In May 2018, British artist-musician Phil Collins (from Manchester, and not to be confused with the London-born drummer for Genesis) teamed up with The Fortune Society and public arts organization Creative Time to debut a unique synthesis of anti-mass-incarceration and prison-abolition activism with old-school house music.

The project’s backstory began when Collins helped form a band of men incarcerated in Sing Sing, the New York maximum-security prison. He was able to bring in sound engineers and other supporters for blocks of time. “We had time and space to get to know each other, play cassettes for each other, talk about pop history, clubbing, prison life, their perspectives on ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy,’ and the tidal wave of killings of young black men by the police,” Collins told the music magazine Fader. His plan to make a film about life in the prison never materialized; instead, the groundwork for Bring Down the Walls was laid.

Housed in a decommissioned fire station, Bring Down the Walls offered educational programs by day and a dance party by night. The project also recorded an album of cover versions of house music hits sung by formerly incarcerated musicians, including Michael Austin, who was exonerated with the help of the Innocence Project after spending 27 years in prison for crimes he didn’t commit.

THE FREE SCHOOL

During the day on four Saturdays in May, Firehouse, Engine Company 31, a decommissioned fire station and historic landmark in lower Manhattan, became a free school and research center where members of the public could learn about incarceration in America—from books and periodicals, but more importantly, from the testimony of formerly incarcerated people and activists working to change the system.

Derrick Cain of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, which pays bail for those who can’t afford it and advocates for the end of cash bail, led one presentation. Other facilitators included Baz Dreisinger, author of Incarceration Nations, a discussion of prisons worldwide; Abou Farman of the New Sanctuary Coalition, a student organization in support of immigrants; and Black and Pink, an organization of LGBTQ prisoners and supporters.

One presentation, entitled “Origins of Control,” looked at the history of the “prison-industrial complex,” while “The Carceral Continuum” examined how law and criminal-justice policy have been influenced by prison practices. Free legal and housing counseling was offered during the day program too.

“What else is the point of a nightclub but to create a temporary haven, a transient community in which social divisions are checked at the door, and which offers you a glimpse of a different way in which we could come together as society.”
—Phil Collins, in an interview with the music magazine Fader

THE CLUB

At night, Firehouse morphed into a club in which local collectives of DJs, musicians, and activists took over. The lineup: Soul Summit, known for its summer dance parties; the ballroom-culture collective House of Vogue; Brujas, a self-described “radical collective of activists, skaters, musicians, healers, and hustlers”; and Papi Juice, an art collective celebrating LGBTQ people of color.

“Historically, house culture has often been a mode of resistance, opening up new understandings of community and solidarity,” Phil Collins told Fader magazine. “Its radical proposition of simply being together offers another way of engaging the conversation around the prison-industrial complex.”

THE ALBUM

The third element in Bring Down the Walls is a collection of cover versions of house music hits. The album, produced by Collins, features 19 artists, including Empress Of (Los Angeles–based Lorely Rodriguez), the producer-performer duo Nguzunguzu (Asma Maroof and Daniel Pineda), and Kyp Malone of the band TV on the Radio.

Vocals for the tracks were laid down by formerly incarcerated singers. One of the vocalists is Cameron Holmes, who sings on the cover version of Robert Owens’s 1986 house classic “Bring Down The Walls,” from which the project took its name. Holmes was one of several former inmates who were connected to the project through personal contacts, phone calls, introductions via organizations, and other means.

Vocalist Amanda Cruz (pictured above), originally from Bushwick, Brooklyn, works at The Fortune Society, which has the slogan “Building People, Not Prisons.” A Bring Down the Walls partner, the nonprofit provides a wide range of services for people coming out of incarceration, including preparation-for-release help, substance-abuse and mental health counseling, family services, housing, and job aid. Cruz supports people detained on Rikers Island. The Fortune Society, based in Queens and Manhattan, also advocates for fair treatment of the formerly incarcerated through its David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy. About 70 percent of the Society’s staff have a history of incarceration, homelessness, or substance abuse.

Michael Austin (pictured above), a Baltimore native, was exonerated in 2001 with the help of the Innocence Project after spending 27 years in prison for a robbery and murder he did not commit. In 2010, he started In This Together Development, a nonprofit organization serving at-risk youth that focuses on music, community service, leadership, self-esteem, character building, and discipline.

Jon Spayde is the senior editor of Public Art Review.

From Public Art Review #58, where this article originally appeared in Powerful Spaces as “Firehouse Celebration Against Incarceration.”
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