Johnny Cash: Folsom Prison Blues

In January of 1968, Johnny Cash performed a live show for the prisoners at the Folsom State Prison. The recordings from the session would be published in May of the same year, as the album known as At Folsom Prison. The album not only helped Cash turn around his waning career, but also shed light on the condition of prison inmates.

One song in particular, out of the track list, stands out as a masterful analysis of the existential condition of the prisoner: Folsom Prison Blues. The song opens on these evocative lines:

I hear the train a-comin’, it’s rolling ‘round the bend
And I aint’ seen the sunshine since I don’t know when
I’m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a-rollin’ on down to San Antone

These four lines already manage to introduce us to the life of the narrator. He is a prisoner, and as such, his life is almost completely devoid of external stimuli. To him, even the sound of a nearby-passing train becomes a noteworthy event. Furthermore, the “train that keeps on rolling”, is a constant reminder of his lost freedom, and thus has a negative impact on his mental well-being (this will be a recurrent theme in the lyrics).

While the song follows a standard blues structure, through the use of a skillfully accented shuffle rhythm, it manages to sound as if it’s following the distinctive beat of a steam locomotive, making the listening experience quite immersive. Another factor to take into account is that the song, just like the rest of the album, is a live recording in front of an audience. Throughout the track there are numerous instances of inmates cheering for Cash and his band, making the listening experience much grittier and intimate.

These are the lyrics for the second and third verse:

When I was just a baby, my mama told me, “Son
Always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns”
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
When I hear that wistle blowin’, I hang my head and cry
I bet there’s rich folks eatin’ in a fancy dining car
They’re probably drinkin’ coffee and smoking big cigars
Well, I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free
But those people keep a-movin’, and that’s what tortures me

On one hand, we can see in the last lines of both verses how hearing the train’s whistle and thinking about the people riding it fills the narrator with anguish; knowing how close that freedom is becomes, quite literally, a torture to him. On the other hand, these two verses reveal a very interesting detail about the narrator. He seems to have fully accepted his punishment, and admits to being guilty. He has killed a man on a whim (that line in the recording, as a sidenote, is followed by the inmates’ cheers), and he knows he can’t be free. As Angela Davis said, <<The prison is considered so “natural”, that it is extremely hard to imagine life without it>>. This is important to note because even though Cash – who isn’t just pretending to relate to inmates, as he had his fair share of trouble with the law due to his drug addiction – is trying to shed light on the existential condition of prisoners, he still remains within the horizon of prison reform rather than abolition.

We get confirmation of this in the fourth and last verse:
Well, if they freed me from this prison, if that railroad train was mine
I bet I’d move it on a little farther down the line
Far from Folsom prison, that’s where I want to stay
And I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away

The narrator suggests that if he were free he would try to get the train to pass farther from the prison, presumably to alleviate the anguish that it causes to the other inmates. However, as much as he would like for prison to be a more pleasant experience, he doesn’t really think about the possibility of a prison-free world. Mc Leod, in her essay about abolition democracy, speaks about the possibility of an entirely new “abolitionist society”, where law, police and prisons don’t really exist (at least in the way they do now). But the problem seems to be that it is a strenuous task to picture such a world, even for some of the people who would benefit the most from this new society – prisoners, that is.

Edoardo Chen


Davis, Angela. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.
Mc Leod, Allegra. 2019. Envisioning Abolition Democracy. Harvard Law Review.

Violence and Nonviolence

clipping.: Nothing Is Safe

Nothing Is Safe, from “clipping.” is a song that deals with themes of life, death, and marginalized existence. The track comes from their fourth album, “There Existed an Addiction to Blood”, and, just like the rest of the tracks, delivers a horror-tinted exploration of life at the borders of society. The lyrics of the song, while not exactly clear – due to their cryptic nature – suggest a story about some people involved in criminal activities that get raided by the police.

The first lines of the song are:

Everyone safe and sound, this how family do
Only homies around, everyone here is crew

These words already establish a pretty clear framing for the story, one where the characters have taken their safety in their own hands. However, as Elsa Dorlin points out in Self-defense: A Philosophy of Violence, this kind of “active” protection might already be fatal for the characters. This becomes apparent in the following lines,

Somethin’ foul in the air, somethin’ feelin’ askew
Wind is in the pipes, is that whistle callin’ for you

Where a possible threat to the safety of the group starts to reveal itself, and then becomes manifest through the gunning down of one of the characters shortly thereafter.

Drop the lights, so drop low, something shot from the trees
Went straight through the front door, homie drop to his knees
Blood seepin’ from his neck, as he struggle to breathe

The narrator, witnessing the death of one of his friends, has to come to terms with the reality of death (this takes place in the chorus of the song). The line <<Nothing is safe>> can be interpreted as both a commentary on the life of marginalized individuals, who are condemned to a life of persecution from the same institutions which should protect them, and a broader statement on the human condition, as no one is safe from death.

But it creepin’ on a come up, now it’s right up in your face
Face it, let it resonate up in your bone a minute when
You shiver, make a sliver big enough for it to have a space
Ripped life slipping away
Maybe you can make it out with just a little bit of grace
But it truly doesn’t give a fuck about the fear you
Feelin’, it is here to make you understand that nothing is safe

The story then progresses with the characters barricading themselves inside a building, waiting for the next move from the police. The agents proceed to open fire on the building, and we the listeners get a very cinematic description of the action, where the narrator realizes that his time might have come.

The air rushes in, it’s cold as fuck
Bullets slappin’ like hail, more homies struck down
The mission has failed, the wood is split
Splintered chandelier falls and smashes hard
Glass and steel everywhere in every throat, screams in protest
You all are dyin’ and really will anyone care?
Truth, like death, comes for everyone

This realization from the narrator echoes what Judith Butler says about grievability in The Force of Nonviolence, especially the idea that “lives that do not count as potentially grievable stand very little chance of being safeguarded”. The characters in the song lived at the outer bounds of society, forced to protect and provide for themselves through illegal means, and were thus punished by the law enforcement. They became, just like Rodney King and Millet de la Girardière, defenseless and indefensible.

Edoardo Chen


Butler, Judith. 2020. The Force of Nonviolence. Brooklyn: Verso books.
Dorlin, Elsa. 2022. Self-defense: A Philosophy of Violence. London: Verso books.

Racial Violence and Representation

Childish Gambino: This Is America

How can the experience of African American people be represented? How does one approach that kind of task without trivializing the violence and suffering? Hartman’s answer is to abstain from representation altogether, as in her opinion, it has the risk of turning into a morbid spectacle for curious voyeurs. Moten, instead, believes that sound has the power to successfully convey such a message. In his book In the Break, he brings the example of the free jazz performance titled Protest, from Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, and Oscar Brown Jr., that through the use of screams and manic drumming, moves <<in a trajectory and toward a location that is remote from – if not in excess of or inaccessible to – words>>.

The song This Is America, by Childish Gambino – as the title may suggest – is a musical representation of the United States. In just four minutes it manages to delve into themes of discrimination, gun violence, social turmoil, consumerism, police brutality, and much more. However, maybe even more interesting than the themes themselves, is how Gambino manages to portray them so accurately.

Looking at how the song’s sections are divided, we start to notice that it doesn’t really follow an orthodox structure. Instead, two very different sections alternate between themselves. The first one is a sort of gospel inspired choir. The second one, instead, is a very grimy hip-hop/trap beat. Also, there isn’t really any transition between the two, creating a very jarring switch every time they alternate – almost sounding like someone abruptly stopped the song you were listening to, just to play something from a completely different genre. This bold composition choice would normally create an unpleasant listening experience (and might also be considered a result of poor songwriting), but here, instead, it manages to strengthen Gambino’s message. The sudden change from the upbeat-gospel section to the abrasive hip-hop one perfectly portrays the erratic nature of violence in the U.S., where tragedy can strike at any time.

An analysis of this song wouldn’t be complete, however, without mentioning its official video. The audio and video are so synergistic to each other that calling This Is America a song may not do it justice. It is equal parts a visual and musical performance. Gambino dances, acts, kills, mocks. The different sections are accompanied by complex choreographies and stunts, and each time the song switches between them the visual component matches the brutality implied in the music and lyrics, creating a captivating and yet eerie multimedial experience for the viewers.

Where Moten sees African American music as a vessel for the representation of blackness, Childish Gambino takes it a step further, using two very different types of music – both originated from black culture – to represent something that is maybe even more elusive: the zeitgeist of a nation. Whether this attempt was successful, is beyond the scope of this short essay. What cannot be denied, however, is the success and positive reception that the song received, which at the least demonstrates that its message resonated with people. That is not a bad result, for a song that was literally designed to be unpleasant to listen to.

Edoardo Chen


Moten, Fred. 2003. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Hartman, Sadiya. 1997. Scenes of Subjection; Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gendered Violence

Nirvana: Rape Me

The members of Nirvana, from their humble beginnings to their rise to stardom, always fought for the rights of marginalized and underprivileged groups. And the song Rape Me is no exception. While the song has a catchy “rock” structure, with a buildup in the verse and an explosive chorus, this only adds to the very uncomfortable message conveyed in the lyrics, reeling us in with the music, but then making us listen to some quite unpleasant lines.

The first lines of the song are:

Rape me
Rape me, my friend
Rape me
Rape me, again

These lyrics, while being pretty straightforward, still manage to convey what could be going on inside the mind of a rape victim. The already uncomfortable request of being raped assumes even darker tones when it’s directed towards a so called “friend”, someone whom the narrator should be able to trust. Furthermore, such a request elicits various questions in the listeners: Why would anyone ask for this? Is the singer mocking me and comparing me to a rapist?  To make it even worse, the narrator then states <<Rape me, again>>, implying that the sexual violence perpetrated has happened multiple times. Like in a gruesome car accident, we almost can’t look away from this bleak depiction; we are forced to come to terms with the violent and unsightly reality of rape. Then, to drive the point home, the chorus comes in with a single, repeated line:

I’m not the only one

The statement here is that rape is not a rare and isolated phenomenon, but is instead widespread and many people suffer from it. The singer also includes some variation in the following verses, with lines such as <<Hate me>> and <<Waste me>>, hinting at the problematic behaviours that usually surround sexual violence. While the song does a good job at describing the victim’s side in a case of sexual violence, it’s not clear whether the band considers rape as just the act of an individual or a symptom of a larger, systemic problem.

The latter option is instead exactly what Francoise Vergès, in A Feminist Theory of Violence; A Decolonial Perspective, and Veronica Gago, in Feminist International: How to Change Everything, propose. Both of these authors believe that violence against women (and other groups) is not simply the result of the independent action of violent individuals, but is instead systemic, denoting a relationship between economic exploitation, racism, and sexual violence.

Vergès showcases how these different forms of violence and inequality go hand in hand with the example of a strike from McDonalds workers in 2018, which was started by Black women, advocating for better salaries and a safer, harassment free, work environment. Gago, instead, tries to go directly to the common roots of capitalism and patriarchy, for example, proposing the idea of <<The implosion of violence in homes as an effect of the crisis of the figure of the male breadwinner>>, postulating that <<The collapse of the wage as an objective measure of male authority>> led to an increase in domestic violence.

The relationships that connect racism, capitalism, and patriarchal structures are still object of debate today. The bounds of each one of them tends to blend in with the others in a kind of blur, so that giving a clear definition results tricky, to say the least. So, the least we can do, is try to empathize with the victims of violence, by putting ourselves in their shoes.

Edoardo Chen


Vergès, Francoise. 2020. A Feminist Theory of Violence; A Decolonial Perspective, translated by Melissa Thackway. Pluto Press.
Gago, Veronica. 2020. Feminist International: How to Change Everything, translated by Liz Mason-Deese. Verso.
Nirvana. 1993. “Rape Me”, track 4 on “In Utero”. Geffen Records.

Border Violence

IDLES: Danny Nedelko

What’s a punk band answer to immigration? What about a philosopher’s answer? Let’s compare a song from IDLES to a book from Donatella Di Cesare.

Danny Nedelko, by IDLES, is a song about immigration, and what to do about it. Right from its first lines: «My blood brother is an immigrant, a beautiful immigrant». The band’s approach to this matter is simple and very straightforward. Their solution to the “immigration problem” can be summed up in a single word: connection. This idea can be found in almost every component of the song. The most noticeable example is in the lyrics: in every verse the singer states to be related to people of different nationalities, calling them their “blood brother”. At one point he even says «My best friend is an alien», as a demonstration that we can be connected to anyone, even someone that is apparently completely different from us. Another great example of this is in the music video, where Danny Nedelko (who is not a fictional character, but a very much real Ukrainian immigrant, and friend of the group) dances and interacts with people of different nationalities while wearing a t-shirt that has printed on it “No man is an island”. Again, this calls back to the idea of connecting with other human beings and coming together as a group. But maybe, the most ingenious way in which the band tries to bring people together is in the song’s chorus, where the singer Joe Talbot starts singing a sort of gibberish anthem that sound a lot like stadium chants. This musical device, thanks to its catchiness and lack of actual words, invites people from everywhere to sing along, once again, bringing the people together.

Resident foreigners: A Philosophy of Migration, by Donatella Di Cesare, makes a very similar point to IDLES’s song. In a bold move, the philosopher moves a critique to the whole political spectrum of answers to immigration. The problem, according to her, is that both people who are pro and against immigration tackle the problem from the perspective of someone who “stands on the shore and sees the migrants arriving”. Instead, she argues we should try to connect with the migrants and let them remind us that the shore we stand on is not so solid as it seems. That is to say, to recognize that concepts such as Nationality and self-determination are just myths. The migrant has a sort of subversive power, it is an unacceptable anomaly in the eyes of the state. Quoting, «The migrant’s rights, starting with her right to move, crash up against the sovereignty which the state exercises over the nation and over its territorial dominion. Here we see the conflict between universal human rights and the division of the world into nation-states.» What is being critiqued here is the contemporary paradigm concerning human rights. For Di Cesare, in today’s world one is seen as right-deserving only when protected by a national flag. According to Di Cesare, «philosophy has chosen the permanently settled», but connecting with others, especially those who are seen as outsiders, opens up the possibility for a new kind of citizenship, one that is not based upon nationality, but is instead a sort of “cosmopolitical citizenship”.

Edoardo Chen


Di Cesare, Donatella. 2020. “Migrants and the State.” In Resident Foreigners: A Philosophy of Migration, translated by David Broder, 5-77. Cambridge: Polity Press.

IDLES. 2018. “Danny Nedelko” Track 4 on “Joy as an Act of Resistance.”. Partisan Records.