This week I have been thinking a lot about my most recent pop as research project – the Pervasive Punishment EP. Professor Fergus McNeill, a criminologist at the University of Glasgow, is finishing the writing of a book on ‘Pervasive Punishment’ and has asked me to write a sequence of songs to sit alongside the book which explore the books themes (and characters) using an arts-based research method.
Funded as part of a British Academy mid-career fellowship, the book is the first of its kind to focus on ‘mass supervision’ of those in the criminal justice system. Where much has been written about ‘mass incarceration’ (especially in the US) and the rapidly increasing numbers of people being held in prison, relatively little attention has been paid to similar trends in the numbers of people being supervised – serving community payback orders, on probation, or under electronic tagging for example. According to McNeill’s figures, in 1980 the Scottish courts imposed less than 3,000 probation orders whereas in 2013-14 over 20,000 community sentences were handed down in the same courts and more than 3500 people were subject to post-release supervision. (You can see these figures in full and read more from Fergus on his very good Pervasive Punishment blog here).
While I read the first draft of the book and learn more about the scale and effects of ‘pervasive punishment’ like this on those who are subject to it and those who are tasked with administering it (as well as society as a whole), I have been thinking about compiling a practice review in the area. I tend to follow Robin Nelson’s (2013) multi-mode model of practice-as-research/practice-led-research in as far as this is useful, and (as demonstrated by Jo Scott in her 2016 implementation) this involves conducting a practice-review as well as locating the work in a conceptual framework. This means I have begun searching for some popular music that explores supervision, probation, pervasive punishment and its effects (directly or indirectly). I have chosen to focus on musics that can be aesthetically related to my own style (which can be heard on my bandcamp page here: https://jomango.bandcamp.com/) and that might help shape my musical thoughts around development of the EP.
The most notable recent instance of a musician taking up the subject of probation directly was Jay-Z’s recent opinion piece for the New York Times on the ‘entrapment’ and ‘harassment’ of masses of black people by the probation system in America. This was in response to the imprisonment of rapper Meek Mills on a technical violation of his probation – his ‘random misstep’ on the ‘landmine’ set by the system, as Jay-Z describes it. Meek Mills himself, while out on probation, featured on a remix of a track by Tee Grizzly, titled ‘First Day Out’, that suggests its theme as the experience of being newly released from prison. “I feel ’em prayin’ on my downfall”, Tee raps. In the original he goes on to describe his life under reams of probation conditions, including the zero tolerance approach:
Better check the black and white that paperwork will vouch for him
Zero toleration for that nigga take his life from him
And the suffocating effects of the many restrictions on his actions and movements:
I’m on parole in two states, I can’t move wrong
The Feds trying to build a case, I can’t move wrong
I went to trial back to back, bitch I’m 2 and 0
The state of Kentucky banned me from every jewelry store
Say I can’t even be in public with my hoodie on
Michigan State don’t want him here, they don’t know what he on
I have been considering the ‘sound’ of supervision in the context of my field of work. My music would tend to be described as being in the lineage of ‘new weird america’ or ‘alt folk’ and as such, sits between genres of folk, americana, singer-songwriter and indie genres, with sounds and influences drawn from electronica, EDM, folk musics from non-Western countries and musical forms more akin to classical music. More closely related to these fields than the hip hop described above, alt-country music draws on country music traditions that often speak about crime, punishment, and life on the run from the law. A track that struck me as particularly relevant in this regard recently was the Devil’s Backbone by the Civil Wars, with its haunting combination of harmonium and acoustic guitar underpinning the singer’s descriptions of the angst of being in love with someone “raised on the devil’s backbone”, and now sought by the law for infractions.
Oh Lord, Oh Lord, he’s somewhere between
A hangman’s knot and three mouths to feed
There wasn’t a wrong or a right he could choose
He did what he had to do
The album artwork from this release depicts a dark plume of smoke rolling through the air, which brings to mind the way in which McNeill characterises the nature of mass penal supervision – something ‘pervading’ that clouds ones view.
Thinking about the electronic nature of much current monitoring, I have also been reviewing electronic music or EDM for appropriate references. Given that it expresses a lot about the nature, results and potential of failure, abuse, error and malfunction, I have been thinking about glitch music with relation to the aural exploration of penal supervision. James Blake’s work, for example, combines very melodic R&B/soul influences with warp and glitch techniques in a very accessible pop-based format. To take a sound and purposely introduce an error or a mis-step is perhaps a place where we can begin to explore and toy with the ‘landmine’ idea that Jay-Z articulates above.
If there are other references that you can suggest would be useful for me to explore as I continue these thoughts, please feel free to leave a comment.
Civil Wars (2013) ‘The Devil’s Backbone’, The Civil Wars (LP). Sensibility Music, Columbia.
Jay-Z (2017) ‘Jay-Z: The Criminal Justice System Stalks Black People Like Meek Mill’, Op-Ed Piece, The New York Times, Nov. 17 2017, accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/17/opinion/jay-z-meek-mill-probation.html
McNeill, F. (2018, in press) Pervasive Punishment. Emerald.
Nelson, R. (2013) Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances. Palgrave MacMillan.
Scott, J. (2016) Intermedial Praxis and Practice As Research: ‘Doing-Thinking’ In Practice. Palgrave.
Tee Grizzley (2017) ‘First Day Out’. 300 Entertainment.