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Behind Bars: Bay Area Jazz Veteran Marcus Shelby on the Failures of the U.S. Prison System — and Why We All Should Care 

Wednesday, Mar 11 2015
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You don't need to be plugged into the Bay Area music scene for long to know the name Marcus Shelby.

A seemingly tireless and always in-demand bassist, composer, bandleader, and educator, Shelby has been blending music and activism for decades. In 2006, Stanford University appointed him with a prestigious fellowship to conduct research for a commissioned music piece on Harriet Tubman. In 2009, Shelby was commissioned to compose Soul of the Movement, a 12-part musical suite about civil rights and the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

But Shelby's latest project, a four-part series that will kick off March 12 at the Red Poppy Art House, is perhaps his most ambitious exploration yet of the relationship between music and social justice. Beyond the Blues: Ending the Prison Industrial Complex is a slate of interactive discussions, hosted by Shelby and including guest speakers and activists, that will run for three consecutive Thursdays — March 12, 19, and 26 — followed by a musical performance Friday, March 27.

The series is the culmination of more than two years of research and visits to local prisons, says Shelby, during which he developed a sense of urgency about sharing what he'd learned.

"I got really interested in learning more about the phenomenon of the school-to-prison pipeline," says Shelby, using the term scholars and activists have developed for the process by which low-income students — including a disproportionate number of black and Latino students — move directly from underserved public schools into the criminal justice system.

"I had a very surface understanding of it; I knew it was a social justice issue," he says. "But I didn't have a real, soulful connection to it, and I didn't know how heavy it was, how deep it went. So I went off on a journey to write music about it. That usually helps me go down the road to deeper understanding."

Using financial support from the upcoming Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, Shelby delved into the history of prisons in the United States. But realizing that simply reading wouldn't help him get to the heart of the issues, he reached out to other musicians and activists, such as Naima Shalhoub, a singer and advocate for incarcerated women. The bassist accompanied Shalhoub on visits to a local women's prison over the course of several months, learning about how women are disproportionately incarcerated for nonviolent crimes.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, there are currently 8,268 prisoners in California's three major women's prisons, putting their "combined occupation at 161 percent of design capacity." African-American women make up nearly 30 percent of the state's female prison population, while representing 7 percent of California's female population at large. Mandatory sentencing laws like Three Strikes have also affected women more than perhaps any other group — that population increased by more than 300 percent in the decade after Three Strikes went into effect.

Shalhoub will serve as a guest speaker at the March 19 event, titled Mass Incarceration, The Prison Industrial Complex, Black Prison Movement, and Incarcerated Women.

Shelby also made repeated visits to a juvenile detention center in San Francisco, where he'd play music and hang out with the incarcerated teens.

"I don't preach to them. I always have music and try to give them an opportunity to perform, a place to say a poem, to try my bass, try the drums ... to try to start thinking of possibilities for themselves," says Shelby. "For me, finding self-expression of my creativity is what sort of gave me a higher purpose. And I know I'm not the only person who can be inspired by that. Every time I go in there, I see that light go off in their heads. I talk to them about people who have inspired me."

"Look, these are not dumb people," Shelby adds. "These so-called juvenile delinquents are in many cases people who've been forced into the system, brought up in situations where opportunity was taken away from them and they're doing the best with what they've been offered. I empathize with that, and I think they get where I'm coming from. These kids look like me — most of them are black and Mexican."

Shelby also threw himself into learning about the history of prisons in America, and of various prison reform activists like Angela Davis. Among the most striking things he learned was how many alternatives to incarceration have been put into effect, with real results, in other cultures.

"We're so accustomed to thinking that [prisons] are the only way we can deal with justice in our society, we forget that other communities have more conscious solutions," he says, pointing to rehabilitation methods formerly used by Native Americans and in contemporary New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. "We're talking about restorative justice, rehabilitation, and reconciliation — with a goal of avoiding recidivism. Family guidance circles, options that include community support, some methods that include both the victim and the person who did the crime."

"Some of these methods have been very effective in the communities where they've been employed," he says, "because they try to get at the root. Whereas we have a system where we have a hammer, so every problem is a nail. And there's no doubt, if you look at the numbers, that prisons create criminals."

The first session, on March 12, will deal with the history of America's prison system as well as juvenile justice and mandatory sentencing laws. The final session, on March 26, will look at some of these alternative solutions as well as the death penalty. And the performance on March 27, featuring the Marcus Shelby Quartet with a vocal ensemble, will showcase original music the bassist/composer wrote throughout his research. For inspiration, he looked to jazz musicians like Charles Mingus, whose "Remember Rockefeller at Attica" was dedicated to the Attica prison riots of 1971.

"My goal is to use the blues form to express African-American history ­— our social struggles, our freedom movement," says Shelby. "I don't pretend to be an expert. But I do know how to bring together people who have common interests, and bring a discussion into the community." If he manages to increase visibility for these issues, he says, he's succeeded. Because at the heart of his drive for change is this:

"Prisoners have become invisible in our society. If they get out, often they can't get jobs, in some states they can't vote; society doesn't allow them to live in a healthy way with honor and dignity," he says. "In a way, everyone's serving a life sentence. It's a hidden population. The least we can do is try to serve as a voice."

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Emma Silvers

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Emma Silvers is SF Weekly's former Music Editor.

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