People have long supported prisoners by sending letters through the bars—but a group of hip-hop artists in upstate New York have found a way to upgrade this tradition. Travis Florence and his recording group, Da Cloth, have been sending inmates a story set to rap music—they call it an “audio movie”—that chronicles the life of a man who has just been sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Members of Da Cloth have sent the tape to over 150 people in prisons across upstate New York.
The recording is entitled “4 Da Mountains,” and its 25 tracks of songs and dialogues take the listener through a long narrative arc, following a man named Shadow from his crime to his sentencing and efforts to adjust to prison life. The harsh reality he faces is reflected in the raw lyrics and simple hip-hop beats.
Many of the scenes depict difficult moments in Shadow’s life after the verdict has been read: saying goodbye to his family, taking the bus upstate, dealing with disgruntled prison guards, and spending time in solitary confinement. But each one ends with an understanding that he must take these things in stride—that regardless of all the bad that he encounters, or the fact that he will remain in prison for a good chunk of his life, Shadow has to accept his situation for what it is and remain positive.
Florence, a clean-cut 23-year-old who has never been to prison himself, may seem an unlikely source for such insights into life in prison. But he is confident that the stories he’s heard from incarcerated friends and relatives allow him to accurately portray life on the inside.
Prisoners themselves seem to agree. Florence has received nearly 70 letters from inmates who have listened to the tape, and feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I can honestly say ya tape gonna get me through some years,” one writes. Another says, “I just want to thank you brothas for the positive energy and work you have put into your project.”
Florence hopes to draw attention to issues such as mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent crimes.
Florence attributes much of the positive feedback to the underlying feelings of empathy woven into the storyline on the tape. This is a musical project about inmates—made specifically for them—and it’s the realism of the situation and the humanity of the characters that listeners seem to be responding to.
Florence says he came up with the idea of the tape as a way to talk to his cousin, who is currently serving a 26-to-life sentence for murder at Auburn Correctional Facility in upstate New York.
“I can’t pick up the phone and call him,” Florence said. “I can’t hug him. I can’t look him in the eye and tell him how I feel.” So he started writing “4 Da Mountains” as a way to tell his cousin everything he wanted to say.
But when Florence brought the script to his group and they started working on the tracks, the project grew into something for the prison population at large. “We [all] have people we love who are incarcerated,” Florence said. “And we’d been trying to figure out ways to help inmates.”
Members of Da Cloth have sent the tape to over 150 people in prisons across upstate New York. So far, they have funded the entire project themselves, but Florence hopes it will turn a profit soon. If it does, he says, the group intends to use a portion of the proceeds to fund programs that help place felons into jobs.
Florence and the other members of Da Cloth are passionate about prison reform—and hope to draw attention to issues such as mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent crimes, the psychological effects of solitary confinement, and the general mistreatment of prisoners.
“My goal right now is to show these conditions,” Florence said. “This is the stuff that gets swept under the rug.”