The Broadside (Transcript): What it takes to make music in prison


Anisa Khalifa: That’s rapper Deon Thomas—aka Young Tali. Like many musicians, he’s driven to make art by a hope for connection.

Deon Thomas: For people to be able to listen to something and be able to relate and fully understand what it is that they’re listening to. That’s what makes people become fans of your music when they understand your material.

Anisa Khalifa: But Deon isn’t like most musicians. As a person incarcerated in the state of Virginia, he doesn’t have access to a recording studio. Instead, he’s part of a small group of artists who record songs via phone calls and distribute them through a prison-only digital music service.


Anisa Khalifa: This week on the Broadside, producer Charlie Shelton-Ormond explores the influential, exploitative, and evolving world of music in southern prisons.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: If you want to make music while incarcerated, don’t expect to have any sort of blueprint.

Zeb Larson: Access to music in prison is so all over the map.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Zeb Larson is a freelance writer and historian. Recently, he dug more into what it takes for somebody to make music — and fulfill an artistic passion — while they’re in prison.

Zeb Larson: There are actually some prisons that have their own recording studios, but there’s no consistency on a state by state basis, whether a jail or a prison bite, there’s not really a lot of consistency, state to state whether or not you’ll have access to any instruments. And if you do have access to instruments, whether you could use them to record your own music. You’re sort of at the mercy of just wherever you happen to land

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: I talked with Zeb recently about a couple pieces he wrote for the online magazine Scalawag. They’re about the history of making music in prison and the kinds of obstacles people have to navigate. Zeb says the biggest avenue to get their music out into the world isn’t your run of the mill streaming site like Spotify or Apple Music. It’s a platform made specifically for incarcerated people called J-PAY.

Zeb Larson: J-PAY broke my brain, when I started trying to work on this story, because it was described to me as a messaging service, which okay, I can wrap my head around what that is. And the easiest way to describe it, if you’ve never had to use it, is it’s like an email service. And you can include video and images. But the thing about J-PAY is, it’s a platform for incarcerated people. If you’re in a system that uses it, and there are a number of states that use J-PAY, it’s how you would download books, for example, you can download e-books through there, or music, more importantly. For many people, that’s their music player.

You can buy a song for $1.49 a song, and then you have it permanently at least until or if access to J-PAY is lost, in which case you lose all the music all over again. It’s really a system that charges people about as much as it possibly can. My co-author David Anarelly, every time I wanted to send Dave an email in the course of writing this story, it cost me 40 cents to send to him. And it would cost him 40 cents to reply to me, just every single time. That’s the simplest way to understand J-PAY is it’s really, it actually really runs through so much of life if you’re incarcerated in the state that uses it.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: And J-PAY is this platform where people can look through music, look through instrumental tracks, and then really build from there, making songs, making an album. And one person who has used J-PAY to do this is Deon Thomas.

Deon Thomas: My name is Deon Thomas. Everybody knows me by Taliban. And but most people call me Tali for short. I’m from the Tidewater area of Virginia. Down there in Portsmouth. That’s where I’m from, born and raised. I just love music. I love making music and being able to express myself.


Zeb Larson: Deon Thomas who raps under the moniker Young Tali, he has a really interesting system. So he will go on JPAY, find a 30-second sample because like old Apple, you can listen to a 30-second sample before you buy — you get a feeling for like, Okay, this is the beat, this is the rhythm that I want, I could work with this. He then picks up those tracks, sends them to his audio engineer, gets on the phone with his audio engineer. And as quickly as he can —- he has to do this generally in one take, because it’s burning money the whole time, both what he has to pay to J-PAY, and to his audio engineer —- drop down rhythm and beat and record a song that way.

Deon Thomas: So I might find an instrumental up there this morning that they just put up there and I might tell another dude that’s here that raps, hey dude, DJ such and such got this instrumental album up there, he got 50 beats up there for 10 dollars. And out of those 50 beats I might at least find five or 10 of them probably that I’d like to rap to, he might find five or 10 different beats that, of of the same album that he’d rap to. And between the two of us we done found some diamonds in the rough so to say

Zeb Larson: And then this is where things get really interesting, because you can also distribute your music through J-PAY. And that’s what he does. So you have to basically find a distributor who works with J-PAY. He uses Tunecore. And what will happen is they’ll take that song, and then they’ll distribute it through J-PAY, J-PAY keeps 44 to 49% of all the money that comes off of it. But what happens is, then Deon, as Young Tali, he can sell his music directly to other people who are incarcerated.

Deon Thomas: Well, mainly myself, like I tell my story and my experiences, but like I always enjoy writing music and I write about what I what I’m going through like right now a record label would come to me and say, Hey, we need a club hit. And I was struggling writing it because I’m not in the club atmosphere right now, you understand what I’m saying? So I strictly like write about my own personal experiences and the things that is relative around me. So, everybody is interested in people who are incarcerated for one reason or another. And musically, you typically think of riots, gang violence, lockdowns, when you hear somebody’s making music. But I rap about everything that we experience in here.


Charlie Shelton-Ormond: In 2021, Young Tali released an album. It’s called Presidential Felon — he recorded it while he was incarcerated.

Deon Thomas: I wanted this to be an album, like, specifically for people who were incarcerated, they’d be like, Yo, he’s talking about everything.

Zeb Larson: After his album Presidential Felon dropped, it was on like the front page of J-PAY for a few weeks. So if you were logging into a J-PAY system, like you saw this guy, you saw his name you saw you saw his stuff. But if you went anywhere else, I don’t know how you find him. There’s just no algorithm or anything that would lead you to him unless you knew the name already.

Deon Thomas: And like I say, not just the violence and the fighting and the extortion and all of the bull crap that comes with being incarcerated, but having a phone conversation with your kids to, you know, to loved ones while you’re incarcerated to getting cards made and just everything, you know, I mean, for like any — it’s not just a one track album. It’s really like a whole embodiment.

Zeb Larson: It created this kind of weird bridge I think in some ways to the other music that I was really interested in because there’s this sort of otherworldliness to it, you, you feel the degree of separation so keenly, because he sounds so far away in any given moment. And I think that’s as much a limitation of the recording technology he’s got. He’s got to work with a phone. So that’s going to constrain the audio that you create, but it gives it a real sort of otherworldliness that I thought was just sort of fascinating, and lonely and sad. I really enjoyed listening to it.

Deon Thomas: And the metaphors and stuff that I’m using is about stuff that they see on a day to day basis, and you just don’t hear people make music like that. You know what I mean? Like, I’m African American, and I have had dudes that have like, 14 Confederate flags tattooed on him like, I listen to your music every morning when I wake up. Because he understands, like everything that I’m talking about the day to day activities of getting you a [indistinct], and being dissatisfied with how the food look, and things of that nature. You know, I mean, so I think for me, it’s the material that I’m able to present, and rap about things that people have never heard actually said in songs before.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Coming up after a short break, we’ll get into what happens when the people who hold the most power within a prison are also the ones holding the microphone.

So Zeb, You’ve also written about prisons and their influence on American music in general. How would you describe this connection, this relationship between our carceral system in this country and its influence on American music?

Zeb Larson: You know going back, and it’s very much as true today as it was in the 1930s or the 1920s, they’ve also been sources of — sites of exploitation for cultural capital, is how I would put it. There’s a fascination with the musical experience of those who are incarcerated, and it can sometimes just be a sort of exoticism. You know, this person is incarcerated, and here’s what they’re singing about. It’s sort of foreign and mysterious. There’s a sort of moral dimension to it, wanting to hear about people who have sinned, but of you know, trying to go through some kind of redemptive arc. And then there’s just the fact that they also continue to make music and can be sources of sort of cheap labor that way.


Zeb Larson: When I started on this piece, what I was really leading from was this knowledge of folklorists, who worked in the South in the 1930s, probably the most famous of whom would be John Lomax and his son, Alan Lomax. They had a sort of a mission from the Library of Congress to record music coming from African American prisoners throughout the South. They had settled upon this because they believed, and John Lomax was very explicit on this point, that that was going to be the best place you can find sort of, as I think he actually uses the phrase “uncontaminated,” sort of uncontaminated sources of African American culture, you know, the idea being that they’re incarcerated, and they’re not exposed to white popular culture, you’re going to get at the true sort of essence of African American culture, whatever that might be.


Zeb Larson: So from 1933, through 1939, 1940, they traveled all across the American South with the best recording equipment that you could find in the 1930s, which fit in the car, probably took up most of that car. And they recorded everybody who they could persuade the prison administration to let them get close to.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: So when the Lomaxes do step inside of a prison, what are some of the types of music that they might come across?

Zeb Larson: Well, a lot of it’s going to be what we what we would call like field music or work hollers, you know, and that, that arises as much out of sort of necessity, because Southern prisons were also always places where people had to work, you know, they were farms in many cases. So you sing songs to try to get through the monotony and misery of the workday. You know, if the work is more aggressive, or fast paced, then you want the song to match it. If it’s slower, you’re trying to get people to rest, you slow down the song. So they record what they call a lot of like, field hollers. But then they also will just kind of go up to anybody who is reputed to make music or know anything about music, and ask them to record.

This is another area where I look at what the Lomaxs did, and I say this as somebody who’s always sort of loved that output. Like, I love the music, but I’m kind of, in retrospect, horrified by how they got at it. There was a prisoner named, he went by Black Samson, he had a different name, but that was sort of the name he went by while incarcerated. And they kind of compel him to sing by suggesting that they would tell the warden that he was being uncooperative if he wouldn’t sing any non-gospel songs, which it, I mean, reading that, to me was just oh my god, that’s so incredibly coercive and gross. I don’t know that all the recording sessions, or even most of them, went that way. But there was a very sort of aggressive spirit of let’s find anybody who’s known to sing or play the guitar, then get them in front of the mic.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: And so with that skewed power dynamic, there is this thought maybe percolating in some folks mind of, if I gain enough notoriety, if I become popular enough, maybe that can help with my parole chances. And one example of this is the blues singer Leadbelly. Can you tell me more about who Leadbelly was and what his relationship was with the Lomaxes specifically?

Zeb Larson: It’s trite to say this, but it’s actually kind of difficult to imagine what American popular music would look like without Leadbelly. He’s a blues singer. He comes out of Texas. He’s a protégé of another — not protégé, but knew and was influenced by another famous blues singer named Blind Lemon Jefferson. And he is at various points incarcerated for different crimes, and he actually gets out of prison once and then is then re-incarcerated, which is when he meets the Lomaxes. (SOUNDBITE OF LEADBELLY’S “MIDNIGHT SPECIAL”)

Zeb Larson: And he immediately jumps out to them as somebody who has a sort of encyclopedic knowledge of this music. And by all accounts, Leadbelly is somebody who was just a human jukebox. He collected songs, and he always, like really any good performer, played the songs he knew he wanted an audience to hear. So he was very stylistically adaptable that way, and he sort of becomes a pet project for the Lomaxes. They campaign for him to be pardoned and released. Music historians have gone back and forth on whether or not their influence was actually significant in getting him out of prison, but he does get out of prison shortly after that.

And when he leaves he is employed by John Lomax as a driver for a little while. And then the two have an acrimonious falling out and never work together again. He has a relationship of sorts with Alan Lomax after that, but I don’t I’m not sure that he even speaks to John Lomax again, I think out of a sort of perception that he he disliked the way that John Lomax seemed to be telling him how to have a music career. And after this departure, Leadbelly becomes enormously influential to the American folk music movement, because at this point, white audiences are starting to become interested in this kind of African American music, and until his death in 1948 enjoys a very successful career as a musician.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: To me, it seems like this skewed power dynamic relationship between Leadbelly and Lomax is similar to what was also going on simultaneously between wardens and other prison authorities and prison bands, who would then be going on tour, for the most part, for other people’s entertainment, and not so much coming back in the way of benefits to the incarcerated folks who are actually performing the music. Can you tell me more about this context, the environment surrounding these prison bands, and who would be able to go on tour?

Zeb Larson: Yeah, no, I’d be happy to. And that’s an interesting point. I think John Lomax does sort of exhibit some of the same traits that way. But it was common throughout the South for bands to tour and Angola in Louisiana has always been sort of, I think, exceptional that way. Just in the sheer number of bands that it could offer, you know, musicians would go and play at the governor’s mansion from time to time. Texas, I think offers a really interesting example of this. There was a radio program through the 1930s, called 30 minutes behind the wall. And the whole point of 30 minutes behind the wall, is that you would just go and listen, they would go and record somebody who was incarcerated who would, you know, play music and offer kind of a narrative about, you know, how they got to be where they are. And this was done in no small part as just good PR for the Texas prison system, which I guess, especially needed it in the 1930s.


Charlie Shelton-Ormond: There aren’t archival recordings that exist of the radio program Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls. But in the late 1930s, the Lomaxes recorded several songs at Goree State Farm in Texas. Including this one of Hattie Ellis performing “I Ain’t Got Nobody.”(SOUNDBITE CONTINUES)

Zeb Larson: Out of that came a group of female musicians known as the Goree Girls who made music, and it tapered off gradually as its members won pardons. I don’t think anybody has proved that they distinctly won pardons because of the music, but all of them pretty much, writing about them after the fact, agrees that like, members joined because they wanted to try to make a better case to parole boards that they were in the process of reforming themselves. And the Goree Girls were fantastically popular to the point that some of the members would get marriage proposals from people who also presumably didn’t know that they were incarcerated in the first place. And the sad fact of this is that as they left, none of them had a successful career in music. I gather for many of them, they just kind of wanted to disappear into anonymity. That commitment to music completely tapered off, as they were able to reintegrate into society and to try to leave behind the experience of incarceration.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Speaking of the Goree Girls, you spoke with a woman named Carla Simmons, who is a part of a group called Voices of Hope. Can you tell me more about speaking with her?

Zeb Larson: So Carla is incarcerated in Georgia. And came into prison, was interested in making music, and this long running choir has existed, where she’s incarcerated called Voices for Hope that for a long time had fairly onerous requirements for membership. It was sort of, apart from just auditioning and being able to sing, there were also sort of character clauses embedded to participate.

Carla Simmons: When I came into the system I wasn’t interested in the program because it was real real real church-y and you had to follow these strict, like, moral codes within the institution to be allowed to even audition for the choir. It’s directed by a woman named Susan Bishop and she started directing choirs in women’s facilities in Georgia in the early 80s. But as, maybe as her faith matured and times changed, she let off a bit. So like, she would let, you know, people who had tattoos, and people who participated in homosexual relationships, and people who had had like a DR history, so the application process was widened to a larger population, and I had heard them do an a capella piece at a graduation that I was just blown away by. I mean they sounded amazing. So I went to her and said, hey I want to be a part of that. You know, I want to sound like that.

Zeb Larson: I mean, she really described the experience of being in this choir that travels around the state of Georgia singing fairly frequently. I mean, they’re on the road, actually, a lot of the time. And as she put it, you know, she became aware of this sort of political dimension to it. They showed up at an event where the Governor was signing, the then-governor of Georgia was signing a bill, and his wife was present.

Carla Simmons: And he was signing a bill in this Black Baptist Church in like the poverty stricken part of Gainsville, Georgia…. So we don’t know where we’re going with one time in particular, we get down into like, basically, the hood in Gainesville. And I’m like, What are we doing, right? And the freaking Secret Service is there. And they like, set us up, you know, and here comes the Governor, and we do this performance. And then he signs this bill, right, while his wife holds this, like, small Black child, and we’re singing in the background, and I’m like, I’m not a f***ing Republican. What are we doing?

Zeb Larson: And just the they were very much there to sing, sort of as part of the signing, and also, again, to drive home the reforming nature of Georgia’s prison system, you know, these women, you know, they came in this way, and this is what they’re now doing. And she began from that to sort of question a lot of what function the choir serves.

Carla Simmons: I really saw in a new way, the political tool, you know, that we were for the state and the way that it predicted this image that guess as you know, as offenders, people who are in violation of social norms and social laws, that we had been reformed, right, rehabilitated and even redeemed by this, this sense of religious transformation. And that we were in this way, acceptable, you know, to minister to do work in the public. And so it basically it was me standing there like a puppet, you know, like, the system works for me. And it did not, it has not, and the whole thing is just a farce.

So it is complicated. It was a very beautiful, enriching experience, it did add life and strength to my very, very tough experience here. But at the same time, I knew that I was sort of making an exchange with myself and my values by participating in it. And I had to actively try to counter that with these opportunities to sort of speak the truth to make sure that nobody misunderstood what was happening, and to know that we were a really privileged exclusive group of people who did not represent the people that, that didn’t get to come along.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: So Zeb, how did prisons shape American music, you know, how did these songs permeate out into the world and how did they influence American music from your perspective?

Zeb Larson: I mean again, to cheat a little bit and offer up that Leadbelly example, I think it’d be difficult to imagine American music without them. In part because they offer such an interesting window, even though it can be under extremely exploitative sort of terms, to understanding folk music, and what even folk music really is. It shines a light on our sort of own obsession with narratives of reform. But also this is this hunt for the exotic in music, which, having written this and thought about it for the better part of a year now, I sort of approach my old obsessions a little differently. It says a lot of both about American music, but it also says a lot about what we’re looking to consume and why we’re looking to consume it. And I think, at that level, you can’t really understand American music without the experience of incarceration.

I think in the same sort of way that audiences in the 1940s were hearing Leadbelly, who could who could sing about so many aspects of the American south that like, if you’re a white northerner, you probably don’t know that much about, Leadbelly could offer that. You can listen to Young Tali’s music and have a lot of the same experience and walk away with the same sort of lessons about life is an experience of incarceration and life behind bars. And that’s really what he offers there. But it’s also its own insight into sort of how we consume music in the 21st century and what it is we’re looking for.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Zeb, thanks so much for taking the time to chat today.

Zeb Larson: Thank you so much for having me.

Anisa Khalifa: You can check out Zeb Larson’s articles on J-PAY and the history of Southern prison music at the digital outlet Scalawag. We’ve dropped a couple of links in the show description.

This episode of The Broadside was produced by Charlie Shelton-Ormond. Our editor is Jerad Walker. The Broadside is a production of North Carolina Public Radio, WUNC. Find us on your favorite podcast app, and on If you enjoyed the show, leave us a rating, a review, or tell a friend to tell a friend! I’m Anisa Khalifa. Thanks for listening y’all. We’ll be back next week.

Oh hi there 👋
It’s nice to meet you.

Sign up to receive awesome content in your inbox, everyday.

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.