The Beautiful, Rowdy Prisoners is L.A.-based hip-hop artist Chee Malabar’s third solo studio album. Moving through the spacious and often haunting musical landscapes of his long-time producer and collaborator, Kooz, Malabar brings to life a series of characters drawn from his years working with incarcerated youth and their families. The tracks interweave, interconnect, and build upon one another until the listener is left with a kind of people’s history of the present — a history from the vantage point of those who from their earliest days face the power of the U.S. carceral state. The following is my email exchange with Chee over July 8–10, 2013.
VB: You begin The Beautiful, Rowdy Prisoners with Teju Cole reading an excerpt of his writing — a passage about dark spaces in the night sky where stars exist, but are not apparent to us because their light has not yet reached us. Cole reads in part: “Their light would arrive on earth eventually, long after I and my whole generation and the generation after me … slipped out of time … To look into those dark spaces was to have a direct glimpse of the future …” I found this really powerful. There is a way this passage sets up everything that is to follow on the album — it casts the album itself as a kind of time capsule, a snapshot of a particular moment in time. The stories you’ve chosen to represent this moment are the stories of incarcerated youth. So while you’re narrating individual people’s lives, from the onset, we’re set up to understand their stories at multiple scales — to see a larger history through their individual stories and to think about the significance of the present to the past and future. Can you talk a bit about your choice to open the album in this way? What role is the intro meant to play in your vision for the album? What are the “dark spaces” whose light you are trying to bring forward with each of these tracks, and what do you hope they illuminate, not just for the future but for the present generation?
CM: I’m so glad that you read the intro in this way, Vivek. Teju’s passage has an astral quality that really spoke to what I was trying to convey on this album and he captured in a few sentences what took me the span of this entire album to try and get at, that indeed, all of us alive at this moment are connected to what came before us and what will come after. With respect to the “dark spaces” I was also thinking about it literally — about the shadows where a lot of our brothers and sisters live. There is light there that isn’t seen and is waiting to be acknowledged, and what they have to teach us about pain, love, and loss just might be enough to help us gracefully deal with the complexities of living in today’s world and understand ourselves as part of a fragile eco system that requires us to be very present in ours and others’ lives so that we can co-create a different world for future generations.
VB: Tell us about the work you have been doing with incarcerated youth and their families? What drew you into this work?
CM: I facilitate writing and music workshops with incarcerated youth in probation camps, South LA schools, and in community-based centers. A large part of the work outside the workshops involves a great deal of For many of us, our true gifts are directly connected to our deepest wounds.mentoring work with the same youth. The writing process in those workshops starts with giving ourselves permission to voice our own stories and allowing each other and ourselves to see “authentic selves.” One of the things that I’ve learned is that for many of us, our true gifts are directly connected to our deepest wounds, and to fully realize your gifts, you have to make your way towards your own pain. This process is often full of grief, not just for the young people, but it has been true for me as well. We have a small, but big-hearted community of artists here doing this work — creating a container that is strong enough to hold all the personal stories and wounds that are shared.
I was drawn to this work because I think there was a great deal of pain and grief that I hadn’t fully dealt with, and in a way these young people were holding up a mirror and reflecting back.
VB: You have been doing this work for many years in parallel to writing and performing music. I would imagine that the prison-based and youth work must have influenced your earlier music in various ways, but with the new album you’ve actually put that work at the center of a body of writing and music, drawing on the stories and experiences and perspectives of those you work with. When and how did you decide to do this — to bring these two worlds that you inhabit (of music and community-based work) together in such a direct way?
CM: It happened organically and quite suddenly. Kooz, my producer on this record, had been prodding me to create a narrative driven album for some time, but I wasn’t ready then and didn’t know how I would go about tying an album around a unified theme. But then I found myself delving deeper into the youth work and I had a series of really profound and moving experiences in the span of two years. I found myself writing about it as a way to process all that I had seen, heard and felt. I couldn’t ignore it and no matter if I tried to write something else, I kept coming back to this work and the stories I now carried with me, and as soon as I sketched out a few songs I felt that I could and should marry these passions of youth work and music.
VB: One of the things that is striking about the album is the way in which you manage neither to pass judgment on nor romanticize those whose stories you are telling; the lives that you present on these tracks are complex and contradictory and messy in a way that is ultimately both powerful and respectful. This is not an easy thing to achieve as a writer — it takes a certain kind of sensitivity and care. Can you talk a bit about the process you went through to transform the stories of those you have been working with into written and then performed verse? Where did these songs begin, how did you develop them — narratively, lyrically, and musically — and what were the challenges in representing the lives and stories entrusted to your telling?
CM: Most of the songs on this album began with a line or two or a journal entry post-workshop or retreat. Often, I let Kooz’s beats inform the mood of the piece and took it from there.
With respect to developing the pieces, I felt I had to keep my own voice out of the way as much as possible and not infringe on the narrator(s), which was a challenge, because so much of what I know about being an emcee is about telling your own story and positioning yourself a certain way in the world. One of the things I tried to do on each verse and song was to really think about who is telling the story and why and in the end I found that the album is essentially narrated by a loose knit family if you will — who make up the title of the album.I believe that when someone shares their true story with us, we are changed in some way. I believe that when someone shares their true story with us, we are changed in some way, and with that comes a responsibility to carry it with dignity. I’m sure having worked on Bengali Harlem, you felt this responsibility as well. I know you worked from archival material and stories and I wonder if you found yourself imagining the lives they lived outside of the documented record and how to fill in the blanks, which I’m sure were so complex given the era.
Although I’m dealing with present day stories, I think the challenge is always whether I’m capturing the emotional truth.
VB: As an immigrant of color and a child of immigrants, there is a set of experiences that you’ve lived and witnessed and been immersed in, and as someone who now has worked for many years with incarcerated youth and their families, there is another set of experiences that you’ve witnessed and been immersed in. What do you see as the points of overlap or intersection between those two sets of experiences, between the daily lives of two populations that have been demonized and criminalized in different ways?
CM: I immigrated to the United States when I was twelve. Every notion, idea and dream that I held about America (exported to India and generally exclusionary of non whites) prior to moving, was erased immediately. I first moved to pre-Silicon boom San Francisco and there wasn’t a South Asian enclave in the city. I was perhaps one of two South Asians at my school. My neighborhood and school friends were Hispanic, Black and Asian and many were/are sons and daughters of immigrants. I thought that this is what America essentially was, a tribe of people from all over the world. I didn’t see a marked difference between my own immigrant experience and what was happening to a lot of my friends in the streets. It was only when I went off to college that I met other South Asians and realized how different their American experience was than mine.
Living in New York, especially during 9/11 and after, really brought a large swath of people who considered themselves “other” in the black-white American binary in direct conversation with what’s been happening to the African American community in this country for centuries.I want my work to add to the American narrative.I identify deeply with the African American experience and hip hop culture, it gave me a sense of myself when I didn’t have other models to reflect back. I identify deeply with the immigrant experience and also with what it means to be American. I want my work to add to the American narrative — and for me this means to be in conversation and solidarity with those of us who are living in the “dark spaces” — excluded from the most basic civil rights through insidious laws, gang injunctions, and a public school system/dropout factory that feeds the prison industrial complex.
VB: Finally, what can you tell us about “New Yorkstani,” the track you contributed to Beats for Bangladesh? How did you choose this track for the compilation?
CM: When I first immigrated to America, like so many millions before me, it was via New York. As I grew up and learned about Ellis Island, the Harlem Renaissance, and now Bengali Harlem, I was always fascinated by the city’s richness and history. For me, New York City has always been a cultural port of entry into America, and having lived there and worked in different communities throughout the five boroughs, I remember watching cultural communities bleed into each other and change over the years and make space for new communities.
“New Yorkstani”, I hoped reflected the memories of someone who had lived there almost his entire life and understood the enduring spirit of the city and juxtaposed it with a young South Asian family and son claiming their new identity as New Yorkstanis. There is, as you know, a huge Bengali community in New York, and given what happened there recently with the collapse of the garment factory, I thought the song might resonate in some way with the families of those who left people behind in Bangladesh.
VB: Thank you for your work, Chee … and keep dropping those keys.
Vivek Bald is a documentary filmmaker, writer, and scholar. His films include Mutiny: Asians Storm British Music (2003), Taxi-vala/Auto-biography (1994), and In Search of Bengali Harlem (in production). His first book, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America was published this January.