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Bars beyond bars: how music is changing ex-prisoners’ lives

A record label representing talented musicians with experience of going through the criminal justice system is helping them to make a career out of music

Noble1BOF took part in a Music in Prisons initiative just a week before his release. Photo: James Hacker

Popular music has long had a love affair with prison. The prison song, an important part of America’s folk music traditions, was a rich seam for country music and was given a Hollywood gloss as Elvis invented the pop paradigm. Hip hop and rap would also adopt the theme with enthusiasm.

In Europe, where there has historically been a far lower incarceration rate and prison has a very different cultural charge, the prison song has been scarcer, but in the penal system itself, music has found a special place, and in Bristol a new record label for ex-prisoners is changing lives.

The use of music in the rehabilitation of offenders is, like many things, modelled with near perfection by the Nordic countries, and Norway in particular. Founded in 1991, the Musikk i fengsel og frihet (Music in Prison and Freedom) project operates in over 40 prisons as well as providing opportunities for ex-offenders. The Blues Factory project, based at Bastøy prison, also offers tuition and platforms for live performance, while Halden prison has both a state-of-the-art recording studio and its own record label,
Criminal Records. Both prisons featured recently in The New European.


While the UK doesn’t have anything like the progressive attitude to criminal justice Norway does – the recidivism rate of 60% within two years versus 20% in Norway telling its own story – music has long been used in rehabilitation programmes here. Since 1995 the Irene Taylor Trust’s Music in Prisons project has run intensive music courses for prisoners, while the trust’s Sounding Out project works with ex-offenders. Bristol’s Changing Tunes has been working with prisoners and ex-prisoners to make music since 1987.

Now Changing Tunes has launched a new initiative with the National Lottery Community Fund. Founded last year, Red Tangent Records represents talented musicians with experience of going through the criminal justice system and supports them with label and management services to make a career out of music. This weekend all six acts on the label will perform at Bristol Beacon for Red Tangent’s first showcase.

Abe Gladstone, aka MC Pariah, frontman of rap-rock outfit Wak Therapists, is one of the ex-offenders at the helm of the label. “There are a host of talented people inside the criminal justice system, musicians and artists whose lives have been railroaded by their own choices,” he said. “We want to
help provide pathways and support for them to be able to focus on different, positive, opportunities.”

Wak Therapists liken themselves to the rap-rock of Rage Against the Machine, and they indeed share their bass-heavy grooves and politically
conscious, aggressive lyricism. But their material is also heavily marked by their prison experiences. Gladstone has said of their debut EP, Escapology (2020): “Wrought from the bowels of the prison system, this release is the product of our escapism.” Fellow vocalist Steve Collins (MC Verbo) adds:
Escapology is about being able to free the mind when everything else around you is chaos.”

Also on Red Tangent is a purveyor of rap of a different stripe. Noble1BOF is a former member of Brixton’s PDC gang and began “writing bars behind bars”, as he has put it, when he participated in a Music in Prisons project as a complete musical novice just a week before his release. In April he released the first single from his forthcoming LP Benefits of Freedom, No Games, and latest single Sometimeish (2022) is the very first release for Red Tangent. As well as appearing in Bristol this weekend, he returns to home turf at the end of the month, topping a bill of Red Tangent artists at Brixton Jamm.

Red Tangent’s roster is already a diverse one, with Scottish alt-folk
songwriter Ryan Kershaw, soon to release debut album Tiger In The Well, post-prog outfit ZerO D1mension, whose pianist/guitarist Marcel Hudson will soon release an album written while he was an inmate at HMP Leyhill, and newest signing from the Midlands KDEE all performing on Saturday. “If it wasn’t for Changing Tunes, I’m certain I would still be in there,” MC Verbo has said of his experience making music in prison, and this showcase marks a milestone in these artists taking that transformative experience forward into new lives.

RED TANGENT AND PRISON MUSIC in five songs

Leadbelly, The Midnight Special (1934)
The legendary bluesman served three prison terms and recorded a version
of this traditional song, referring to the lights of a train beaming into a jail
cell, while in the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison Blues (1955)
Cash’s tale of a prisoner who “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” is
still impossible to beat for sheer pathos. The live version performed in Folsom Prison, California in 1968 became a No 1 country hit.

Wak Therapists, ZIPIT (2020)
The Bristolian rap-rock band’s first single, taken from their aptly named
EP Escapology, is billed as a message to fellow offenders.

Noble1BOF, No Games (2022)
This track was the rapper’s manifesto for forging a new life and not going
“back to the cages”– ‘I got a plan for the stages/ I got a plan, I won’t break
it/ Bricks get broken in stages”.

Noble1BOF, Sometimeish (2022)
The very first release for Red Tangent finds the rapper blending Afrobeats
with rap and drill from his native Brixton.

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