By : Alula Hunsen
7 min read
As my gracious Uber driver let me off to greet new friends on the steps of 77 Massachusetts Avenue, I didn’t know where to place my expectations; I was linking MIT Students on a Friday afternoon (May 19th, to be exact) to travel with them down the narrow straits of the Mass Ave Bridge towards one of two prisons in the City of Boston to attend and surveil a new rap workshop created by MIT’s Educational Justice Institute and led by Lupe Fiasco, with students pulled from both sides of the walls. Armed with a pen (which I couldn’t take beyond the metal detectors at the prison facility; mightier than the sword or however that saying goes), a notebook, and a bevy of questions, I knew only one person in attendance. Ally Minju, religious rapper and first-time organizer, invited me to come along; I ended up speaking with her only twice, captivated instead by the other attendees. Gon Hills, Korean youth pastor/vocalist/fit god, bussed myself and two others to the South Bay House of Corrections while sharing his first impressions from the earlier workshop session, putting us on to his own brilliant bilingual music, and politicking about community engagement in the arts. Cathy, in the car with us, only started making music four months ago (in Lupe Fiasco’s MIT rap course), but is a poet in her own right and recently crafted a jersey club/hyperpop banger that I hope to God she releases to DSPs.
Quickly lunging down a Parliament with Gon and waiting in the front foyer with more of Lupe’s students and a couple new faces for about 45 minutes before checking in, we traversed through the campus and through about three sets of gates, two locked doors, and two stories before arriving at Building 8, floor 3, which housed the PEACE unit where the workshop would take place. A big throw-up piece spelling out P E A C E greeted us coming out of the elevator; more graffiti adorned the walls of the unit, alongside acronym-ed posters informing us that Positive Energy Always Creates Elevation; I appreciated the 5%er-adjacent slogan, but to what extent can prisons foster positive energy? The unit began its work and opened its space in late 2018, promising a restorative justice approach, and intervention before punishment; the workshop itself became proof that creativity can and does exist within South Bay’s walls, although the circumstances may still yet be bleak.
Our imprisoned cohort joined us in the space shortly, followed by Professor Lupe’s arrival 15 minutes later; he immediately completed a set of dips on the exercise equipment in a side room and then walked into the studio space with fellow professor and producer International Showtime before doing intros and then starting us into our first exercise: yet another acronym, assigning our own meanings to each letter in R.A.P. After some discussion (and some lightly coerced freestyles from pupils willing and unwilling alike), the main course of the session commenced and we paired off to write 16-bar verses with bendy, child-safe pens.
Omar, an inmate I met at the PEACE unit, had never rapped before the workshop and ended up crafting a whole skit around his first-penned Jada/Styles back-and-forth raps with Ally before asking me where my name came from (and bigging me up for being named after legendary Italian-whupping anti-colonial General Alula Aba Nega). John, another poet and inmate from Dorchester, shared lyrical miracles and spat from his heart; another first-time rapper, his facilities with language put all of ours to shame.
I didn’t think I’d find myself rapping, but my partner-in-rhyme Kenny (aka Cyan Sueño, who played a show at Kinross Community Center the next day and was also invited by Ally) cyphered with me and built a 16 bar verse around our shared poetic and political tendencies; our hour-and-a-half class ended soon after we performed, with gems from Professor Lupe and handshakes and photographs shared amongst us all. Sustaining efforts like these keep us connected to the brilliant human beings locked away and kept from their families and friends; but the key is in the sustenance.
Originally published in-print in Boston Compass Newspaper #158 June 2023
Check out all the art and columns of June's Boston Compass at www.issuu.com/bostoncccompass