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How This Grammy-Nominated Producer Sparked Prison Reform With A Mixtape

When the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic in March, the world went into frenzies and lockdowns. Meanwhile, COVID-19 began to ravage through California’s San Quentin State Prison. Then in May, San Quentin Mixtapes, Vol. 1 dropped: a 17-track album that was written, recorded and produced within the prison’s walls.

David Jassy is at the heart of the Youthful Offender Program Mixtape Project. In 2010, the Grammy-nominated producer was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced 15 years to life. Jassy kept music with him as much as he could throughout transfers between prisons. Once he got his hands on a keyboard in San Quentin, he started making beats. His music was contagious there.

“Regardless of what set or gang they belong to, I just seen how fascinated they were about music and how they all lit up,” Jassy said. “People started smiling. If they heard somebody that was a dope rapper, they just all started smiling and nodding along and encouraging each other. And, it was different. I just knew this was a different energy from everything else that was going on in prison.”

He began cultivating this musical movement when he realized how music was changing others. When he had the mixtape idea, he said, he was inspired by the youngsters who would come by his cell and rap. They were all in. “But I told them, it has to be in a condition where we can’t put out no garbage. We can’t put out no darkness,” he said.

He didn’t allow profanity or glorifying criminal activities. Jassy stressed this mixtape was a platform and space to “talk about the real pain about being in a prison cell and being away from your family.”

This initiative and its resulting music gained widespread support from other musicians like J. Cole, DJ Khaled, Common and Meek Mill. Each gave shout outs on the mixtape’s first track.

Healing Through Expression

Not only did the project give men in the prison the space to reflect and process their lives and emotions, but it united them across otherwise divisive lines like race. Quincy Jones III saw it himself. “What I noticed as soon as the door closed when I came into David’s YOP program, where they were doing the music, that tension was kind of gone,” he said. “People were relying on each other for advice about music. And everybody was kind of relaxed. It was like a safe zone.”

Eric “Maserati-E” Abercrombie said the project helped him mentally escape the prison environment that’s made to break people. Abercrombie was convicted for attempted murder and then incarcerated from 17 to 26 years old. He described dealing with guards preying on the emotional vulnerability of younger men like him.

“Young people are easy to be manipulated, and you got some sadistic correctional officers. Like, straight up, they literally feed off that type of stuff. So me being young in prison, I was targeted a lot,” Abercrombie said. “I recall a time when a [correctional officer] told me, like verbatim, I’m not a human being. I’m an inmate. No exaggeration.”

The music program gave men in the prison hope, taught skills about music software, and raised self-worth. Abercrombie said music remains one of the healthiest, most efficient ways to express emotions and other bottled up feelings and experiences. “For me it’s very cathartic. It’s very therapeutic,” he said.

Jessica Jackson, director and co-founder of the criminal justice reform effort #Cut50, has supported the program since she started volunteering at the prison in 2016. “We need to stop criminalizing things like mental health issues or substance abuse or addiction, or even a lack of economic and education opportunities,” she said.

When it comes to prison reform, Jackson said, investing in community resources and diversion programs is vital. “You can’t expect somebody to do better when they come out if all you’ve done is traumatize them and put them in a place where there’s a lot of overcrowding and medical neglect and no opportunities,” she said.

Jassy thinks there should be a music program in every prison. “Music is rehabilitation. It has so many benefits, mental health benefits. It really gives people a self worth. It gives them a value and make them feel like they contribute into society. And, I think that’s a beautiful thing.”

The Program’s Future

The program has also gained support from Equity Distribution president Krystian Santini. “It’s Volume One for a reason,” he said. “These are people, and they’re worthwhile. More than anything that you know, these kids are artists.” 

Jones said he wants to see programs like Jassy’s scaled globally. Plus, “when you’re burning for something, and you know you have talents, you make better decisions. You’re going to chase that instead of feeling, maybe, hopelessness or something like that.”

California governor Gavin Newsroom commuted Jassy’s sentence in March for his work in San Quentin. Plus, with COVID-19 still devastating the prison—like others across the nation—the music program is at least on pause for now.

Even with Jassy gone, there are efforts to continue the program when possible. “David will be able to send in beats, and then we can record the young men on the mic and then send everything back to him to produce,” San Quentin’s secretary Raphaele Casale said. “He still really wants the program to keep going at San Quentin.”

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