‘Prison Sounds’ courses explore music born in and about incarceration

Adriana Helbig at piano


Music department faculty member Adriana Helbig has turned her knowledge of music from around the world and of hip hop’s infusion into different global cultures into four new “Prison Sounds” courses.

The classes are bringing the long legacy of prison-themed — and prisoner-produced — music to Pitt students, and will bring some of those students to the State Correctional Institute in Fayette County in the spring.

This fall’s “Prison Sounds” graduate seminar takes students to nearly every continent to examine how incarceration has given birth to music, while the undergraduate course, “Global Hip Hop: Freedom and Justice” looks at how, since the 1990s, this musical genre has spread around the planet and become the voice of protest as well as celebration.

This spring, a dozen undergraduates will join 15 incarcerated men in the Fayette prison for “Creative Ethnomusicology,” which will take the class from flamenco to reggae, tracing world musical styles’ origins in inner cities and prisons. A new bluegrass ensemble here at Pitt also will look at the ways in which traditional American music has turned encounters with the law and violence into song.

Music in and about prison has a long history. There are many prison scenes in classical opera and in stage musicals, while recordings from prison concerts have made musicians famous — Johnny Cash, for one. Dance forms such as the tango have been prettied up for fancy dress performances, but they have their origins elsewhere, Helbig notes: “We now look at these as things on stage, very beautiful, but they have gritty histories.”

Prisons today often have their own bands and recording facilities, while prisoners have even been known to rap on the phone, to be recorded and sampled on tracks for release.

“Everyone loves music,” Helbig says. “And you can really address some of the most difficult, unarticulated issues through song that you couldn’t address any other place. We need to recognize how we set these systems up.”

Legal and prison systems result in a higher portion of certain populations ending up in the courts and in jail. With nine out of 10 prisons housing male inmates, masculinity is also a strong issue for songs that start behind bars: “So you have this association with imprisonment, violence, masculinity, race in many cases, all these issues are informing all these songs.”

Helbig has studied and written about music all over the world — among Roma people in Europe; among African residents of her native Ukraine; and elsewhere. But connecting the music she’s studied to the prison experience is new to her, prompted by the campus-wide Pitt Prison Education Project, which first brought University students to the correctional facility last year. 

Helbig grew up in Newark, N.J., and has a lifelong interest in hip hop, which has spread rapidly around the world “because it is so politicized,” she says. It gives singers the chance to deal with civil rights, identity politics, and “how certain segments of the populations end up in prison.”

Her book, “Hip Hop Ukraine,” for instance, delves into race relations in her native country, to which Soviet Russia once sent African students for advanced degrees in the hopes that they would return home with Russia-friendly attitudes. Today, however, a second generation of Africans has returned to Ukraine — and brought along their interest in American hip hop.

The prison experience also has hit close to home for Helbig. “My grandmother would get letters from Siberia, from her cousins” who were political prisoners, she says. But only recently has Helbig connected this memory to the way in which issues of imprisonment resonate with her.

“This topic has been so omnipresent in my life that I didn’t even recognize it as an issue,” Helbig says.

When she led Pitt’s Carpathian Ensemble for a decade ending in 2018, she also realized that a surprising amount of the traditional folk repertoire consisted of songs about personal or political violence, much of it against women.

“Music was a way to articulate things that couldn’t be articulated or are taboo,” she noted. But today, “what part of tradition do we revive? What are we then putting on stage?”

She expects the bluegrass ensemble to find music on similar themes — perhaps skewed to the history of the Pittsburgh and Appalachian regions, but still dealing with issues of violence, as well as class, gender and race.

“As a mid-career professor,” Helbig says, “I was really nervous going into this semester — all new courses, new topics, learning new instruments, putting myself out of my comfort zone. I’m basically taking and finding connections between all my previous work and moving this in a new direction.”

But the classes so far have been rewarding, she says.

“I’ve had calls from all over the University — people who are sharing all sorts of stories (about prison and music), which I don’t think would have happened.” The courses, she says, are “opening those walls, the metaphorical prison walls, to open those sorts of conversations, so they don’t seem so taboo.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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