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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Naima Shalhoub Records Debut Album Before an Audience of Incarcerated Mothers at County Jail

Posted By on Wed, May 6, 2015 at 1:02 PM

click to enlarge PHOTO SARAH DERAGON
  • Photo Sarah Deragon
Naima Shalhoub, a singer and advocate for incarcerated women, took her cue from Johnny Cash and B.B. King Tuesday, performing and recording her debut album, Borderlands, in front of about 75 people in County Jail #2. In honor of Mother's Day, half the proceeds from the album will be donated to re-entry programs designed to lower recidivism rates.

Shalhoub started singing when she was in elementary school, staying in choir through middle and high school before taking a 10-year break from music. While in grad school in 2010, Shalhoub became involved in community activism, took a step back, and asked herself, "What am I really passionate about?"

"I had bought a one-way ticket to Lebanon, where my family is from," Shalhoub says. "I did some soul-searching and I realized I'm going to come back to the bay and pursue music. I don't know where it's going to lead me or how but I know I just have to go for it."

Fast-forward five years, to 2015, and Shalhoub has been volunteering her time to perform at County Jail #2 every week for a year. Music and community activism remain intrinsically linked together in Shalhoub's story.

We caught up with the singer yesterday after her performance.

When and why did you start doing these musical performances at the County Jail?

It started a year ago today, on Mother's Day week, and was inspired by me wanting to A) learn more about the prison industrial complex and wanting to be more involved in changing the system, and realizing how the present-day criminal justice system is broken. And B) just asking myself, as an artist, "What can I do?"

I'm learning from people who taught yoga classes at San Quentin. So really I was inspired by other people's work. I started asking around in my community if anyone had any connections to folks in women's jails or prisons and got connected to the San Francisco County Jail and a woman on staff there named Angela Wilson. I pitched my idea of doing music sessions there and was invited to give it a try for a couple weeks. But before I even started, I was invited for a Mother's Day event to share a few songs. That was my first time going in there and sharing my music. It was a powerful experience.

Do you have anyone close to you personally that's been incarcerated?

I don't, no.

What do you think it was that sparked your passion for talking about, exposing, and educating people about the prison industrial complex?

I have a background in community organizing and activism. I got my masters in post-colonial and cultural anthropology, really understanding the way systematic violences play out in our communities. I read The New Jim Crow, you know, one thing led to another to kind of understanding how racism, sexism, classism function in the criminal justice system.

If you're not directly impacted it can start to seem like a distant population of folks. But the more I really started to learn and understand about how this system functions, the more I felt directly involved in these people's lives. It's this idea "Injustice somewhere is a threat to justice everywhere." 

So I really just felt compelled to learn about it and work closely with those who are incarcerated, and hear from them personally about what their experiences are like.

  • Photo by Sarah Deragon
I was reading about Marcus Shelby, and how he comes to play with you in the jail sometimes. Do you bring others along? 

Yeah, Marcus has come in with me two times. And Aaron Kierbel has come a few times. I've invited a few artists to come with me and collaborate. I also went with Marcus Shelby to play at the juvenile justice center in San Francisco once.

There's a history behind musicians playing in jails and prisons, the most famous of which is Johnny Cash at San Quentin and Folsom, but there's also Steve Earle, Wayne Kramer of the MC5, and many others. Were you inspired by any of these past examples of musicians playing in prisons?

Definitely Johnny Cash. B.B. King as well, and other artists. At a younger age it struck me but I didn't connect the dots until very recently. Like I said, just drawing the connection between the power of arts and the power of music to what's relevant to the world right now — one of those things being this new exposure to information about mass incarceration with more and more people speaking out about it. The dots just connected.

Your performance today was recorded live and will come out as your debut album Borderlands. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Yea, It's coming out as a live album. We had a five piece band. Isaac Ho on keys, Tarik Kazaleh on guitar, Aaron Kierbel on drums, and Marcus Shelby on bass. So yeah, we had a whole amazing setup today, and it was incredibly powerful. Not just being able to perform but Rhodessa Jones, founder of the Medea Project, she honored us by giving an opening ritual before we started. And she's just a legend in herself so it was an honor to have her. We closed with an open mic for the women. So actually several women came up to the mic and shared their own poetry — that was extremely powerful.

Just honoring Mother's Day, and incarcerated mothers. At one point Rhodessa asked everyone, "Who in this room is a mother?" and it seemed like 80 percent of the women raised their hands — it was just staggering. [Shalhoub voice quivers, you can hear the emotion in her tone] It was a powerful day today.

So you've been doing this every week?

Yeah, I've missed a couple weeks here and there but I've been doing this weekly.

What's the support from the staff like there?

Oh, they've been incredibly supportive. It actually blew me away. [Laughs.] I'm not the type of person to be supportive of a Sheriff's department. But this one in particular is really supportive of me being there. I mean, Angela Wilson, a staff person there, is just an angel. She has not only advocated for me but day in and day out she is doing god's work, just being there for these women. None of this would have happened without her support, and the support of the rest of the office.

The press release had a quote from the sheriff where he said some of these people are "unjustly locked up." That was pretty surprising to hear from a sheriff.

Wow, I didn't see that. I 100 percent agree with that. These women share with me their stories, and a lot of them are in there for completely unjust reasons. I don't agree with the way the drug policies are. I don't agree with this idea that imprisonment does anything for society.

Yes, there are those cases where women are in there for violent charges, but when you start to actually unravel what and why they did these things, it's because of more systemic reasons — poverty, abuse — the types of things you'll find in any textbook around the prison industrial complex. It's all true. That's what's moved me.

One thing I have learned is, I asked them in one of my classes where they would want this money to go and overwhelming it was like, "Naima, we don't have support when we get out, that's why there are high recidivism rates." 

So what does the Bay Area need to do? Why are food stamps difficult to distribute to incarcerated people? Why is it hard to find jobs? Why is it hard to find houses? These are basic things that when you don't have them you have to resort to other forms of earning a living or earning your keep. 

I just kind of dream of a city, Bay Area, and society where there is just more support for people in general. A lot of the reasons why people are being locked up could be alleviated if we just change our polices, laws, and the way we deal with restoration and transformation.
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About The Author

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome is SF Weekly's former music editor.

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