How Do You Hear Rikers Island?

Listen to the Rikers Island, NY 11370 playlist via Spotify.

It’s not enough just to see Rikers — you must hear it. Folk, reggae, hip-hop and rap are an aural history of the lived experiences of the incarcerated. This influence, often extremely overt, can also be so subtle as to go unnoticed by listeners. This playlist surveys the evolution of incarceration as both subject and site of musical creation. Earlier songs, such as Dock Boggs’ "New Prisoner’s Song" or Lead Belly’s "Birmingham Jail", provide a glimpse of the desolation and hopelessness of incarceration in the early twentieth century. Alan Lomax’s "Rosie", a work song performed by Mississippi State Penitentiary inmates in 1947, regulated the rhythm of chain gangs’ work and updated the traditional Negro spiritual into another lament for freedom. A number of songs were also recorded at penal institutions, such as Johnny Cash’s "Folsom Prison Blues" and "A Word to the Hip" (written and performed by an unknown artist in the New York prison system), while "Night in Tunisia" was performed by the Elmo Hope Ensemble, a group comprised of musicians who had each spent time on Rikers.

Rikers Island itself continues to inspire songs that both document and denounce the system of which it is a part: Noreaga’s "40 Island" features Kool G Rap and samples his 1990 single "Rikers Island"; Public Enemy’s "Bridge of Pain" describes the journey across the bridge to Rikers Island, an experience taken up elsewhere in the gallery. The continuation of police brutality, the drug war, and the social and political injustices that comprise and perpetuate the epidemic of mass incarceration in the U.S. ensure that we will continue to hear about all these issues in our music. And these songs not only speak to the experiences of incarcerated people, but provide a direct aural link between those inside and those who are not.