Johnny Cash: Folsom Prison Blues

On a Saturday in January 1968, famous country-musician Johnny Cash entered the Folsom State Prison. A high-security prison on the West coast of the United States, about 30 miles East of Sacramento. Cash did not enter to serve a sentence, but to perform his music live for hundreds of prisoners. On a temporary stage built up in the prison’s cafeteria, Cash gave an hour-long concert which has been recorded and later released as a live album (1968). Many of the songs written and performed by Cash are written from the point of view of a criminal, most notably the “Folsom Prison Blues” in which he sings from the perspective of a prisoner who fantasizes about the freedom of travelling by train. This concert was one of many prison concerts Cash would give as a way of fighting against the violence of the American prison system because he believes that “Nothing good ever came out of prison” (Kenneth and Hamm 2009, 279). In this text, I will explore to what extent Cash’s album truly contributes to his fights against the prison.

Angela Davis, an American academic, is also fighting against the prison system. In fact, she argues for the abolishment of the prison institution (Davis 2003). However, she emphasizes that it has become hard to imagine a life without prisons since they have become so naturalized (Davis 2003, 10). This naturalization is partially caused by the high consummation of media images of prisons through movies and tv, making the prison “a key ingredient of our common sense” (Davis 2003, 18). Following this argumentation, Cash’s recordings might not contribute to prison abolitionism, but rather reinforce the fact that prison is taken for granted. At the same time, Davis argues that “there is reluctance to face the realities hidden within them [prisons], a fear of thinking about what happens inside” (Davis 2003, 15). Prison is merely seen as an abstract place where the undesirables are deposited (Davis 2003, page). Thus, despite the public being overthrown with images of the prison, the criminal themself has become an abstract non-human whose fate is abandoned.

Although Davis merely seems to criticize media images of the prison, I believe that exactly this media coverage of the prison and its criminals might be the first step to prison abolitionism. Cash’s recordings make the prison real and make the public think about what happens inside them. Most importantly, his album portrays these criminals as human beings. Throughout the recording, you hear the usual cheering and applauding audible on live albums, while at the same time you hear prison guards making personal announcements by calling out inmate numbers. This makes the public aware of the insides of prison while listening to the album. Through his lyrics, Cash sings from the perspective of the criminal and sympathizes with their struggles. This emphasizes how Cash does not see himself as radically different from these criminals, but emphasizes that it could have been him facing this misfortune. The final song of the album, Greystone Chapel, was even composed by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley, who later, with the support of Cash, became a musician himself.

His performance also gained political attention and success, including a meeting with President Nixon in 1972 and his contribution to a political panel to eliminate unequal sentencing. Nevertheless, I find it important to emphasize that Cash himself was a white and rich American man, who despite being arrested 7 times, never actually served a sentence. His skin colour and background ensured that he has not been historically constituted as a criminal and most likely contributed to the political opportunities he received. For marginalized people, it simply is not as easy as it was for Johnny Cash. Despite these notable benefits, Cash still managed to make the criminal visible and human through his performance. Therefore, I believe that Johnny Cash’s album At Folsom Prison does not re-establish the naturalization of the prison, but rather benefits the fight for prison abolitionism.

Vera de Wit

Reference List

Cash, Johnny. At Folsom Prison. Album. 1968. Columbia Records.  
Davis, Angela. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.  

Violence and Nonviolence

Burna Boy: 20 10 20

“The more you defend yourself, the more you’ll suffer, the more certain you are to die.” (Dorlin 2019, 4).

In the first 10 seconds of Burna Boy’s 20 10 20 you hear a melodious beat; it gives you a bouncy, almost exciting feeling. However, this positive excitement slowly fades into the background once Burna Boy starts rapping. His lyrics raise awareness and emphasize that we need to listen to his song to become aware of the suffering of his fellow Nigerian people. The suffering addressed in this song first emerged when the Nigerian government created a Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in 1992 with the task of fighting violent crimes (Amnesty 2020b). However, instead of reducing violence within Nigeria, SARS itself turned into a violent institution; reinforcing exactly what they were supposed to reduce. There are various reports on the abuse of Nigerian people by the SARS, including cases of harassment, beating, illegitimate arrests, and torture (Amnesty 2020b). These brutalities provoked a massive campaign against the SARS, which reached its peak in October 2020 when many young Nigerians gathered in the streets to raise awareness for the brutalities of the SARS and to demand both an abolishment of the institution and a prosecution for the crimes they committed. These protests refrained from any form of violence as can be seen in videos depicting groups of people harmoniously dancing and singing together (BBC Africa 2021). This peacefulness is emphasized in the bouncy beginning of Burna Boy’s song.

However, the passion and anger in Burna Boy’s voice increase throughout the song. Similarly, the violence by the Nigerian Government increased on the 20th of October 2020. The government announced a 24-hour long curfew in the morning, which was ignored by the peaceful protesters. The government’s reaction to this was brutal: without a warning, the Nigerian military and police opened fire on the crowd of protesters at Alausa and the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, killing at least 12 protesters (Amnesty 2020a). At the End of Burna Boy’s song, you hear live recordings of the shooting that are mixed over the bouncy beat. Gunshots, screams of fear, and a voice urging all the protesters to keep down again emphasizing that the protestors themselves did not engage in any violence. The combination of the audio recordings and the bouncy beat makes you feel the incredible unfairness and contractionary nature of innocent singing protesters being violently killed. In the very last seconds, Burna Boy sings with a hurt voice once again 20th of October; a phrase in which you hear his disappointment and pain. How can a peaceful fight against violence end in so much more violence?

I believe that the Nigerian government used both law-positing and law-preserving violence in Walter Benjamin’s (2021) terms. On the one hand, the government wants to preserve the law by setting up the SARS in the first place and by violently attacking the protestors who criticize these governmental decisions. On the other hand, the introduction of a ridiculous 24-hours curfew is a form of law-positing violence. However, for the protestors themselves, there is no room to defend themselves from this violence. The protestors are what Dorlin (2019) calls the undefendable. Despite protestors merely practising their right of free assembly and refraining from violence completely, their presence is a priori understood as violent and treated as such by the authorities (Dorlin 2019). This defencelessness is increased by the fact that the government removed cameras and cut off electricity the hours before their intervention ensuring almost no coverage of the massacre (Amnesty 2020a). The protestors are completely powerless and every attempt to resist the violence merely leads to a destruction of the self.

Vera de Wit

Reference List

Amnesty International. 2020a. “What is the #endsars movement? November 10, 2022.
Amnesty International. 2020b. Nigeria: Time to end impunity: Torture and other human rights violations by special anti-robbery squad (SARS). Abuja-FCT, Nigeria: Amnesty International.
BBC Africa. 2021. “Lekki toll gate shootings: What really happened?” Video. January 20, 2021. 07:36.
Benjamin, Walter. 2021. Toward the Critique of Violence: Critical Edition. Edited by Julia Ng and Peter Fenves. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Burna Boy. 20 10 20. 2020. Atlantic Records.
Dorlin, Elsa. 2019. ‘What a body can do.’ Translated by Kieran Aarons, Radical Philosophy 205 (Autumn): 3–9.

Racial Violence and Representation

Kansas Joe & Memphis Minnie: When the Levee Breaks

American poet Fred Moten (2003) argues that contrary to Marx’s famous claim, the commodity can speak (6). Black slaves are not silent objects merely defined through their subjectification. Rather, slaves are objects that resist; people who are their own subject. A resistance developed from mere sounds, into speech and eventually whole songs (Moten 2003, 22). Songs are more powerful in conveying the horrifies of slavery than whole volumes of written texts are (Douglass 2009, 40). After the abolishment of slavery in the U.S., music remained a way through which black Americans expressed their pain and worries. However, in this short essay, I will argue that despite the powerful potential of this music there arose a new form of objectification, namely black music being appropriated by white capitalists. A way through which the black suffering itself is now objectified by white artists and turned into a for them profitable commodity.

An example of such a song expressing black suffering is the recording of When the Levee Breaks (1929) by the Black American blues duo Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie. Their lyrics are about the great Mississippi flood of 1927 that ruined many homes, farms, and lives in the delta areas. Residents of the delta were mostly black people still living and working on the former slave-driven plantations. After the flood, these people had no house or job which led to many black Americans being coerced back into slavery to rebuild the white-owned farms (Simba 2017). The song has a typical blues AAB scheme through which McCoy’s voice expresses the fear of losing everything when the levee breaks.

If it keeps on rainin’ levee’s goin’ to break
If it keeps on rainin’ levee’s goin’ to break
And the water gonna come in, we’ll have no place to stay
(Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie 1929)

Although the lyrics clearly express black misery and worry, this pain does not necessarily come forward within the music. McCoy sings in quite a plain descriptive voice, while the melody and rhythm are almost cheerful except for the occasional melodramatic blue note.

It could be argued that 40 years later, the American band Led Zeppelin did a better job in expressing the worry and pain of the Great Mississippi flood through their recording of When the Levee Breaks (1971). They made a 7-minute-long recording in which the music was slowed down and dragged making the song more dramatic. The fear of the levee breaking can be heard in the way these lyrics are sung and the central, heavily played, drumline intensifies the feeling of fear and pain even more. However, this pain was historically felt by Black Americans and originally put in a lyric by Black musicians, but now performed by a British white band. By doing this, Led Zeppelin appropriated a black tradition that is not theirs. Secondly, they released this song and so turned the song into a for them profitable commodity. However, they did not properly credit the original artist causing that they did not benefit from this profit. Therefore, I argue that by releasing their song, Led Zeppelin objectified Black suffering and turned their pain, through music, into a profitable commodity. Thus, following Moten, Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie did express their subjectivity through music, but at the same time, this expression itself got objectified by being turned into a white-dominated commodity.

Vera de Wit

Reference List

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Kansas Joe & Memphis Minnie. When the Levee Breaks. 1929. Columbia Records.

Led Zeppelin. “When the Levee Breaks.” Track 8 on Led Zeppelin IV. 1971. Atlantic Recording Corporation.

Moten, Fred. “Resistance of the Object: Aunt Hester’s Scream.” In The Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, 1-24. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Simba, Malik. “The Mississippi River Great Flood of 1927”. Blackpast. September 18, 2017.

Gendered Violence

FKA Twigs: Glass & Patron

Dark misty woods, an echoing shrieking voice and an ominous abandoned van. The first 15 seconds of FKA twigs’ Glass & Patron music video depicts the classic horror narrative of a woman captured in the back of a van, awaiting horrible crimes and violence. A narrative of often sexualized violence against in this case a black, female, and pregnant body. However, under the sound of a frightening distortion, this woman pulls a multi-coloured, powerful, magic cloth out of her body. In this story, she is not pregnant with a baby and victimized by male violence, rather she is the strong authoritative hero. Under dreamy and spiritual sounds, the scarf turns the ominous woods into a magical forest; with its queer vogueing inhabitants and feminine power. I believe that through its magical character this song gives voice to female revolt.

Both the music and visuals of Glass & Patron are inspired by the musical genre Witch House: supernatural and mystical themes, dreamy melodies, and distorted noises. To analyse the power of this music it is interesting to elaborate on the Witch and the symbolism this music carries with it. Historically, women accused of witchcraft were wise women. They possessed a broad knowledge of nature providing them with control and power over their own bodies (Federici 2004, 172/183). However, threatened by this female power-knowledge, the state hunted and persecuted these women. This as an instrument to reconstruct a patriarchal control over female bodies, their labour, and their sexual and reproductive powers (2004, 170). Men were taught to fear the wise woman and her power (165).

Within the music video of Glass & Patron, FKA twigs can be seen as a contemporary representation of the witch. She is portrayed as pregnant without the presence of a male figure, which symbolizes the authority of her own body and reproductive power. This power is taken further when she decides to give birth to a magic scarf by pulling it out of her vagina: she dominates this natural process. The control and authority over nature traditionally connected to the witch now come forward through the control FKA twigs has over her own pregnant body. The scarf changes the forest and places the female out of the white van and on a silver thrown: from vulnerable to powerful. It is especially interesting that the pregnant body is black since black motherhood is often negatively associated with irresponsible mothers. However, in this video, the black pregnant body is portrayed positively and associated with knowledge and power. A black pregnant woman creates a place where all bodies are liberated: we see bodies dancing, posing, and dressing freely like nobody is watching.  

Simultaneously, the feeling of fear is just as present within the music itself. Especially, at the beginning of the song, FKA twigs sings with a brilliant tensive voice while the music itself is full of distant creepy tones and big sudden distorted noises. In the first 15 seconds, this is a fear of male violence. We see a female alone in a white van in an abandoned forest and unfortunately, it is present in our consciousness that female nomadism is often the occasion of sexual violence (Gago 2020, 73). However, as the video continues, we see that this song is not a portrayal of sexual violence; the witch is not hunted down but overthrowing the system. I believe that the still present fearful sounds throughout the song can now be read as the male anxiety towards the knowledge-powerful black female.

In conclusion, FKA twigs uses the figure of the witch in both the visuals and the music to symbolize female knowledge, power, and revolt. The wise black female might frighten the patriarchy, but can create a new liberated world instead of awake sexual violence. In this way, FKA twigs’ song is a piece of art that in Federici’s words stands as proof of other possibilities: no sexual violence, but female empowerment. (Austin 2018, 138).

Vera de Wit

Reference List

Austin, Arlen. 2018. “Times of dispossession and (Re)possession: An Interview with Silvia Federici”. In The Drama Review 62, no 1: 131-142.  Project Muse.

Federici, Silvia. 2004. Caliban and the Witch. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia.

FKA twigs. “Glass & Patron.” Directed by FKA twigs. 23/03/2014. Music video, 4:51.

Gago, Veronica. 2020. “Violence: Is There a War on and against Women’s Bodies?” In Feminist International: How to Change Everything, 56–84. Verso Books.

Border Violence

Remi Weekes: His House

For a white European citizen, the border is merely represented by a line on a map, passport control at the airport or at most a visa requirement. However, for refugees, the border is associated with fear, violence, and even death. In this essay, I will discuss the Netflix film His House (2020) as a method of demonstrating the gravity of the European border violence.

At first glance, the film’s narrative of a haunted house might point to a classic horror film. However, it is more than that. This film’s supernatural elements are a mere symbol for the real-life horrors faced by migrants. The film follows a young Sudanese couple, Bol and Rial, who fled their country to seek asylum in England. Quite early on in the film, they are appointed a house in an unknown place in the U.K. to await the assignment of their British citizenship. However, they turn out not to be alone. In the walls of the house, they hear and see the ghost of their daughter, Nyagak, who they lost at sea during their journey towards Europe. The girl communicates through a silent humming; a humming that sounds both innocent and anxious. For me, this humming sound represents how immigrants who survived their journey are still haunted by the fear and violence they have experienced at the border. In fact, it becomes clear throughout the film that immigrants also face new instances of border violence within the UK, such as bullying, and discrimination from their new neighbours.

The drowning of Nyagak is unfortunately not mere fiction; in 2016, 4581 people died on their journey to Europe through the Mediterranean route (Walia, 2021). These deaths are caused by the rigorous and violent European border. As mentioned previously, this border violence is not visible to Europeans themselves since for them the border is a mere line on a map. The film His House nevertheless manages to convey this violence to a European audience by turning the story into a literal horror narrative. Through the use of traditional horror tropes such as ghosts, haunted houses, and jump-scares the public feels the pain, fear, and violence that immigrants experience in real life when facing the border.

In the second half of the film, we are faced with an extra level of violence. During a flashback of Rial, we learn that Nyagak was not the couple’s real daughter, but a girl they stole back in Sudan to gain a place on an already fully packed bus of refugees. They are thus not merely chased by the trauma of their refugee route, but also by the guilt they feel for failing to protect a girl that they selfishly used for their own safety. One might say that Rial and Bol themselves are also the actors of violence and therefore responsible for the death of Nyagak. However, I will demonstrate how actually Europe can be held accountable for both the abduction and death of Nyagak. Harsha Walia (2021) explains that Europe externalizes its borders to Africa to outsource its responsibility. For example, the EU has provided Sudan (the home country of Bol and Rial) with millions of euros for their border security and readmission to ensure a decrease in the refugee flux towards Europe (Walia 2021) However, the Sudanese organisation in charge has been engaged in war crimes and ethnic cleansing (Walia 2021) which worsens the living conditions of Sudanese people and so presses the urge to leave the country. Since Europe invests in the Sudanese border control, I believe that they can also be held accountable for the violence committed by them. As seen in the film, the increasing urge for fleeing Sudan is at times accompanied by unconscious violent actions by the refugees themselves. However, the Sudanese refugees find themselves in such desperate circumstances that they are driven to violence out of a need for survival. Therefore, I argue that they cannot be held accountable for these violent actions. Notice that the European border politics are consciously contributing to these desperate circumstances by investing money in unethical organisations. Therefore, I argue that Europe must also be held accountable for violent acts committed by the refugees.

In conclusion, the multiple layers of violence portrayed in His House show the gravity and reach of the European border violence. Through the cinematic horror tropes used, the film ensures that the audience truly feels the violence, fear, and pain caused by the European border. I believe that the film in this way motivates a critical reflection on border violence and the role Europe plays in this.

Vera de Wit

Reference List

Weekes, Remi. Dir. 2020. His House. London: Netflix.  

Walia, Harsha. 2021 “Fortress Europe”. In Border & Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 105-130.