Contributed by Baba Brinkman on July 13, 2006
The British rail system carries me from destination to destination. At the moment I'm on a train whizzing through farmland and hayfields, past canals with houseboats and flocks of shorn sheep. Yesterday I visited Liverpool for the first time, and now The Beatles are playing on my headphones, admonishing us to come to together - sound advice.
Like the train I will pass lightly over the places I have been in the past month between revising my book, recording, and performing, and will present instead the crucial contrast between today and yesterday.
Yesterday I visited a school like many of the others, a unisex private school in Birkenhead near Liverpool, where I ran a series of rap workshops with groups of fifteen-year-old girls. For most of these well-bred young English ladies, this was about as close to hip-hop as you get without calling for help. They wrote lyrics like: "I just can't wait to finish school / So I can spend my whole summer by the swimming pool."
This morning I ventured into entirely new territory and spent the day running the same workshops with groups of nineteen to twenty-one-year-old inmates at a high-security Lancaster youth prison. They wrote lyrics like: "I gun your punk ass down with a Mack-10 / And don't give a fuck if they send me back to the pen."
When I first walked in the young offenders were pure hostility and skepticism in both expression and body language. This was partly because one of the prison officials had prepped them the day before by saying that a nice white Canadian guy was going to be rapping Shakespeare for them, and it would be the coolest thing ever. It was more of a trial by fire than a workshop.
The girls the day before had been so sparkly-eyed and enthusiastic that I felt within five minutes that I could do and say nothing wrong, and the day flowed by easily. Imagine going from that to the scarred and scowling visages in the prison this morning.
It was one of the most intimidating gigs I've had yet, but there is no horror story to tell I'm happy to say. The Pardoner's Tale had them rapt (a story of violent crime and retribution well-suited to a pack of incarcerated rioters), and once I got them to start writing rhymes of their own things lightened up considerably. There may be no greater leveler of stubborn tough-guy resistance than simple stage fright. They wrote raps, some better and some worse, and practiced delivering them in a pass-the-mic cipher,
occasionally venting about their situation with real poignancy.
The most intelligent and lyrically gifted of the young offenders was Imran, who was serving a life sentence for attempted murder along with his twin brother (who was absent because they were being kept forcibly separated). I heard from the guard later that their case was in the national papers just yesterday, and that the brothers had both stabbed a man who tried to confront them during an armed robbery; luckily for them the man lived. I didn't know any of these details when I was running the workshop, but I do remember some of his rhymes: "I haven't seen freedom in so long, / But in my mind I've done nothing wrong / They say it's a crime / When you're just trying to survive."
I asked if he wanted to keep rapping, but Imran had no delusions of grandeur. He said his goal was to keep his head down and make a good impression at his first parole hearing in 2009, but he was keen enough to come back for the second workshop, so I must have made some impression. I have a feeling today won't be my last prison assignment, since it was more challenging and ultimately more rewarding than many of my cushier gigs. As long as I balance things out with a posh boarding school every now and then I should be able to survive.
I walked out of the prison with a new perspective on my rambling freedom, and now I'm looking ahead to my final week of this tour, and my return to Canada. I fly home in seven days, but a lot can happen in a week at this rate. There are more stories to tell, but I'll save them for later. Keep your noses clean in the meantime,