Prisoner of War
A Scalawag exclusive music video premiere.
"Prisoner of War" is a condensed musical autobiography that documents my journey from street crime to reformed prisoner in my ongoing quest for redemption. It is a follow-up release to my first video, "Live on Death Row," and it is the first single for my upcoming debut album, Mercy on my Soul.
My vocals for "Prisoner of War" were recorded by UNC-Wilmington assistant professor of Sound Design, Michael Betts II, in January 2020 as I rapped to him over the prison phone on Death Row. He then forwarded my vocal track to Nick Neutronz, a producer who expressed interest in working with me. Nick played some potential beats over the phone to me, and I chose a track with a military drum cadence and a piano melody that captured the mood and energy I wanted to convey in the song.
The lyrics, which I wrote in 1999, reflect my evolving consciousness over the past several years as I moved from different youth detention facilities to Caledonia State Prison Farm, a violent former slave plantation, to Death Row—all in the state of North Carolina. (I have now been in prison for 30 years, since the age of 19.)
In "Prisoner of War," I describe the realization of my culpability for the harm I caused, but also my understanding of my actions as complicit in the cycle of violence and self-destruction that has ravaged my community for generations. In the final verse of the song, I discover that there are interests outside of my community that had been indiscernible to me—yet nevertheless benefit—from this cycle of destruction. As I say:
Now I'm realizing / eyes wisen / as I gaze at the horizon and contemplate an uprising / they enterprising building private prisons / capitalizing while crime is rising in my division / is it just coincidental? I beg to differ / Black-on-Black crimes and laws getting stiffer.
In the end, I come to the realization that I am an unwitting agent and prisoner in this ongoing war.
I drew the illustrations for this video frame-by-frame with stick figures to depict the perceived frivolity of a life reduced to imprisonment, as well as to underline the sparseness of my resources. Brittany Oliver, an animator and digital artist, who was referred to me by a colleague of my friend and pro bono agent, the distinguished professor Mark Katz of UNC-Chapel Hill, took my illustrations and created an animated rendering to give life to my story. It was my intention for the video to be a modern, technological equivalent of an ancient cave drawing in its simplicity. These rudimentary illustrations are meant to record my existence, much like the caveman who etched his marks on the stone walls of time.
It is my attempt to assert to this mighty world—that so easily erases the identities of those in prison, like stick figures with no personalities—that I will not be forgotten. I lived. I harmed. I healed. I grew. But most importantly, I WAS HERE.