well-meaning group, they have very limited resources, and they have budgets. And so the state, I think, is used to running out the clock - you know, delay, is used to fighting back, is used to being the one with the big purse. But when you come in with the support of Team Roc, with the support of Reform, with the support of Jay-Z, of Yo Gotti, of all those people, you're finally playing on the same field with the same equipment.

MADDEN: But for Van, the connection between hip-hop and criminal justice reform is not only about wealth and power; it's also what rappers have been talking about for years.

JONES: So much of what hip-hop is about is confronting the system. Whether you're talking about conscious rap or gangsta rap, both are intensely in this struggle with law and legitimacy and the system and how it works. And both sides of hip-hop put you right in the middle of the justice system.

CARMICHAEL: To reform the justice system, Roc Nation has brought on some unlikely partners, including close friends of President Donald Trump. But Van seems to think that this is exactly what makes his approach effective. This willingness to reach across the aisle is what made him attractive to conservatives like the Koch brothers in the first place.

JONES: I was a part of the group that got the Koch brothers to go sit down with Valerie Jarrett at the White House under Obama to say, we've got to fight you on everything else, but on this one issue, can we have a cease-fire? So then when Obama went to the prison, the first sitting president to visit a prison - notice - he was never attacked. Fox News didn't attack him. Rush Limbaugh didn't attack him. Glenn Beck didn't attack him. Nobody attacked him because there'd been a cease-fire orchestrated on both sides.

CARMICHAEL: I mean (laughter), you talk about going to the Koch brothers - was there any kind of moral dilemma for you to going and sitting down with - how did you rationalize it for yourself?

JONES: Look, man - I've been Black my whole life. Every Black person in America has to deal with the same problem. You can think whatever the hell you want to think, and then you got your boss, and you got to figure out how you're going to deal with your boss. You can be as Black nationalist as you want to be. You can be the most militant person in your headphones as you want to be, but here come your landlord, and you got to figure out how you're going to deal with your landlord or your professor or anything else. So, no, I had no moral dilemma about it because being Black is to deal with nuance, contradiction.

CARMICHAEL: But there's a bigger contradiction right at the heart of celebrity reform. It's hard for celebrity reformers to directly challenge the system when it's the system that led to their success.


CARMICHAEL: Kim Kardashian already knew Jared Kushner, so it was easy to look past his politics and work with him to get Alice Marie Johnson out of prison. That made it even easier for Kanye to meet with President Trump in the Oval Office and bring up prison reform. Van may believe in systemic change, but he believes you have to compromise within the current system in order to get there, even when it means working quietly with the Trump White House.

MADDEN: But there are other people whose work with prisons has led them to very different conclusions. One of those people is Professor Ralph Eubanks, our Parchman historian. His revelations about prisons came straight out of prison.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Well, it was early morning (ph) - then when I rise - Lord, mama.


TANGLE EYE, HARD HAT, 22, LITTLE RED: (Singing) Well, it's early mornin' - early mornin'. Better when I rise - mama (ph)...

MADDEN: When Ralph was working at the Library of Congress, he started to listen to the Alan Lomax recordings of the field hollers and work songs at Parchman prison.

EUBANKS: And I'm listening to this stuff, and I'm thinking, oh, my God, this is the soundtrack of my life. I used to see that as a child. You know, I would see those men working, and I would hear that off in the distance, driving through the delta.

People make jokes that the blues starts - always starts off with I woke up this morning, but the reason it starts off I woke up this morning is they're taking you through the whole day. They didn't think they were going to get through the day. So they always - so they tell this story. And that's why it becomes this epic poem. Each blues song is a story of survival. Each song that comes out of those field hollers, it's a story of survival.

CARMICHAEL: Man, Sid, does that not remind you of Killer Mike, telling us that hip-hop was our blues?

MADDEN: Yeah. And Ralph made that same connection between blues, rock and all the way up to today's soundtrack of rap.


TANGLE EYE, HARD HAT, 22, LITTLE RED: (Singing) Been an early mornin' - early mornin'. Better when I rise (ph)...

EUBANKS: I mean, that idea of, you know, Andre 3000 says the South had something to say - we have to listen to everything that the South has had to say.

MADDEN: No matter how the music evolved, the testimonies from inside the country's prison system have always been there.

EUBANKS: That connection with the music is so important because it connects us with the past if we'll only really engage with it. And sometimes we think that that past doesn't have a lot to say to us - just like I thought, you know, when I was 19 years old that it had nothing to do with me. And now I realize it has everything to do with me.

MADDEN: And late last year, pre-COVID, Ralph taught a literature class inside one of the units at Parchman. After his first visit, he realized how much he'd internalized the stereotypes of what being incarcerated is, of what being a prisoner means. He started questioning his own bias.

EUBANKS: The way that it's all designed is that we never have to engage with it. This is evil. You don't go there. The people who are there must be evil. So if there're evil people there, they belong there. Why does anything need to change? I mean, so it's - there's a very circular logic that keeps all of this entire system perpetuated.

MADDEN: We asked Ralph straight-up if he thinks prisons can be reformed. In studying the prison's history and meeting the men inside, he says no. And he's having more conversations in his own circles about prison abolition.

EUBANKS: And I have to say that I'm beginning to lean in that direction myself, which I - which really surprises me.

MADDEN: Why does it surprise you?

EUBANKS: I think because of the way that - the very strait-laced way I was brought up. You know, it's like you did everything the right way. And I'm the child of two Tuskegeeans. So, you know, Black respectability kind of looms large in my worldview. And that idea of Black respect - but those are not people who are respectable - and realizing, yeah, well, a lot of what I was taught about that was really wrong. These are people who are worthy of respect and dignity. They just had it all taken from them.

If the reason you were to be locked up was to think about what it was that you'd done and then prepare to live a life outside of that - but that's not how the system works. It's a lie. We've all been taught a lie.


TANGLE EYE, HARD HAT, 22, LITTLE RED: (Singing) ... Well, who should have ever told, hadn't told. Told a dirty lie. Well (ph)...

MADDEN: So Ralph's revelation about prisons has come from testimonies in the blues, right? But other people who've been fighting mass incarceration for years, their realizations came straight out of hip-hop.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: A felon behind bars - or you could say real rock from the rock. An unusual musical...

MARIAME KABA: The way that they were talking about the prison industrial complex really was illuminating for somebody at that stage of my life.

MADDEN: That's Mariame Kaba. She's one of the foremost prison industrial complex abolitionists today. But when she was a teenager in the '80s, growing up in New York, hip-hop was one of the first things that allowed Mariame to imagine a world without prisons. She remembers hearing Public Enemy for the first time.

KABA: You know...

(Singing) I've got a letter from the government the other day.


PUBLIC ENEMY: I opened and read it. It said they were suckers.

KABA: The beginning of that was, like, boom (ph). What? And then the video images of that - right? - because this is MTV at the time. And it was like, wait a minute, what is he talking about?


PUBLIC ENEMY: I wasn't wit' it, but just that very minute it occurred to me - the suckers have authority.

KABA: You were in the rise of the criminalization, particularly of young Black people in the city. And you could see your friends were getting locked away. You were going to visit people and bail them out of Rikers. Like, all this stuff was going on, but, like, you didn't have an analysis.

That song is - you know, at the end of the day, this person has escaped. Like, how is that possible? So you mean, like, you can get out of this system? There's a freedom route and a freedom land that could possibly come from this?


PUBLIC ENEMY: (Rapping) Come on, 53 brothers on the run. And we are gone...

KABA: A ceiling is moved off of your imagination that all of a sudden it was not just something that happened to a bunch of people who look like you. Oh, there's a targeting here of folks. Like, oh, racism is at work. Literally I can see it in a different way because of this music and because of these lyrics and because of this poetic. You don't have to be compliant. You don't have to be obedient. You can question. And not just question, you could take action. That's huge. And that's huge for teenagers to hear.

CARMICHAEL: As a prison industrial complex, or PIC, abolitionist, Mariame says their goals go further than reform. And it's not just about ending prisons completely. It's deeper than that.

KABA: A big part of PIC abolition is to transform the conditions that would allow for prisons, policing and surveillance to exist in the first place.

MADDEN: But should the artists calling those conditions out also be the ones required to fix them?


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Better when I rise. Lord, lord - early in the morning, early morning. Better when I rise. Well, it's early in the morning. Well, it's early in the morning. Well, it's early in the morning. Better when I rise - well...

JINX: Rap music is one of the only places where - it actually contends with that idea of what police mean.

CARMICHAEL: That's Brandon Jenkins, aka Jinx. He's a music journalist and culture critic. But hip-hop fans know him from the podcast "Mogul" or being a co-host on Revolt TV's "State Of The Culture." He's one of the culture's best barometers about what's changing in America.

JINX: Hip-hop has to realize it's not just, like, lyrics in a song. This is, like, our greatest export, you know, like, 100%. Like, we don't make shit in America, you know? We make hip-hop. And it goes around the globe, and it comes back to us.

CARMICHAEL: But just like Jinx lays out, as the biggest cultural export, hip-hop contends with one of the building blocks of America - the justice system.

JINX: We look to hip-hop to kind of solve a lot of problems. Every rapper has a verse or a line or a song in their catalog where they've tried to imagine a world where they are not perceived as criminals, where their people are not perceived as criminals or at the very least, like, there's no cops to make them criminals. It's hard to fantasize about what you want. You're like, I want a better world. And you're like, all right. How? And so I think hip-hop should help us dream that up. And if it can't, it should amplify the dreams of people that have said it. It's time for us - hip-hop to help us create new icons, new celebrities that don't rap, you know, people that are vetted in this and have done their - you know, put in their 10,000 hours.

MADDEN: Or maybe it's time to end the cult of celebrity altogether.


MADDEN: Because while a lot of celebrities may recognize the inherent problems with the system and even come from communities suffering under it, that doesn't necessarily make them experts when it comes to fixing it.

KABA: If you don't have the right way of analyzing the whole, then what you end up doing is reinforcing the very thing you say you want to help dismantle.

MADDEN: Mariame Kaba looks at efforts from Roc Nation and Jay-Z, and she sees the way their very success hinders their understanding of the work.

KABA: This is why you have unaccountable people speaking for themselves and their 10 friends. And that is not sustainable for movement. It may reduce harm for one or two people, but it isn't going to transform that system because there's no base. Who is Jay-Z's constituency? Who are the people he's actually accountable to? Who is the person who says to Jay-Z, now, you can't do that because this is a collective endeavor and a collective fight. We have a say in this, too.

MADDEN: Abolitionists see capitalism as a key part of the problem. But reformers, including a lot of hip-hop entrepreneurs, see capitalism as a tool they can use to fix the system.

CARMICHAEL: Mariame says, unlike what people think, abolitionists do support certain kinds of reforms.

KABA: Most people who subscribe to prison industrial complex abolition take on some steps along the way to try to actually chip away at the power of that system. You have to make sure that what you're creating doesn't make the thing that you're trying to dismantle stronger. So it's not as simple as, do you support reform, or do you not? That's not actually the question at hand. The question is, are you trying to make sure that this thing shrinks in power or not?

CARMICHAEL: Shifting your perspective to unlearn the systems that we've been raised under, it can be uncomfortable. And learning as a public figure, even more so. But just like in every other era, there are vanguards in rap who are stepping up to help with the growing pains.


KABA: So I think you're seeing that now in this current moment when you see an artist like Noname, when you have Fatimah trying to publicly learn.


KABA: (Rapping) Mmm, yummy tasty. Mmm, yummy tasty. Waffle fry my empathy, bitches just really lazy. Maybe I'm a hypocrite. Maybe I'm hypochondriac. I'm struggling to simmer down. Maybe I'm an insomni-Black. Bad sleep triggered by bad government. Write a think piece in the rap song, the new age covenant. If you really think I'm cooking crack, pass me the oven mitts. Captain, watch a little bitch go crunch and wonder how everything happened.

MADDEN: Mariame points to Fatimah Warner, aka Chicago rapper Noname, as the future of delivering an abolitionist framework through an artistic lens. Noname is an artist who not only raps about it, but she uses her platform on Twitter to constantly share what she's learning about it.


NONAME: (Rapping) Maybe this round two. Government cinematic, American drive-through. Eat their apple pie in the morning, then bury the strange fruit...

MADDEN: She's also been running the Noname Book Club for over a year now. The monthly club is all about discussing social justice literature, and it sends books to prisoners for free. She's literally trying to help people unlearn. And since this summer, she's never been more vocal.


NONAME: (Rapping) I pray that God forgive you. Supposed to share the garden, grow the holy in you.

KABA: Fatimah is somebody who is literally - has positioned herself as a learner and has actually taken the responsibility of reaching out to various people to learn more.

KABA: Notice how Mariame’s calling Noname by her birth name, Fatimah, and not her rap moniker. She's interested in the person as much as the symbolism of what the rapper's doing. And Noname herself says she's learned so much from Mariame already.

NONAME: Her analysis and her work has definitely been pivotal to me. I don't if rappers right now, if we're really moving in the political framework that, like, hip-hop kind of initially had. It's just been hard to know what to do.

MADDEN: So we called up Noname and Mariame and got them together for an extended conversation about the role an artist has in a movement like abolition.

CARMICHAEL: And whether or not rappers should even be carrying that weight.

MADDEN: Yeah. And, Rodney, as they talked, what they had to say was just so good, I think we got to just let it play.

CARMICHAEL: Let's do it.


KABA: I'd love to ask you a question. You know, part of why I was happy and excited to talk with you today is because I love talking about or thinking about creativity and art and PIC abolition together as things that actually work together. You know, for me, PIC abolition is so much about imagining a new way. And as, you know - Ruthie Gilmore says all the time that abolition is about making things as much as it is about dismantling. And I love the fact that art and creativity are so much about making things. And I wonder, for you, if you're feeling excited in this moment that we're currently in about making things. And if you are, like, what are you making?

NONAME: I'm excited. I am excited. I've been slowly trying to work on my album and piecing that together. But I - my industry is so corrupt and so trashed that it's like, I would be dishonest if I just sat here and was like, oh, yeah, I'm, like, so excited (laughter). And especially thinking about rap and its inception, I felt like it was a lot more Pan-Africanist and it thought a lot more about the global south and Black people across the diaspora and how American imperialism affects those folks as well.

I think sometimes I can just get into a negative headspace because I'm wanting to make art that is more revolutionary. And I'm looking to folks like Fela Kuti and Bob Marley and Nina Simone and these artists of my past, and even some, like, Nas and his early stuff and, like, some other folks who are extremely political in their music. And that's just not - there is really no space for that. It's weird when you're sort of the only one who's, like, screaming about how, you know, how messed up capitalism is and how it's sort of altered our relationship with our art, like, as Black artists. It's all for consumerism these days, so it's - yes. Yes, to answer your question, I am excited. But also, I am like, ugh (laughter).

KABA: Yeah.

NONAME: If that makes sense.

KABA: It does make sense. I was also thinking about - you know, I'm a huge fan of Elizabeth Catlett. She said years ago that art is only important to the extent that it aids in the liberation of our people. And the idea of that is not uncontroversial, right? You know, that view that art should exist for its own sake is something that people kind of want to uplift. It's something that I virulently don't share as a concept. I don't think oppressed people have the luxury of not tying art to being in the service of movement, building and social justice. I wonder what you think about that.

NONAME: I 1,000% agree. I think about that constantly because I - especially, like, hip-hop. Like we're talking about genre that literally came out of one of - like, the ghetto, like, the hood. You know what I mean? The most oppressed group of people in America decided to collectively create this art form for our liberation to, like, echo our messages out to larger audiences so they know, like, hey; this is what is happening in our communities. I came into hip-hop as a person who did not create this art form. A community that I come from made this work. And now I'm able to, like, sustain myself. So I feel it's my responsibility to be as honest and radical in my music as I possibly can. Art isn't just existing as art in, like, some dark cave. It's being sold, you know, to millions of white people. Thinking about revolutionary concepts and ideas - it helps when you can package it in a way that's enjoyable to listen to...

KABA: Yeah.

NONAME: ...Beautiful to look at, you know? I know for me, I made Book Club, but I struggle so much with reading. And...

KABA: Yeah.

NONAME: The things that help lead me toward wanting to learn more has been art and music and film. I definitely think we could be, as, like, creators, pushing for something a bit more revolutionary and less, like, individualist. I have one question in relation to abolition becoming - I don't want to say mainstream because Twitter is still definitely a bubble, but a lot more popular.

KABA: I'm stunned, frankly. That's what I keep telling people all the time. I'm like, when I see people say, abolish police, I'm in shock. So I want to say something about popularity. Again, you know, of course, it's relative, and it's still a deeply unpopular vision. And it's going to remain unpopular for some time. And that's OK because I will tell you that when I was in rooms - I don't know - 10 years ago, people thought we were, you know - we were completely bonkers off our mind. This is how I know things shift - is that when Ferguson happened and all the demands were about body cameras and things like that and to come to this moment six years later and the demand is to defund and abolish police for some people, like, and actually a significant number of people, I mean, my God, that's incredible to me.

And I just imagine a whole generation of young people being born in this moment. When I was growing up, there was no concept. I mean, it just - I couldn't have imagined no police and no prisons and no surveillance. It didn't even occur as a possibility. And now, you know, The New York Times is talking about it, and people are on CNN talking about it. It isn't a static idea. It's a dynamic one that is going to constantly evolve and change. And so I just constantly see it that way. So I actually feel super-hopeful. Like, I know it sounds whatever, but I do. I'm somebody who consistently believes that if we act in service of a vision that's liberatory, that we will actually be able to transform our conditions. I believe it in, like, the marrow of my bones.

NONAME: I love that. I love thinking about it as, like, this living, breathing thing that can be, you know - that we can expand and challenge and, like, grow with as a politic, as a framework, as a, like - a vision for this revolutionary future.

KABA: The problem has been all along - is that we have taken a system, a carceral system, one way of addressing harm, and we made that the only way we do it. And so if you have a hammer, everything is a nail. And that's the problem, right? And that's not what a vision of PIC abolition calls for. It's actually a collective project. And that whole process of that is so much about creativity, so much about imagination. And we are going to have to build it together, and that means we're going to have to argue over stuff. Doing that Book Club in a collective way, in a communal way, is so amazing and wonderful because it's about the building of community and the collective making of a thing.

NONAME: Do you feel that rappers or hip-hop artists have a specific role in creating that community? - because we do bring people together in concert, but it's typically for our own capitalist gain. So I'm just wondering, like, do you feel that we have a specific responsibility, especially since we come from communities that are hyper-surveilled and policed and, you know, attacked by carceral logics and things?

KABA: I think we all have responsibility to change our world and circumstances, so yes. But here's the thing that I think is - could be so useful and is so useful about, you know, your work - is you have this affinity for language that helps people to kind of see themselves differently sometimes and see the world differently. It's invaluable, which is why it's saddening to me when I see people with that much skill and an ability who choose not to help us do that for whatever the reason is that they do. They don't have to, but it's great if they do.

NONAME: Yeah. I just want us to dream a little bit bigger than reform.

KABA: Yes.

NONAME: That's all I'm wanting from us.

KABA: I just love that you're doing what you're doing, Fatimah.

NONAME: Thank you. That means so much to me. You don't even know.

KABA: You're doing great.

NONAME: Thank you so much for having us.

MADDEN: Yeah...

KABA: Yeah.

MADDEN: ...This has been great.


MADDEN: You know what I love about this conversation, Rodney, is that this whole season started off with something of a conspiracy theory...


MADDEN: ...Of that purported meeting between all these powers in the music industry and the prison industrial complex. And we're ending the series hosting a conversation between two real forces in music and in the push against the prison industrial complex and in ending mass incarceration in America.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. That's kind of deep, huh?


CARMICHAEL: What does hip-hop and by extension Black America look like if these kind of conversations are happening and being imagined and resonating more than the kind of meeting that we opened the season with?

MADDEN: It would totally change the trajectory of hip-hop culture and by extension American pop culture...


MADDEN: ...You know?


MADDEN: What I hear in the conversation between them is the acknowledgement of uncertainty but a type of hopefulness that I don't feel like we've had in the course of dissecting this so far, like hip-hop has always done. It gives you the language and the vocabulary to codify what's happening around you in ways that you didn't know how to express because so much of what's happening in hip-hop, it can feel like it's happening in a vacuum, but it's not. It's bigger than hip-hop. The criminalization of hip-hop is a microcosm of the criminalization of Black America.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. And all of that just makes me think about the fact that at the end of the day, it's not even really about the rappers, who in some ways are really the privileged among us, but about how this inequality is affecting and impacting all of us. I mean, one thing that continues to resonate with me is the conversation we had at the top of this episode with the Parchman prisoner on his contraband cell phone, calling us and telling us about all the stuff that he's experiencing and all the death that he's living through in Parchman. And the thing that really struck me about that conversation is when I asked him what he wanted his alias to be. And his answer - I mean, here I am, a cynical journalist on the other side of the phone doubting that what he was hoping for and living for was even possible. In some ways, it really just kind of checked me in the moment.


CARMICHAEL: Did you come up with an alias yet that you want to use?

FREEDOM: Oh, man. I was just talking - hadn't even thought about it.


FREEDOM: Freedom. Can we use that?

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. Why you want to use that?

FREEDOM: That's what I'm hoping for. That's what I hope for every day - freedom. That's all I want. Give me an opportunity to get back out and show that I'm not the same person I was when I was 20-something years old. Let me go home and take care of my mom. My dad just passed. Ain't nobody there to do that right now. That's my biggest wish.


MADDEN: This episode was written by me, Rodney Carmichael and Sam Leeds.

CARMICHAEL: Our editors are Chenjerai Kumanyika, Michael May and Chiquita Paschal.

MADDEN: And it was produced by Sam Leeds, with help from Matt Ozug, Dustin DeSoto and Adelina Lancianese. Josh Newell is our engineer.

CARMICHAEL: Senior supervising producers are Rachel Neel and N’Jeri Eaton.

MADDEN: And shoutout of the big wigs - Steve Nelson, Lauren Onkey and Anya Grundmann.

CARMICHAEL: Original music for this whole series by the super-dope, super-talented Kassa Overall. And special thanks to the one and only Ramtin Arablouei.

CARMICHAEL: Our Digital Editor Is Jacob Ganz, was special help from Daoud Tyler-Ameen and Marrissa Lorusso. Our fact-checker is Will Chase.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, and thanks to all our family and friends for holding us down through these last two years of making this show. What up, Ori?

MADDEN: (Laughter) As always, hit us up on Twitter. We're at @LouderThanARiot. Rate and us reviews on Apple Podcasts. And to follow along with the music you heard on this episode and throughout this whole series, check out the LOUDER THAN A RIOT playlist on Apple Music and Spotify now. And if you want to email us, it's louder@npr.org.

CARMICHAEL: And just a reminder, we still would love to hear from you on our audience survey. Go to npr.org/loudersurvey, and do your thing.

MADDEN: Yeah. This is your chance to go off. Tell us what you're feeling and what you're not about the show. That's npr.org/loudersurvey. Thank you.


CARMICHAEL: From NPR Music, this has been LOUDER THAN A RIOT.


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