|January 4, 2017|
Judah Adashi, DMA is a composer and professor at the Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute. He was awarded funding by the JHU Exploration of Practical Ethics Program for a project entitled Unseen: Kalief Browder and Solitary Confinement in America. This project will grapple with the ethical responsibility of artists operating within their sociopolitical context, as well as the ethics of solitary confinement and mass incarceration of African Americans.
Unseen is inspired by the story of Kalief Browder, a 16-year old black youth who was held in prison for three years without trial, two of them in solitary confinement. Browder committed suicide two years after his release, all the while struggling with psychological trauma. The project will result in a musical composition, part of which will be shared at the Practical Ethics Symposium in January 2017.
Unseen dovetails with Professor Adashi’s composition, Rise, a collaboration with poet Tameka Cage Conley, PhD, bearing witness to America’s civil rights journey from Selma to Ferguson. Rise debuted on April 19, 2015, the same day that Freddie Gray died while in Baltimore Police custody. Gray’s death, ruled a homicide, sparked the Baltimore Uprising.
Professor Adashi revisited Rise with the second full performance of the piece held on April 19, 2016 at Mt. Vernon Place United Methodist Church, to honor Freddie Gray. The evening included a panel conversation on art and activism in Baltimore, along with the premiere of a new piece by Professor Adashi, The Beauty of the Protest, performed by cellist and Peabody alumna Lavena Johanson.
We recently spoke with Professor Adashi to learn more about his work and his plans for Unseen: Kalief Browder and Solitary Confinement in America.
Tell us about the Unseen project: where did the inspiration come from to confront this particular set of challenges?
I first learned about Kalief Browder in 2015, from the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic and Jennifer Gonnerman in The New Yorker. Rise had just premiered, and I had recently joined colleagues across Johns Hopkins in thinking about how we might engage with practical ethics in our respective divisions. I saw Browder’s story as a natural follow-up to Rise, moving from the increasingly visible deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police, to one young person’s slow, hidden death at the hands of our criminal justice system.
What are the primary ethical challenges that you plan to explore with this project and how will you approach this exploration?
My project has two components, each of which explores an ethical question. The musical work, Unseen, considers the ethics of mass incarceration and solitary confinement, by bearing witness to the story of an adolescent casualty of both. I’ve also launched an Art and Activism Workshop at the Peabody Institute. In this forum, students consider whether musicians have an ethical responsibility to address sociopolitical issues, and develop projects of their own that link music and social justice.
The proposal includes engaging with those close to Kalief Browder, as well as interviews with people who have experienced solitary confinement while incarcerated. How do you see these conversations shaping your work?
My connection to Kalief Browder’s story relies heavily on empathy and research. These conversations offer something more direct, a window into the human experience of incarceration and solitary confinement. I am curious not only for the insights of current and former inmates, but also for the perspective of correctional officers. In addition to informing my own words and music, extracts from these recorded exchanges may be included in the composition itself.
As you know, Baltimore has been grappling with similar challenges most notably related to Freddie Gray’s life and death. Do you envision these local challenges having an influence on how you explore Kalief Browder’s life and death, and the issue of solitary confinement through your project?
Yes and no. Just as Freddie Gray’s story is grounded in Baltimore, Kalief Browder’s is rooted in New York. When we process the violence done to young Black people, their stories frequently become generalized. I’m troubled by the speed with which we turn human beings into hashtags. I want to honor Kalief Browder’s specific experience, while at the same time acknowledging resonances that transcend time and place.
How do you see the role of art, and specifically music, in promoting social justice?
Art offers a vivid way for us to bear witness to human suffering, to tell stories that must be heard, seen, and remembered. I think music can endow the act of telling stories with a particular immediacy and emotional depth. Music has a singular capacity to command attention, drawing out in time our engagement with uncomfortable truths. It creates a space for reflection, communion, grief, and memory, and can serve as a call to action.
Ultimately, what are your hopes for the impact of Unseen?
Most of us whose lives haven’t been touched by incarceration hold an abstracted view of it, drawn from television and movies. We imagine a world in which the punishment fits the crime, and people are innocent until proven guilty in a fair trial. Kalief Browder’s experience defies this narrative at every turn, and as such, it is a gateway to awareness. My hope is that Unseen mobilizes those who are already attuned to the human cost of mass incarceration and solitary confinement, and changes hearts and minds among those who aren’t.
“Last Words” is an excerpt from a larger piece entitled “Unseen,” a musical composition about Kalief Browder. In 2010, the 16-year-old Browder was accused of stealing a backpack. Unable to post bail but never convicted of a crime, he was held on Rikers Island without trial for three years, spending two of them in solitary confinement. Browder committed suicide in 2015, two years after his release.
This demo recording features vocals by Matthew J. Robinson, photos by Zach Gross, and audio of Venida Browder, courtesy of The Marshall Project. “Unseen” is funded by a grant administered by the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.
For more information about the JHU Exploration of Practical Ethics and all nine funded projects, and for free registration to our upcoming symposium (January 24, 2017; 2:00pm – 5:00pm; Feinstone Hall, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health