Durham County

Moogfest artists fight mass incarceration

On the final day of the four-day Moogfest 2017 in downtown Durham, artists and advocates talked about what people can to do fight a system of mass incarceration.

“Music & Tech: Tools to Fight Mass Incarceration” was held in American Underground on Main Street on Sunday, May 21. Discussion was led by Marshall Jones, a DJ and member of Give a Beat, which represents the dance music community’s response to mass incarceration. Panelists included Phonte Coleman and Nicolay of The Foreign Exchange Band, Kaitlyn Boecker of the Drug Policy Alliance, Monte McCoin of the Human Rights Defense Center, Phi Pham of Building Beats and Rob Wall of the North Carolina Commision on Racial and Ethnic Disparities.

Jones grew up in Durham in the 1990s, he said, at a time when the Bull City was described as a place “you’ll get shot.” He talked about the prison system as a system of the business of keeping the jails full.

Wall said the U.S. is dramatically policing people of color.

“It’s just so systemic at this point,” Boecker said. “We’ve created this feedback loop,” she said.

Coleman, who goes by his first name, Phonte, professionally, said his two sons, ages 11 and 16, are prime police shooting age. “I just have to be real with them,” he said. Coleman also knew Durham in the 1990s. He started in the music industry in the hip hop trio Little Brother, with 9th Wonder and Big Pooh, who were fellow students at N.C. Central University.

Coleman pointed out that the arts are what gets cut from education budgets first.

“I think it’s very important. You’ve got to give kids practical skills...but it’s important to give kids art and music,” he said. Kids connect with art and it’s also an outlet for them. Coleman said there’s not one big answer to addressing mass incarceration.

“For me as a parent, it starts with education of kids,” he said. He tells his sons that as African-American males, they’re coming up to bat with two strikes already.

The panelists talked about music and arts programs outside of school for youth.

“It’s not a magic wand — it ain’t going to save your life, but it can give kids a sense of purpose,” Coleman said.

Pham said music is a really hard industry to make it in today, but youth learning about it and being involves builds up their confidence.

“Just like Phonte said, it’s not a magic wand,” said Jones, who urged those in the audience to start by volunteering at a local Boys and Girls Club.

The “Music & Tech” panel also talked about former prisoners re-entering the community. Several suggested ways to take action like supporting “ban the box.” “Ban the box” is a campaign to remove the box on job applications and other paperwork that asks someone if they’ve ever been arrested or convicted of a crime. Advocates of “ban the box” note that it’s difficult to even get to the job interview step if they have to check that box.

“What role can you play?” Jones asked.

Boecker said another way to help is to work to end the stigma of having a criminal record.

“It seems like a small thing, but it’s a big thing,” she said.

Coleman said his brothers have been in and out of the system.

“What’s unfair is you never stop doing your time. People automatically make assumptions about you,” he said. But Coleman said those he’s worked with that have “street” backgrounds have been more dependable than those with no records. “The music industry is one place that accepts everybody,” he said.

Jones said that music and technology can work together to find ways to help.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan