Lifers Group

Posted by kwabenantim on September 20, 2017

Nicole Fleetwood, Associate Professor, Department of American Studies, Rutgers University moderates discussion between Lifers Group members Maxwell Melvins, president, and rapper Picard “Original” Galette. 

Special guests include Ralph McDaniels, founder of Video Music Box; Reginald Haynes, founder of The Escorts; and Billy Martin, singer and member of The Legendary Escorts. 

In my role as producer of the performing arts programming at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I produced a panel discussion about music made in prisons and its interaction with popular media. The event focused on The Lifers Group, a 1990's rap group formed at New Jersey’s Rahway Prison; and The Escorts, a 1970’s group of soul singers also formed at Rahway Prison in New Jersey. 

Rahway prison has been the site of many film productions. These include Spike Lee’s biography of Malcolm X starring Denzel Washington, Lock Up by Sylvester Stallone, Ocean’s Eleven by Stephen Soderbergh, and many others. 

The prison opened in 1901 and originally housed first-time male offenders between the ages of 16 and 30. In 1929, due to the opening of nearby reformatories, Rahway changed from a reformatory to a prison for adult males. Designed to hold 1000 inmates, the actual number incarcerated has at times exceeded 2000. 

On Thanksgiving Day in 1971 there was a riot. 500 inmates held 6 hostages for 24 hours, including the warden and corrections officers. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the boxer and subject of a popular Bob Dylan song, was in the prison during this riot. Carter was also the subject of one of Spike Lee’s biographical films that included scenes filmed at Rahway. 

On November 30, 1988, at the request of local citizens, the prison was renamed East Jersey State Prison. 

In 1970, at Rahway prison, there was an R&B group called The Escorts. Two years earlier, in 1968, Reginald Haynes, founder of The Escorts, first became incarcerated, at the Trenton State Prison. As a way to do something constructive with his time he joined with other inmates to practice the R&B singing style known as doo-wop. In 1970 Reginald was transferred to Rahway prison. What he didn’t know until he got to Rahway was that the men he’d been singing with in Trenton had also been transferred to Rahway. They reunited to perform at an inmate talent show. George Kerr, the Motown record producer, happened to be in the audience at the talent show. Kerr was highly impressed by the quality of their performance and embarked on a mission to record an album with them. 

As a means of improving inmate morale after the 1971 riot the warden started allowing inmates to create and participate in an increased amount of programs. This shift, along with a lot of letter writing from George Kerr and the inmates, is what enabled The Escorts to record their first album. 

In 1976 a group of Rahway inmates serving sentences of 25 years to life created the Lifers Group. They are most well known for their Juvenile Awareness Program, which was the subject of the 1978 documentary Scared Straight, directed by Arnold Schapiro. 

Raised in Camden NJ, Maxwell Melvins became incarcerated in 1980, at the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility in Bordentown, NJ. After a short time he was transferred to the Trenton State Prison, where he remained for 7 years. While in Trenton Maxwell put in an application for transfer to Rahway. He knew they had a lot of programs, and he was looking for a constructive way to occupy his time while serving a life sentence. 

In 1987 there was an incident at Rahway that caused about 20 inmates to be transferred to Trenton. To make space for that influx into Trenton some inmates were transferred out to other prisons. Maxwell was sent to Rahway. In 1988 Maxwell interviewed with the screening committee to join the Lifers Group. He was interested in the fundraising and the business practices that supported their programs. At that time the message of the Juvenile Awareness Program was about self-control and resistance to popular media’s glamorization of incarceration. In 1991 Maxwell presented to the Lifers Group his idea for putting their message into the form of rap music. 

Picard Galette, who goes by the rap moniker “Original”, was born in Brooklyn. When he was still a little kid his family moved to Elizabeth NJ. He became incarcerated, at the age of 17, at a youth facility in New Jersey. At the age of 18 he was transferred to Rahway. He quickly fell in with the Lifers Group. Although he wasn’t serving a life sentence, the Lifers asked him to work with them in the Juvenile Awareness Program to tell his story to the youth, who were almost the same age as he was. When the project to make rap music began, Maxwell asked Original to help audition other inmates, which led to the Lifers incredible musical output, an eventual grammy nomination, and a copy of their first album now being in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American History. 

The event that took place at the Met Breuer on August 4, 2017 was the first time in history that members of The Escorts and Lifers Group had ever met. 

MetLiveArts in collaboration with media and culture writer Kali Holloway presents an eight-week summer series of edgy, timely, and pointedly political performances and films on the Fifth Floor of The Met Breuer. Theater of the Resist takes its name from art making—a technique where the artist uses opposing material to "resist" the medium and thus generating negative space in which to create. This series is presented in conjunction with the exhibition The Body Politic: Video from The Met Collection, on view at The Met Breuer, June 20–September 3, 2017. It will highlight dance, spoken word, music and film from communities that are outside the hegemony. Hosts include: political journalist and musician Kali Holloway, WQXR host Terrance McKnight, and musician and NYPR host/podcaster Helga Davis. 

This program was offered Free with Museum Admission, thanks to Janet and Howard Kagan and The Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, Inc. 

 The series was made possible by Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon B. Polsky.