Bryonn Bain Spoke in Miller Theatre

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Prison activist, hop hop artist, slam poetry champion, and author Bryonn Bain (CC’ 95), performed Lyrics from Lockdown last night at Miller Theatre. Through a combination of audio and visual expression, Bryonn vividly tells the story of his wrongful incarceration by the NYPD while he was a second-year law student at Harvard. Mahima Chablani reports.

After a screening of a brief pre-show video, Monica Byrne-Jimenez (‘88CC, ‘03TC), President of the Latino Alumni Association, opened the event. Although it has been a “long road,” she is grateful to finally bring Bryonn back to his Alma Mater. Ms. Byrne-Jimenez stressed that Bryonn’s personal story and critique “needs to be heard now more than ever before.”

Ms. Byrne-Jimenez was followed by Soffiyah Elijah, Deputy Director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School, who served as Bryonn’s independent study supervisor at Harvard. A few days after Bryonn had asked her to become his supervisor, she was notified that he had been arrested. The two have had a “spiritual connection” ever since.

As the lights dimmed, Bryonn, clad in jeans, a black jacket, and Converses, presented one of the show’s main themes–“Thing are often not what they seem”–in the opening scene. Through powerful wordplay, Bryonn raps, “Beauty and ugliness are walking along the shore. Those who see one, mistake her for the other…we don’t have to be only what eyes can see.” Supported by a DJ, synchronized video screen, and live band consisting of an electric guitarist, cellist-meets- beatboxer, and acoustic guitarist, Bryonn begins the narrative of his incarceration. “3 days and 2 nights can infinitely change one man’s life,” Bryonn says.

Bryonn first recaptures the exact moment he was arrested: He was pulled over by a police officer due to a broken taillight. After examining his license and registration, the officer said, “you’re under arrest.” Thrown into a jail cell in the Bronx, Bryonn recalls, “Seconds became minutes, minutes became hours…Oxygen devoured, no power to get away.”

While dissecting every moment that occurred in the three nights and two days of his imprisonment, Bryonn patterns his narrative with a letter exchange between himself and Nanon Williams, an imprisoned poet from California. At age seventeen, Nanon, a drug dealer, was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to Death Row. The narrative also interweaves humorous anecdotes about his seemingly dysfunctional family members. He impersonates his father, who used to sing Calypso at Harlem’s Apollo theatre in his thick Caribbean accent, and his younger brother, who signed a fourth-grade love-note as “Master Rapper,” but misspelled rapper “with only one p.”

As Bryonn persuasively assumes the roles of nearly 40 characters, his story clearly reveals the flaws of the nation’s incarceration system. His first lawyer, Rachel Dole, tells Bryonn that he was arrested on three warrants and failed to believe his innocence. According to Bryonn’s inconsistent documentation, Bryonn had two names–Bryonn Bain and Anwar Bostick. Allison Webster, the second lawyer sent to Bryonn, greets him in a surgical mask and plastic gloves. Also a registered nurse, Wesbter informs him that he may have bipolar disorder. Bryonn describes feeling powerless; he felt “stuck, like a rusty truck in quick sand… The attorney sent to save me doesn’t even believe me.”

On the third day, another attorney, Eric Williams, who was coincidentally a former student of Soffiyah Elijah, was sent to defend Bryonn. Even more coincidental, while in court, the assistant district attorney informed the judge that he could not go on with the case, due to a “conflict of interest”; Bryonn was a student in one of his classes at Harvard. In the end, Bryonn’s “overpriced degree afforded itself most,” and the court concluded that Bryonn’s three arrest warrants belonged to a Anwar Bostick, who had stolen Bryonn’s identity. In a beautiful final number, Bryonn is released from prison and sings to Nanon, “I got us some fish and a few loaves of bread. And a whole lotta folks have got to get fed.”

At the end of the performance, Bryonn informed the audience that after spending over nearly twenty years in prison, Nanon was finally proven innocent in November 2010–one year after the premiere of Lyrics from Lockdown.

The performance was followed by a Q&A session hosted by the Black Students’ Organization (BSO) in Malcolm X Lounge. During the session, Bryonn discussed how he defines his profession as a “nexus of art, activism, and education.” Amidst this nexus, he “use[s] his legal education every day.” Through law school, Bryonn learned the persuasive power of storytelling.

Bryonn was inspired to study law after taking the course “The Law the Slaves Made” with the late Kellis Parker, Columbia’s first full-time black law professor. Using his trumpet to teach law, Professor Parker asserted that “democracy should function like a good jazz ensemble…each instrument should have the to solo and be heard.” It is this “creative thinking across professions,” Bryonn stresses, that is necessary to “change the consciousness” of our country.

When asked to describe the “defining moments” of his Columbia experience, Bryonn paused, took a deep breath, and scanned the Malcolm X Lounge. “Well,” he said, “I spent a lot of time in this room.” Bryonn entered Columbia at age sixteen. He served as president of his class all four years (!) and continues to use the skill set that he gained from frequently organizing events. Hands in the air, Bryonn said, “We took over Low! We took over Hamilton two times!” Bryonn fondly remembers “standing on the steps of Low Library with a bullhorn spitting rhymes,” as 800 people protested the University’s plan to cut need-blind admission.

Remarking on the concept of pedagogy, Bryonn stated that an effective teacher is not merely supposed to “deposit ideas” in the student for later regurgitation. When teaching workshops for teen inmates at Rikers Island, Bryonn finds that the teaching process is most powerful when he uses concrete, relatable examples to enrich material. For example, he compares Notorious B.I.G.’s album Life after Death to the music of Bach. At an early age, Bach lost his sister, brother, mother, and father. Bach was “writing music from a place of pain. Bach used fugues, which repeat, just like samples.”

Bryonn continues to teach courses at several universities, including Columbia, NYU, the New School, and Long Island University. Since its inception in 1997, his organization Blackout Arts Collective has been offering prison workshops, advocacy programs, and performances (including Lyrics from Lockdown) throughout the nation. Although he “used to live under the assumption that activities are the only ones that change the world,” Bryonn reminds us, “all of us have some sense of urgency within us…leverage whatever it is that you do to move things forward.”

photo via The Local

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  1. this guy  

    seems really awesome. Wish I had gone to his event!

  2. lyrics from lockdown  

    was incredible! so glad to see it was so successful, especially since administration was so against letting it be performed here.

  3. Candice G.

    Bryonn, your testimony gives other people strength and the gift God gave you with words empowers everyone! Thank you!

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