Touched by Incarceration

Last week, members of the Music Liberation Orchestra in the Philadelphia Detention Center turned in work for the chapbooks that will be published as part of Art Sanctuary’s 27th Annual Celebration of Black Writing. Copies of the chapbook will be given away to the first one hundred families to attend tomorrow’s Mini-Arts Festival for Families that Have Been Touched by Incarceration.  They will gather at North Philadelphia’s Church of the Advocate.

“That’s all of us,” says composer Hannibal Lokumbe, whose “African Portraits,” performed at the Academy of Music, was nominated for a Grammy.  The Texas-born jazz trumpeter began the Music Liberation Orchestra in a Texas prison.  He believed that those men’s experiences had things to teach him as he wrote “Can You Hear God Crying?”  The work for chamber orchestra, quintet, and mass choir depicts God, singing in the voice of a woman, expressing endless compassion for our wounds—and the ways we wound each other.  “Don’t you know how much I love you?”

Lokumbe also believed that the project could bring its own gifts to the incarcerated participants.  As he sees it, by their mistakes they have created their own “Doors of No Return,” very much like the metaphorical doors that Africans crossed over when they were taken from their homelands into slavery across the Atlantic.  Writing journals, listening to music, creating ways to face themselves opens up possibilities for them to bring their own deepest selves into the process of change.

“Can You Hear God Crying?’ is scheduled to premiere at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts on December 13, 2011, with community performances following on the 2012 Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.  The performance, as Hannibal sees it, is just one piece of a larger community movement that includes classes in the prison, visits to the Liberian-American community, and a ritual visit to the Liberian coastline, where Hannibal’s own great-grandfather was captured.

In November, Lokumbe convened the circle of men in his Music Liberation Orchestra. Since then he has come to the Philadelphia Detention Center to lead and teach and listen about once a month.  Art Sanctuary, in partnership with the Kimmel, has augmented those visits with a twice-weekly class where prisoners, many waiting for trial, write journals and play in a band.  At an Art Sanctuary breakfast this spring to announce the program to leaders of programs for the incarcerated community, Philadelphia Detention Center Warden Joyce Brown Adams said, “The men sometimes have a difficult time expressing what’s happened to them—even some of the things that have happened to them as children.”  The circle “has given those men that I work with an opportunity to really let go of some of it and begin the healing process.”

It was one of the prisoners who sparked the idea of activities for families.

“My family did nothing wrong,” said one man named Angel, “but they don’t get this:  a chance to have beautiful art and music, a chance to express themselves.”

To answer that concern, Art Sanctuary now grants complimentary memberships to the families of men who complete a four-week MLO seminar. The Mini-Arts Festival for Families Touched by Incarceration is the first large event to bring more families into the circle—to acknowledge their losses and struggles when a loved one is locked up.

Saturday’s event will feature performances by Hannibal Lokumbe and MLO’s band leader, trombonist Brent White, just before he begins his summer tour with John Legend.  The house band for the day will be the musicians of Napoleon Dolomite and the Signifyin’ Monks, who will perform a song written by one of the MLO members.  For all those who’ve struggled with how to put thoughts and feelings into letters, there will be writing workshops for adults led by Fish and Grits author Tina Smith-Brown and Dee Johnson, the longtime editor of Philadelphia Prison Society publications.  Community College of Philadelphia will provide course information.  Exciting teaching artists will conduct workshops for children, including bucket drumming with Jason Chuong; fun-and funky photo frames with craft artist Debra Powell-Wright; African folk tales and make-your-own percussion instruments (using household items) with storyteller Jo Ann “Auntie Jojo”; and letter writing to a loved one with author and poet Sandra Turner- Barnes.  Reuben Jones, founder of “Frontline Dads,” will host the Open Mic.

According to the New York Times, the United States, with less than 5% of the world’s population holds more than a quarter of the world’s prisoners.  How many of us are “touched by incarceration?” Maybe the question is:  who is not.


The Mini-Arts Festival is free and open to the Public.

Church of the Advocate, 18th and Diamond/Fr. Paul Washington Avenue

Saturday, May 28, 1-4 p.m.


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