A Hope in Hell- The Parchman Prison Recordings: An Interview with Ian Brennan
Whilst Afropean is primarily focused on those with a cultural connection to the African continent living in Europe, we also take an active interest in stories emanating from across the Diaspora.
Mississippi has been described as the ‘poorest and blackest state’ in the US. In a country that routinely criminalises its Afrodescendant population, it’s no surprise to find this state has one of the worst rates of incarceration nationally (and by extension the world) as well as containing one of the US’ most violent prisons, Parchman. It’s this location that acclaimed record producer, Ian Brennan chose for an unorthodox and profoundly affecting project. In February 2023, Brennan recorded a worship service at Parchman. The resulting album Some Mississippi Sunday Morning, executively produced by his wife, Rwandan-Italian film-maker, Marilena Umuhoza Delli, is released on 15 September 2023. Brennan joins Afropean from his home in Italy to speak about this singular experience.
AP: Parchman prison has a long and sorrowful history, with a number of illustrious names connected to it. What drew you to initiate this project at this time? What made you want to record these men as they worshipped?
IB: Me and my wife Marilena have been trying to provide platforms for under-represented regions and persecuted populations. We started in 2009 in Rwanda, where Marilena’s mother is from, with The Good Ones. We’ve gone on to do forty albums around the world, on five continents, mostly in impoverished countries. In a powerful country like America, sadly we lead the world in incarceration rates. These have quadrupled since 1980, which was the dawn of hyper-Capitalism – aka – Neoliberalism.
Mississippi is number two in America [for incarceration rates], which means it’s at the top of the top of the top. Yet Mississippi is per capita the poorest state in America. That’s not coincidental. I went [to Parchman] with the leap of faith that these voices needed and deserved to be heard. I didn’t know what would be there. We never usually do. Almost without fail, our expectations are exceeded. The musicality of the individuals – who often don’t consider themselves artists or musicians – was incredible. We recorded the day of this year’s Grammy’s. I told the participants that I’d rather be there than at the ceremony, and that there wouldn’t be performances stronger than many of those at Parchman that day. That’s true in my estimation.
AP: Singing itself can be a vulnerable, soul-bearing act; often stereotyped as a ‘feminine’ pursuit. Was addressing some of these clichés at play when choosing an environment where patriarchy finds some of its most violent expressions? Parchman is already notorious for suspicious deaths and murders…
IB: What interests me is honesty. I think so much of the media we receive is increasingly dishonest and manipulated. Think about the rise of AI writing books and songs. This is only the tip of the iceberg of what’s going to occur in the future. For me, [the Parchman recordings] is the antithesis of that. It’s people singing mostly acappella, without any effects and having the courage to do that in front of those whom they may not know.
Parchman has a massive population. For anybody, to sing in front of even one person is scary – depending on whom that person is. It takes courage. When I talk about the performances being stronger than the Grammy’s, I mean it in an objective way; as in the directness, honesty and vulnerability that are in those voices. We had only a few hours to record. I set up the very little equipment I was allowed as fast as I could. Within minutes, we were recording and for the entire time. No-one wanted to go first, which is normal. Once somebody did, more people came. When most in the room had sung one song, some who had been refusing – caught up in the spirit of it or competitiveness, or both – ended up coming to perform. Then some people began coming up a second time. The session worked because of them; because of the spirit and power of their performance. It had nothing to do with me.
AP: You were obviously determined for it to materialise, as it took three years of clearing red tape to make the sessions happen. You caught a last minute flight to record the men. Talk me through the practical side of organising this session?
IB: A lot of the delay came down to two things. One, COVID-19. Secondly, in 2019, when I tried to initiate the process, it was also the period where a lot of the recent crises were happening in Parchman. They’ve had trouble throughout their history. They were in a very defensive mode. I believe because of Jay-Z and Roc Nation advocating for many of the residents, there had been a change. As far as I could tell, it was an almost entirely new administration. Once we’d gone through the necessary formalities, it was surprisingly easy and welcoming. At the gates, they waved me in without any formality. When I got there, it was the same thing. Everybody trusted the process. Ultimately, it happened because of the chaplains. They have many dozens of services every Sunday around the prison.
AP: Naturally, the participants were apprehensive at the start. How did you go about putting them at ease on the day itself?
IB: People were there because they wanted to be. Nobody was forced. I think that makes a big difference in any experiment like this. I always tell people ‘Sing whatever you want, talk about whatever you want. There are no mistakes. Don’t worry about being good. Just be yourself and communicate’. One of the most powerful Parchman tracks came later; someone who was more reluctant. He had written a poem/rap and wanted to share that with the group.
AP: Was anonymity of the participants a sine qua non for recording the sessions or was it implicit that their identities would not be revealed? Do you believe this contributed to the men eventually feeling relaxed enough to participate?
IB: It’s not anonymity, but confidentiality. The men are identified on the album by their first initial, last name, and age (with the exception of one person who opted not to be identified). The confidentiality was part of the understanding with the prison. That discretion also helps balance concern for any negative impact on victims and/or victims’ families.
AP: Was there any kind of filtering process, i.e. were there some recordings that didn’t make the cut?
IB: Certainly, there’s going to be, in any process but there are not a lot of outtakes because of the very nature of it. There was such a limited amount of time to start with.
AP: Were you privy to why the participants chose the songs they did?
IB: People sung what they considered their song, like most folk music. If you listen to the renditions of standards or covers, a lot of them are almost unrecognisable from the source material. That’s why in the folk music tradition, people often say they wrote the song because, in a sense, they did. I like these versions. [Ian laughs] The originals are not the things I’d find moving but there’s such a personal take… so much intimacy to these performances, that the material is secondary.
AP: Did you have a chance to get to know any of the participants better? Were there any stories that lingered in particular that you could share?
IB: All but one of them is from Mississippi. The majority are from rural Mississippi. They’re not far from where they were born and raised. Some have been [at Parchman] for decades and decades. Ultimately with violence, in my experience, the primary emotion around it should be sadness. Everyone suffers from it. It’s not a competition. But when you see a system where somebody did something when they were 18 or 19 years old, in a flash, often intoxicated and 30 or 40 years later they’re still in prison for it…there must be a better way.
AP: Did you have time to explore the role faith played in these men’s lives?
IB: There wasn’t a lot of time beyond the music. Some of them talked to me on the side here and there but it was pretty much non-stop. We communicated mostly through the music itself. There’s the sense that many of the people there, if not all, have a very strong faith. Certainly, people were very kind. At the end they were giving me blessings for my journey home.
AP: More generally, what are the most striking memories from the day itself for you?
IB: The consistent sadness that is there. Anybody who wants to see things in very binary terms, good and evil – that sort of thing – is missing the complexity and blend of emotion. The majority of them are there for murder or for sexual assault. However, there’s a strong sense – at least for these individual participants, the ones really committed to their faith – that they’ve done a lot of work on themselves spiritually. You can feel that whatever they did 3, 10, 50 years ago – they’re not the person they were then. That’s the thing I find the most haunting, really – the sadness about it. Again, there has to be a better way.
AP: That’s a more solemn response than expected but understandable. This sort of experience is often portrayed as life-affirming in some way…
IB: …I would agree with you that it was very life-affirming and I think that’s the complexity. There’s a lot of joy in there, especially the experience that was shared. But I’m not unrealistic enough to believe that that event can counter the participants’ experience. I hope there’s something even more sustainable. I think that’s the role of faith and the chaplains. They truly are a lifeline for those who believe and choose to participate. I imagine for most [the service] is a highlight. It keeps them going every week.
AP: One of several successful elements of the project was that the service you recorded was integrated. Usually the services would be segregated along colour lines. How did you and the team manage to facilitate this show of unity?
IB: Some of the segregation is based on denomination. It’s certainly not enforced in a legal sense but there are those divisions. I think like any positive, successful meeting, people were transformed by the service. It’s a cliché but there’s truth to music being a universal language which can unify. What was shared at Parchman, and what I’m interested in, is intimacy; to hear acappella singing. I’m not saying the naked voice is the best but it’s the purest and first form of musical communication. Everyone is capable of it but a consumerist society denies people their own musicality by making them focus on being good and performative. Whenever someone is performative, it instantly shuts me down. It’s not that I don’t think it has value. I think anything that gives someone joy has value, as long it’s not hurtful to others. Still, I do believe that, just like with food, some things are more nutritious.
A lot of what people are consuming is essentially fast food. It’s manipulated audio and imagery. So when you hear someone sing with such nakedness, vulnerability and directness, it’s very striking. It was rare even in the earlier era of popular music. That’s why people will be listening to someone like Nina Simone for as long as recorded music is made. Her singing is not affected at all. For so many of the [Parchman] singers, they are equally clear and transparent in what they’re communicating. There’s so much depth to it.
I’m not afraid to cry in front of people, I just don’t want to be indulgent. But a lot of times, when emotion is pure, it sneaks up on you. That happened to me multiple times in that short interval at Parchman. Whenever I feel that, I know something very deep has occurred.
AP: Would you consider doing a similar project in an all-women facility or was it especially significant that it takes place in a masculine environment?
IB: Certainly, I would record in a female facility. With our projects, we always seek out the elderly and women more than men whenever possible. When we went to Zomba prison in Malawi in 2013 and 2016, the men made up the majority of the prison population. It was built to hold 300 people and it had over 2000 people. The women’s area of the prison is quite small and had 50 people – although still over-crowded. There were also children in the prison, living in quite severe conditions. We actively sought the women’s involvement and met incredible resistance. Everyone said they’re not musicians. Again, I’m most interested in hearing from the people who are not performers. We were at Zomba for almost two weeks and eventually on the final day, we were allowed to go to the women’s prison to record. It was very similar to what happened at Parchman in that at first, nobody wanted to do it. Before I knew it, there was a line of women. It was non-stop. Many of them got back in line a second and third time. That hour and a half, versus two weeks of recording with men, ended up being the majority of the [Grammy-nominated] first album. It’s not a political choice. I’ll put the art ahead of anything but whenever possible we try to feature women, the elderly and those living with disabilities. My sister is developmentally-disabled. We did a record with her and her community in the [San Francisco] Bay area.
IB: From what I can sense so far, the response [to the Parchman project] has been very strong and positive. The record isn’t even out yet [but what comes next] will be determined by fate, by the world itself. We would love to continue and hopefully do it in a more sustainable way. It’s a difficult thing.
AP: Sustainable in what sense?
IB: Hopefully, we don’t come in and just do one record. We did a project with those living with Albinism in Tanzania, on an island where they took refuge from the societal dangers and stigma. Everyone involved in the record but one had never played music, written songs or performed publicly before. It was an amazingly moving experience. Fortunately, that led to four of the 20 people involved being able to leave Tanzania for the first time and go to the UK to perform. It was incredible. For me, the real success is when I learned that the participants – who once considered themselves to be non-musicians – continue to meet weekly for the sake of community and music-making. That’s one of the most sustainable successes ever and they made it so. It would be great if they could have other opportunities to play overseas and make more money but the fact they’re continuing to play music together, there couldn’t be a better outgrowth of where we started from.
Parchman Prison Prayer: Some Mississippi Sunday Morning – available on Glitterbeat Records from 15 September 2023.
An extended version of this interview also features on the I Was Just Thinking blog