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In Podcast Finale, 'Louder Than A Riot' Looks At Prison Reform


This year, our colleagues at NPR Music Rodney Carmichael and Sidney Madden have been looking at the intersection of hip-hop and mass incarceration. Their podcast, Louder Than A Riot, has been doing a deep dive into the stories of rappers, some of whom are behind bars, that highlight inequalities in the way this country addresses crime and punishment. The final episode, out this week, explores hip-hop's role in prison reform and prison abolition movements. First, they look at horrific conditions in one of America's most notorious prisons, Mississippi's Parchman prison, where an inmate named T Riley, at some risk to himself, recorded a Facebook Live video of a fight and a fire in the hopes of getting some help.


T RILEY: I need all y'all guys to put some - a white towel on your face, bro. Don't let them kill you. You've been fighting for your life for four hours.

MARTIN: And Rodney and Sidney are with us now. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us, and congratulations on the project.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: Oh, thanks for having us, Michel. We appreciate it.


MARTIN: So Rodney, I'm going to start with you. What is happening at Parchman?

CARMICHAEL: Well, as you can hear in this tape - well, a lot of stuff happening at Parchman. And for this story in particular, we talked to another prisoner who's part of this bigger lawsuit that's been filed against the prison. And he actually had to talk to us and call us on a contraband cellphone. And he told us about a lot of fires that have been being set there and a lot of deaths that have occurred at Parchman this year. And it's all just part of a bigger problem that's been happening historically at this prison for a long time.

MARTIN: Well, as you said - look, Parchman is notorious - I mean, going back, you know, decades. I mean, think about all the civil rights activists who were incarcerated there. But Sidney, how is this a hip-hop story? What's the connection?

MADDEN: The renewed fight now is being spearheaded by hip-hop because of Memphis rapper Yo Gotti. He was one of the people who saw all of those viral videos of all the atrocities happening at Parchman, and he still remembers watching those videos for the first time.


YO GOTTI: You wouldn't even want to see an animal living like this - you know, black mold on they sheets, black mold on the walls, feces everywhere, no electricity, the people cold.

MADDEN: And after watching some of these viral videos, he knew he had to do something, anything within his power to change the situation. So he brought it to the attention of his management company, Jay-Z's Roc Nation.

MARTIN: And then what did Roc Nation do?

CARMICHAEL: Well, basically, you know, hip-hop has always been critical of this kind of thing, obviously. But in recent years, Jay-Z's wealth and influence has really been something that's allowed him to be more than just critical. He's really been able to take this fight to legislation and to the courts.

MADDEN: And what they did is they formed Reform Alliance, which is a nonprofit that helps to fight for prison reform. So what Roc Nation did specifically in the case of Parchman is they filed a lawsuit, and they cited cruel and unusual punishment and the major human rights violations going on there.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. And then, on top of that, Roc Nation brought in the well-known Van Jones to lead this Reform Alliance.


VAN JONES: So much of what hip-hop is about is confronting the system. Whether you're talking about conscious rap or gangsta rap, both are intensely in this struggle with law and legitimacy and the system and how it works. And both sides of hip-hop put you right in the middle of the justice system.

MARTIN: So I have two questions now. Sidney, maybe you want to go first. First of all, as you pointed out, I mean, politics has kind of been central to rap and hip-hop from the beginning. But hip-hop has a lot of other concerns now, too - I mean, including, you know, fashion, relationships and so forth. So how important is politics as a driver within hip-hop now? And are the political interests within hip-hop, do they - are they mainly focused on criminal justice, or are there other concerns as well?

MADDEN: To your point, the fight to change systems that have always been against Black people is still at the core of hip-hop, and it's indicative in the fight to reform it. There are some in hip-hop who are even trying to open people's minds to taking it a step further into abolishing prisons altogether. And one of the people we talked to was Chicago rapper Noname, who's actively and publicly taken steps to learn more about these systems, specifically the prison industrial complex, which is the larger societal contract of incarcerating and supervising people once they commit a crime and the kind of insidious nature that goes into the building blocks of that system. And by learning more about it, she's also helping people, specifically her followers and her listeners, question how we go about dismantling it.


NONAME: (Rapping) ...Would be a bother. It's trans women being murdered. And this is all he can offer? And this is all y'all receive? Distracting from the convo with organizers - they're talking abolishing the police. And it's a new world order. We democratizing Amazon. We burn down borders. This a new vanguard. This a new vanguard. I'm the new vanguard.

CARMICHAEL: And on top of that, Michel, we actually talked to a big fan of Noname who happens to be one of the leading prison industrial complex abolitionists today. Her name is Mariame Kaba, and she went even further into talking about how art can really help you expand your imagination when it comes to visualizing a world or, at least in this case, a country without prisons.


MARIAME KABA: Literally, I can see it in a different way because of this music and because of these lyrics and because of this poetic. You don't have to be compliant. You don't have to be obedient. You can question - and not just question, you could take action. That's huge, and that's huge for teenagers to hear.

MARTIN: You know, I take Mariame's point that art makes you see things differently. So I'm just interested in whether, over the course of your reporting, if this project caused you to see things differently.

MADDEN: Yeah, absolutely. What the course of this reporting really opened my eyes to or doubled down on is how much inequality is baked into America's justice system to the point that it's almost ironic that it's even called the justice system. And it's something that hip-hop has always highlighted and interrogated and held a mirror up to society, but that it's not always given its credit for doing so. So that's what I hope a lot of listeners get out of hearing the whole series.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Sidney Madden and Rodney Carmichael talking to us about their podcast Louder Than A Riot, which looks at the connection between the rise of hip-hop and the explosion of America's prison population. Thank you both so much for talking with us.

CARMICHAEL: Thank you, Michel. We really appreciate it.

MADDEN: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.
Sidney Madden is a reporter and editor for NPR Music. As someone who always gravitated towards the artforms of music, prose and dance to communicate, Madden entered the world of music journalism as a means to authentically marry her passions and platform marginalized voices who do the same.