The San Quentin Music Program kicked off its summer concert series with a socially conscious Juneteenth Celebration on the prison’s Lower Yard.
The June 15 jamboree provided funk, soul, oldies but goodies and rap music to a yard that was full of activities, from basketball to exercising. Even the smoke from the Native Americans’ sweat lodge didn’t distract the crowd of more than 60 people from surrounding the stage for a musical interlude.
The multi-talented band Contagious was truly infectious with its mixture of rap, rock and African-Caribbean music. Bob Marley, the reggae icon, would have smiled down on these masterful musicians’ soul-inspiring set.
Lead rapper/singer David Jassy’s socially conscious lyrics and wordplay sought to educate as well as entertain. The 45-minute set showcased original songs such as “Gambia,” an ode to Africa and Jassy’s family roots.
“Not the Mistakes I Made” and “These Walls” were some of the crowd favorites. But it was the song “All of a Sudden” that provided the food for thought for the day.
“How did we go from Africa to picking cotton, to picking on each other,” Jassy questioned, through his rap.
Kevin D. Sawyer, keyboardist; Lee Jaspar, guitarist; Darryl Farris, bass; Paul Comeaux, vocals; and James Benson, drums, rounded out the band. Each musician’s musical skills were beyond professional—they were great.
Juneteenth is the celebration of the final slaves being freed from Texas in 1865. It was two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This year marks the 400th year since the first enslaved African arrived in America.
“Juneteenth is a wake-up call to incarcerated people to recognize that they are free mentally, but just like the brothers in Texas, many don’t know it,” said Farris. “It’s a reminder of where we came from and what we are still go- ing through.
“In order for slaves to be free, they had to work on one accord. We too can be one voice,” he added.
The band Just Us treated the crowd to some ’80s mu- sic. Jeffery Atkins, keyboardist/lead singer, entertained the audience with the showmanship of a stage veteran. Atkins danced, posed and pointed at different band members as they displayed their talent on their instruments.
Charles Ross worked the drums, Leonard “Funky Len” Walker handled the bass and Raul Higgins dazzled with the percussion.
The band performed “Situation Number Nine” by R&B group Club Nouveau, which Atkins was a member of back in the ’80s. The crowd sang along to the song verse by verse.
“I’m feeling inspired— we’re here in recognition of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation,” said Atkins. “We’re here in the spirit of forgiveness.
“Having an outlet for music—there is no other feeling like it. It’s a rush. It feels like freedom,” he added.
For Higgins, the performance was surreal. He was just found suitable for release by the parole board after serving 21 years of incarceration.
“I have always loved music, but alcohol and drug ad- dictions prevented me from really getting into it,” said Higgins. “Now that I’m sober, I can appreciate it…music is a form of meditation to me.”
Higgins expects to perform at one or two more events. He is trying to find a balance between band practice, helping others with board preparation and AA meetings.
Wilbur “Rico” Rogers was back at the keyboard jamming with The R&B All-Stars. Rogers suffered a heart attack in February and has been recovering.
“I’m thankful to be here. God is good,” said Rogers. “This event is all about unity. Some of us naturally learn it, but we have to teach it to others. Unify around something that has meaning to everybody.”
The band performed “Joy and Pain” by Maze, featuring Frankie Beverly, and other soul classics. The group brought on stage a young Eric “Maserati E” Abercrombie to rap on an Isley Brothers song.
Lee Jaspar lent his guitar skills to the All-Stars. Daryl Farris played bass, Anthony O’Neil’s rhythmic drumming rounded out the group.
“It’s a privilege to be able to sit down and enjoy the festivities with different people of all races and ages celebrating being alive,” said spectator Husain Jaheed. “It’s important to remember the struggles and sacrifices that our ancestors made. We should never forget.”
The day brought a sense of peace, harmony, and enjoyment to all participants and bystanders.
“They say money makes the world go around, but real music makes the world move forward,” observed Jassy, imparting more wisdom.