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Bushwick Multimedia Project 'Die Jim Crow' Gives Voice to the Incarcerated

"Die Jim Crow," a music project created by current and formerly incarcerated artists, is documented in a new art book that explores mass incarceration.
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Fury Young (center) with inmates from Warren Correctional Institution. Photo Credit: Cathy Roma.

It's been three years since Bushwick artist Fury Young began a journey that culminated in the 2016 release of the "Die Jim Crow"  EP, a collection of songs recorded by current and formerly incarcerated musicians.

On Saturday, December 22, Young will unveil a companion art book that explores mass incarceration through stories and artwork of current and formerly incarcerated individuals, as well as his own photographs and collages.

Young, a filmmaker, musician and activist, became interested in the issue after reading Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow," a book that is widely considered to be the authoritative text on mass incarceration. It was Alexander's book, as well as Young's own experience with people who had passed through the system, that inspired him to create music and art with imprisoned individuals across the country.

"Initially, it was an idea I thought I'd pass on to someone else, someone who was formerly incarcerated," he said. "But I started writing to people who were imprisoned to get their opinion on the project, and they all encouraged me. I began to think: 'Maybe, this what I need to be doing.'"

In 2015, Young teamed up with producer and audio engineer Dr. Israel to begin recording at Ohio's Warren Correctional Institution, the first facility that gave them permission to work with its inmates. By the end of that year, they had enough material to produce an EP; "Die Jim Crow" was born.

"We were driving back from Ohio, when we realized that we needed to release the material," said Young. "From there, we launched a Kickstarter campaign, and then the idea for the book followed." 

One of the book's contributors is Valerie Seeley, an NYC-based writer. In the late 1990s, she was sentenced to 19 years to life after murdering her abusive boyfriend in Brooklyn. While serving time at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, she began writing about her experience in prison.

"Writing and telling my story was my healing process," she said. "Writing was a way to get out."

'Die Jim Crow,' an EP created by current and formerly incarcerated people, is documented in a new companion art book that explores mass incarceration.
Valerie Seeley with Fury Young. Photo credit: Royal Young for Die Jim Crow.

Young contacted Seeley in 2015 after reading some of the work she had published and asked her to join the project. 

"I loved the project because the public needs to know that a lot of these people don't deserve these long sentences, many of them are innocent," said Seeley, who has maintained she committed her crime in self-defense. "I hope the project will give the public a better understanding of what it's like for people on the inside."

Seeley served 17 years before receiving clemency from Governor Cuomo in 2016.

Young continues to expand the "Die Jim Crow" project. So far, he has already recorded in four additional prisons. In 2020, he plans to release a full-length album.

"I believe people in prisons are some of the most misconceived people in our society," said Young. "My goal is to humanize them." 

The "Die Jim Crow" book launch with readings from currently and previously incarcerated artists, as well as music from the EP, takes place on Saturday, December 22, 7:30pm at Topos Bookstore.