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The Bristol Cable

‘Drill music can be used for positive change’

For 35 years, Bristol has been home to a charity which lets prisoners create music on the inside. Now, a sister record label is supporting them to launch music careers after release.

Photo credit: Gaz Hamer

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Content warning: this article contains references to suicide.

“Many people going into prison will have had pretty traumatic lives. They’ll be going in with adverse childhood experiences and trauma in their DNA. And if you didn’t go in with that kind of stuff, you’ll come out with it.”

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David Jones runs Changing Tunes, a charity that provides prisoners with the instruments, tuition and space to create music on the inside. It’s one of the few therapeutic activities available in prison, which became particularly vital during the pandemic when many prisoners were locked up in their cells for nearly 24 hours a day.

The flipside of mental health in prisons deteriorating and suicide attempts “going through the roof” during the pandemic, Jones says, is that the government and prison service had to wake up to the fact that “mental ill health is abysmal within prisons”. As a result, the need for services like Changing Tunes became increasingly recognised.

Since the charity started working in HMP Bristol 35 years ago, it has expanded to support people post-release, those recovering from addiction and young offenders in Vinney Green, a secure children’s unit in Emersons Green. This year, a project is beginning at two pupil referral units in Bristol to put the idea of early intervention to the test.

“There is a conveyor belt between school exclusions – certainly from anti-social behaviour and gang related stuff – and ending up in prison,” says Jones. “So hopefully, if we can get in earlier and provide other opportunities to engage and energise young people, we can prevent some of them from going inside.”

Changing Tunes allows the people they work with to choose what kind of music they make. But this has led to difficulties for the organisation around drill music, a genre so often associated with gang culture and violence that there have been calls to ban it.

“If you’d asked me a year ago, I would’ve said there’s no link,” says Jones. “We don’t expect the same standard from other genres of music.”

Jones believes the outcry has a racist bent, as drill is made predominantly by young Black men. But on its links with violence, he’s changed his mind: “I think there is something slightly different about drill. It comes from a place of message-sending. It started on the streets and its roots are very much in the turf war, postcode stuff.”

Changing Tunes has brought in drill rappers and people from the industry to help ensure they can be responsible and avoid proliferating violence through music. But for Jones, it’s ultimately about getting the right people in the room, which means keeping drill on the table – because it’s often what the people they work with want to make.

“We’ve seen amazing examples of when drill music can be used for positive good,” he adds. “It’s a jumping off point for discussing what’s happened to them and their fears and their lives – where they’ve been, where they’re going.”

Music with a reformist agenda

Mike Bailey was in prison in Bristol for a short sentence over the roasting hot summer of 2020. He kept himself sane with a guitar provided by Changing Tunes, through working as wing rep and mental health rep, and going to chapel “just because the singing made me feel better”. There he noticed not only the benefits of music therapy, but that some people were brimming with talent – enough for a career on the outside.

“You come across people in there who have massive talent and perhaps have lost focus of their lives and the direction they’re going in,” says Bailey. “I met somebody who was unbelievably brilliant. He stopped the whole wing dead when he picked up the guitar.”

Bailey is now one of the people with lived experience of the criminal justice system running Red Tangent Records, a record label linked to Changing Tunes that supports people to make careers of their musical talent after release.

First set up in February 2021, a roster of six artists are currently signed to the label and releasing music. As their initial funding from the National Lottery comes to an end, Bailey hopes the label can find the funding to take on 10 artists every year, as well as develop relationships with bigger labels who could take on talent found and fostered by Red Tangent.

The label hosted its first annual showcase at the Bristol Beacon at the end of last month. But behind the music and the parties remains a focus on challenging the failures of the criminal justice system. Alongside performances, the showcase hosted panel talks asking what prison is for and what needs to change to achieve its aims.

The label enables its signed artists to speak out on their experiences of the criminal justice system, in the hopes that this will deter people from committing crime and spark systemic change. It believes in tackling trauma and inequality, the root causes of crime.

“If we were truly committed to reducing crime – and that’s the one thing people seem to be able to agree on – the best way to do that is to deal with the reasons why people go into it in the first place,” says Jones.

Unfortunately, this is not the UK’s current approach, given our prison population rate ranks alongside authoritarian nations like Russia and Turkey. In 2020, England and Wales incarcerated 138 people per 100,000 and in Scotland this rose to 147, according to stats from human rights organisation Council of Europe. In further grim reading, the same report revealed the prison suicide rate in England and Wales was twice the European average.

Jones can’t say the criminal justice system or its capacity to rehabilitate has improved in the 35 years Changing Tunes has existed. “It needs much more investment in therapeutics, and psychologically-informed interventions,” he explains.

The latest statistics show the British reoffending rate was 25% within the first year of release, rising to 34% for under-18s and to 58% for adults released after sentences of under 12 months. But, says Jones, “On a rolling three-year average, less than 6% of people who engage with us will reoffend.”

Changing Tunes uses music as a means to foster trust, confidence, and a sense of identity. Despite the challenging context, Jones believes these factors are what allows prisoners and ex-prisoners to build resilience and the ability to desist from crime after release.

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