Earlier this year, seven gifted musicians and singers arrived at San Quentin to give its residents an opportunity to express and display their collective talents through music.
The musicians were brought in by Musicambia, an organization created by Nathan Schram and Brad Balliet to bring the power of music to prisoners. Musicambia holds song-writing workshops at San Quentin and Sing Sing prison in New York State.
The 2023 workshop kicked off the New Year. Many residents applied and 32 were selected to participate in the five-day event from Jan. 17–21, which culminated with a concert performance.
Besides Balliet, the workshop was taught by Judith Hill, a world-renowned singer and musician who returned to bring her musical excellence to The Q.
Participants of the workshop arrived to the Protestant Chapel on the first day, excited to be a part of the event.
“I really don’t know what to expect because right now you really don’t know who’s gonna show up,” Zinnamon said. “However, it’s gonna to be great to vibe with people musically that I don’t know. Overall, I’m curious and anxious.”
During the orientation, Balliet spoke to participants. “Hello everyone … This is my third time being here and it has been one of the best experiences of my life,” he said. Balliet said the Musicambia team was excited to be at The Q and that “our only goal is to make your musical talents come to life.”
Eddie Arizmendez, a Latino man with a quiet demeanor and warm smile, was a first time participant in the workshop and said he felt blessed to be there.
Arizmendez added that coming to Musicambia and experiencing all different types of musical styles — after playing punk rock all his life — was a great experience for him.
He said that although there are great programs at San Quentin such as GOGI, GRIP, and many others, as a musician he has a hard time relating to those groups.
“These art programs like Musicambia are a lifesaver for me because it’s my rehabilitation. I wish that CDCR would recognize these music programs like all the others because for us it’s the language we speak,” Arizmendez said about his fellow musicians.
The workshop started with a songwriting exercise, tasking participants with writing down song ideas. One song that emerged from this task was a collective effort titled, Keep that Kind of Love, which was performed at the concert.
They were also asked to come up with a theme for the concert. “We discussed a lot of words that could be the theme, but the word that resonated the most was love … with all of its contradictions,” Balliet said.
For Grammy-nominated artist Hill, it was her second time working with the workshop. She arrived from L.A. on day two and said that it felt “awesome to be back.”
“Last time it was just an amazing experience,” she said. “I’m just happy to see everybody and I hope to be able to jam out with everyone.”
Matt Worth, professor of voice at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, brought several students with him. He spoke about what it meant for the students to participate.
“It’s brought a greater understanding to the students about the lives they live. And also, a greater understanding of the prison industrial complex,” Worth said.
He explained that they read extensively about criminal and social justice in preparation for the collaboration, which is part of their winter experiential gap term between the fall and spring semesters.
Nina Jones, a powerful soprano opera singer who is a senior at The Conservatory, reflected on her first time visiting San Quentin.
“I didn’t know what to expect …. Then I got here and it was so fun,” she stated. She said that all her preconceived notions about incarcerated people were totally shattered.
“I won’t lie and say that I wasn’t apprehensive about coming in, because I was. But once I got around you guys, all that disappeared completely. This experience has truly changed my life,” Jones said.
The concert began with an upbeat reggaeton song called Mas Qué Dolor, which set the night’s tone beautifully.
Some of the songs covered emotionally difficult topics, like December, a soft, touching ballad by one of the participants who lost his mother while he was incarcerated.
“Sometimes it’s hard to say things aloud or even think them,” Balliet said during the show. “But when you make art, those things just come spilling out. Art is like the nozzle that gives these things purpose and direction.”
Fourteen original songs were performed, all originals developed during the workshop. This also included songs like a pop-inspired medley called Angels Fall in Love and an R&B track titled Another Way.
The concert was capped off with a funk-inspired song called Live Your Life, in which Jones belted out some high and smooth notes like Esperanza Spalding. For participants and audience members alike, the concert was a hit.
“These songs all have that special spark that comes from hitting the anvil of creativity. When you hit that anvil of creativity with your mind, sparks fly,” said Balliet. “And those sparks are these songs.”
—Joshua Strange contributed to this article