As part of our Music Charities Interview series, we spoke with Robin Harris, Co-Founder and Creative Director, to find out more about the Finding Rhythms Charity and Robin’s own personal music tastes!
Finding Rhythms uses music to give prisoners valuable skills that will make them more employable on release and better able to make progress in society. Our first project was at HMP Wormwood Scrubs in 2012, and we’re now running our 31st project, at Bronzefield women’s prison. In each prison we challenge a group of learners to write, compose and record their own album of music….in just 36 hours.
We describe it as a Producer – Artist relationship, where the learners are the artists and we are the producers, helping them to translate their ideas into music. All learners have a go at writing lyrics and contribute to recordings either vocally, instrumentally or with simple sound-making. We don’t measure success by technical skill, but by the way that learners contribute to the process, challenge themselves and open up creatively.
Of course, recording an album is an ambitious project which requires a team effort and many of the soft skills that employers look for. Learners have the chance to earn a BTEC in employability skills, if they demonstrate good communication, collaboration, commitment, resilience, lateral thinking and creativity.
It’s enormously important. Of all art forms, music is the most ethereal and non-tangible, yet it has an astonishing power to transform people out of a particular mental state. I’ve lost count of the number of people on our courses who have said that making music takes them back to a happier place or makes them feel like a better person.
We had a learner at Swinfen Hall Young Offenders’ Institution who put it very well: “There’s a stereotype in prison, I don’t know, maybe you’ve got to be hard and not let anyone view you a different way. But in this room I don’t feel like that. I feel like when I come here and I make music that maybe it’s a place to escape.”
It goes without saying that crime has many root causes, but there are factors which are known to help people avoid reoffending. These include strong relationships, employment and self-belief. Music-making can help with all of these. Participants learn to work with each other and respect each other’s contribution, but many of them also use the opportunity to send a message to their loved ones on the outside .They learn to work in a professional environment, and earn a BTEC as evidence of achievement.
Finally, many prisoners feel defined by their imprisonment and have very few positive achievements to their name. Music and songwriting give participants the chance to express themselves creatively and shine at something, whether that’s percussion, singing, being a facilitator or writing lyrics.
Well, my working life is all about making and playing music, so to that extent you could say that I’m always listening to music. But no, I don’t play music when I’m writing, doing paperwork or whatever, because I have to be able to concentrate on music and actively listen.
At the moment I’m really enjoying a song called Doin Our Ting, which was written and recorded on our recent project at HMP Cardiff.
There are so many to choose from, and so many different reasons for choosing them. Some songs tell a powerful story about the journey to incarceration, some are really beautiful tributes to family, some are brilliant because they are full of wit and show a great zest for life despite imprisonment. But I guess I’d choose Life Is, a song written by an 18 year old prisoner at Swinfen Hall in 2016. This young man was severely withdrawn and found it almost impossible to engage in group activity in any positive way.
A week before the end of the course we asked if he’d like to write his own lyrics for the group to set to music, and the following week we were quite astonished when he arrived with a fully written song of four verses and a chorus, entitled ‘Life Is What You Make It’. He had laid such strong foundations with his writing that we were able to involve all the other learners, and he was very keen to have the strongest musicians in the group sing, rap and set his words to music. It’s a cracking song, but it was also a very special moment for Finding Rhythms to help this young man make a positive connection with his peers.
I’d call this the Real Session, because all the songs are chosen for being heartfelt, political and really authentic expressions of lived experience.
Any one of the tracks recorded by Alan Lomax in Southern American prisons in the middle of the last century – authentic, traditional blues music, full of heartfelt, vocalised opinions about the singer’s state of existence.
Blinded by your Grace, Stormzy
Picture a Vacuum – Kate Tempest
The North Will Rise Again – The Fall
Grandad’s Gold Chain – participant on Finding Rhythms’ course at HMYOI Swinfen Hall
Records OR CDs? – Records
Downloads OR streaming? – Streaming
Albums OR singles? – Albums
Human curation OR algorithmic curation? – Human
Host OR listener? – Listener
Popular playlist OR your own playlist? – Own
Play in order OR shuffle? – Order
Headphones OR speakers? – Speakers
Tupac or Biggie? – Tupac
Lead singer, guitarist, OR drummer? – Drummer
The best thing anyone can do to support Finding Rhythms is listen to the music we make in prisons. We’ve now made 28 albums which include every musical genre and cover a huge range of topics. Some are deeply personal, others very quirky and witty, but they all deserve a wide audience.
The second best thing anyone can do to support us is make a donation! We’re a small charity and we’re dependent on voluntary funding, so whether you buy an album or just make a small donation, it all allows us to support more prisoners and help them towards a better future.
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