Back from the Brink
Death row inmate Keith Lamar (Bomani Shakur) went on hunger strike to protect his favorite albums.
“Listen to Flamenco Sketches and you’ll immediately understand why I was willing to starve myself in order to hold on to this record. This one song has brought me back from the brink countless times over the years...”
Late last year, Ohio death row inmate and prison rebel Keith LaMar (aka Bomani Shakur) went on a long hunger strike to prevent the prison administration from taking away his music, among other “privileges.” So when Keith and his fellow hunger striker Jason Rob won after eight days, they not only forced the warden to move them to a better pod and grant them access to email, they defended their ability to keep books and music in their cells.
During the strike Keith released a long list of the music that sustains him, ranging from Nina Simone to Eric Clapton to Kendrick’s Butterfly. But in the wake of his victory, we asked him to go in depth about the music that’s meant the most to him. To celebrate, we’re sharing his response – including reflections on jazz, Ferguson, and survival – accompanied by tracks and background.
- Nina Simone – Break down and Let It All Out
- Grover Washington Jr. – Strawberry moon
- Bob James & David Sanborn – Maputo
- Miles Davis – Flamenco Sketches
- John Coltrane – A Love Supreme, Pt. 4
- Keith Jarrett – The Ballad of the Sad Young Men
- Dexter Gordon – Don’t Explain
- Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
- Kendrick Lamar – Alright
Reflections from Keith Lamar
I’ve been listening to music my whole life, since I was a kid. When I was sixteen years old, my brother turned me on to jazz. I fell in love with it almost immediately. The first jazz musician I ever listened to was Grover Washington; his album Strawberry Moon really captivated and inspired me to delve deeper into the genre.
The second most influential album I listened to was David Sanborn’s Double Vision, and that really got me going. Even as my life was spiraling out of control, my grasp kept getting stronger. When I came to prison in 1989, I lost everything: clothes, care, money, and nearly all of my so-called friends. But the one things that stayed with me was the music.
I was nineteen years old when I first encountered Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and it literally changed my life. I had never heard anything quite like it up until that time, and the poignancy and elegance of this one particular album helped heal my broken heart – it really did. It was from this one album that I was introduced to some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time: John Coltrane, Bills Evans, Paul Chambers, “Cannonball” Adderlay. All giants, man!
Listen to Flamenco Sketches and you’ll immediately understand why I was willing to starve myself in order to hold on to this record. This one song has brought me back from the brink countless times over the years – I mean, you can’t listen to this level of musicality without reaffirming your humanity. There’s no way.
And the same goes for A Love Supreme (John Coltrane). This was the second major recording I got my hands on. I was 20 years old. Without knowing anything about John Coltrane and his struggles, there was instant recognition in his tone and approach. “Oh, I know this pain, this agony...” I later learned that he had been hooked on Heron and underwent a spiritual transformation. Well, I had been hooked on cocaine and, after being baptized twice (once when I was 13, and again when I was 18), I finally succumbed to disillusionment and was totally outside of myself. I read about John Coltrane going up into his attic to play and study music. He would become so engrossed, so separated from everyday life, that he would forget to eat; and it just occurred to me that this is the level of pursuance that one has to attend to in life. You have to really reach for it.
If you listen to part 4 of A Love Supreme, there’s actually words (rendered instrumentally) that accompany the movement, which begins with, “I will do all I can to be worthy of thee O lord...” So, you see, without sounding overly religious, I believe that we have to strive to make ourselves worthy of our struggles. And then there’s Keith Jarrett’s Ballad of the Sad Young Men. I love this piece. It starts off rather slow, suggesting peace and tranquility, and then the bass breaks away for an extended solo, representing the stumbling steps of someone who has lost his way (even as the piano and drums play very softly in the background). A marvelous piece.
You know, the thing that perplexes me about jazz is that it’s the only truly original art form of the the United States – and created by black people – and it isn’t really given its due. I mean, it isn’t really lauded by mainstream society and, therefore isn’t fully appreciated by black people at all, which is a shame (in my opinion). There’s so much meaning in it, so much love and endurance. I’m sitting here listening to Dexter Gordon’s Don’t Explain, the piece made famous by Billie Holiday (who I also highly recommend), and it’s telling me that there’s just some things in this world that defy explanation: slavery, poverty (in the richest country in the world!), Mike Brown, so on and so forth. Billie Holiday is singing about love and betrayal; “I don’t even want to hear it.” This is how I feel about the decades I’ve spent in solitary confinement for something I didn’t do; I don’t want to hear it, man! I’m not trying to understand, so don’t explain. You see?
Another one of my favorite pieces is Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. I listen to it once or twice a week. It’s a timely piece, and could easily be applied to “what’s going on” today: war is hell, when will it end, when will people start getting back together again? That’s still the question, and it might be that we, as a civilization, are running out of time, running out of excuses to explain the abuses that we, in our ignorance, have heaped on humanity. So, yeah, when the warden said I had to reduce my music down to 15 CDs, my whole being revolted! Music is the only thing that hasn’t forsaken me, the one and only friend that hasn’t let me down, and I would really rather be dead than give it up. And that’s the truth, man!
Keith LaMar (Bomani Shakur)
For more background on Keith and Jason’s hunger strike, as well as the Lucasville Uprising for which they’re on death row, check out this article on Truth-out.org, Lucasvilleamnesty.org, and Keithlamar.org.