Young inmates are creating positive rap music at San Quentin State Prison, under the guidance of hip-hop artist and music producer David Jassy. Because of that, he’s captured the attention of corrections officials and the prison reform organization CUT50.
They all came together at the prison in August to learn more about the young men in the Youth Offender Program (YOP) who are using music to tell honest stories with constructive messages as a form of rehabilitation.
In the Arts in Corrections studio loft, Jassy played a video for the group that explained what the SQ Music Program is and how his youth music project came about. Greg Wells appeared in the video. He’s a music producer for Katy Perry, Adele and Pink, among others. Film and music producer Quincy Jones III also appeared in the video.
As the group watched the video, some tapped their feet to the music. Jassy explained how explicit rap content influences the behavior of the youth. He said when he told the young men not to use profanity in their rap lyrics, it gave them a different insight.
“I really believe they want to change,” he said.
Not writing negative rap with profanity and lies glorifying street life is what spawned what some well-known names in the music industry have come to know as The YOP Mix Tape.
Jassy said he had the idea to spearhead the program as a way to redirect the younger inmates’ energy in a positive direction.
“In the beginning it was more of an informational meeting,” he said. “I wanted to tell our stories.”
“Thanks to CUT50,” Jassy said, the YOPs received some celebrity shout outs about their music.
Alex Gudich, deputy director of CUT50, said he’s been working with Jassy for two years to “build support to do great stuff.” He said the YOP’s will have transferable skills upon paroling from prison.
“It’s not just a program for kids,” said Jessica Sloan, CUT50 national director and co-founder. “It’s a cool program and culture is such a driver.”
She said she has another view on rehabilitation: “Humanization and legislation.”
Jassy said when some of the young inmates saw Jones III on the video praising the mix tape it gave them encouragement.
“Quincy Jones III told me I can be somebody,” he said one young man told him.
The video contained music that Jassy produced at San Quentin. One song had a track featuring YOP inmate Daniel “Dinero G” Gutierrez. His lyrics revealed a common reality for many young men in prison: I never listened to advice I got from my mother…Now I’m in the same prison as my grand- father.
The song ended with Gutierrez saying if he could go back he would change everything, and he would listen.
“He’s good,” said Warden Janel Espinoza from Central California’s Women Facility. “That’s really, really good. I like that.”
“They have to be honest with themselves,” Jassy said as he discussed how a YOP inmate cried when he was allowed to get in touch with himself.
He said another cried when he thought about how he let his mother down.
“If you’re alone with a producer there’s a whole different truth that’s revealed,” he added.
Jassy said some YOPs want to appear tough to their friends but also want to say, “I’m sorry” to their mothers. “Music gives them that outlet.” He said many of them learn that it’s okay to be apologetic.
Jassy and Steve Emrick, San Quentin’s community partnership manager, discussed copyright issues and how any money generated from music sales could be donated to nonprofits such as victims’ rights organizations.
Jassy also offered to provide music to Warden Espinoza’s music curriculum at CCWF.
“I want to change the whole concept of rap,” Jassy said. “If it comes from people who’ve been inside (prison) it has more credibility.”
After leaving the music room, the group went to San Quentin’s media center to visit San Quentin News, Ear Hustle, First Watch, SQTV, and San Quentin Radio.
“It’s more than what I expected,” Espinoza said about the podcast Ear Hustle. “You guys are very lucky. It’s an outside-of-the-box program. I know CCWF can benefit. I’m a strong believer in transformation. Anyone can change.”
They later spoke to Eric “Maserati E” Abercrombie, 25; Greg Sayers, 27; and Thanh Tran, 24. They are Black, White and Vietnamese & Black, respectively.
Sayers played an old guitar, badly in need of new strings. He sang and Abercrombie rapped. Tran joined in on the chorus and rapped. It was obvious the song was something they had all worked on together, written and arranged on the prison yard. The song, “Reality Check,” was about their experiences and the lessons they’ve learned.
“It gives me a purpose,” Sayers said. “This opportunity has definitely instilled in me a sense of responsibility. This is a major form of escape,
“It’s extremely therapeutic.”
He also said he doesn’t want to only hang out with his own race, and he also has something to lose if he messes up.
“I was a foster child since I was two years old,” Tran said of his painful past. “I lived a whole life of hurt.”
He said he couldn’t share his life with others until he discovered music. He said he left gang life behind.
“A huge part of it is healing,” he added.
These young men didn’t know each other before arriving at San Quentin. In many prisons, they may not have had the opportunity to collaborate on a song due to gang and racial politics. Music is their common bond.
Espinoza encouraged them to “hang in there” and thanked the young men for sharing their stories and talent.
“I think he’s (Jassy) on the right track, influencing people, thinking outside the box,” She said.
She said to see him actually be engaged has a positive influence on the population.
“I believe that music is a very powerful tool for rehabilitation,” Jassy said in September 2014 when San Quentin News, published the story “Artist Spends Prison Time Sharing His Many Talents and Experiences.”
Four years later, he hasn’t stopped believing. Now he’s helping to build the prison’s music program while helping younger inmates rehabilitate themselves through music.