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Black Music: Existence & Resistance from the Soul

C-Note is a poet, playwright, performing artist, award winning visual artist, and is known as the King of Prison Hip Hop.

African American music has been a potent tool for social and political protest throughout history. From the haunting melodies of slave spirituals to the fiery anthems of the civil rights movement, music has given voice to the oppressed, galvanized communities, and challenged systems of oppression.


Incarcerated poet, playwright, performing artist, award-winning visual artist and “King of Prison Hip Hop” Donald Oliver Hooker, known as “C-Note”, spoke with BGX about the force that is Black music.


“Black music is powerful,” says C-Note. “It's something spiritual and inspiring, while also being a form of warfare and resistance. As much now as back in the days of slavery, our music isn’t just storytelling, but rather an artistic and pastoral expression of true stories.”

C-Note uses his perspective of being an incarcerated Black artist and advocate to promote racial equality from inside the justice system, using visual media and music to expose racial injustice and the need for prison reform.


"The history of Black music in this country started in protest and in the consolation of those living as slaves. Black music in prison—modern slavery—continues to bear this torch,” he says, referring to songs like Billie Holiday’s "Strange Fruit" and Sam Cooke’s "A Change Is Gonna Come," both anthems for. Their poignant lyrics and soul-stirring melodies create robust rallying cries for equality and freedom.


"Strange Fruit," he says, illuminates the "anger of a people fed-up, a people demanding their humanity be noted."


Contemporary artists continue that tradition, using music as a platform to address police brutality, mass incarceration and economic disparity. Artists Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, and Janelle Monáe infuse songs with messages of empowerment and social change, keeping alive the legacy of protest through music.


African American music also serves as a source of solace and healing for individuals and communities facing adversity. In times of struggle and hardship, music uplifts spirits, soothes troubled minds, and provides a sense of comfort through belonging.


Incarceration can be an isolating and traumatic experience that strips victims of their sense of identity as well as their freedom. For many Black prisoners, music is a lifeline and a coping mechanism against the harsh realities of confinement. Whether through singing, songwriting, or playing instruments, it offers a channel for self-expression and emotional release, helping those serving time maintain a sense of humanity amid dehumanizing conditions. Incarcerated Black musicians, poets, ministers, and artists create and then need to share their work, often advocating for social justice and awareness of issues in the prison community. From organizing prison choirs to leading poetry workshops, participants defy the constraints of their circumstances.


Initiatives such as Beats, Rhymes and Justice, Humanities New York's Hip Hop and Arts Program, and the Jail Guitar Doors programs fill a need by supporting arts-based rehabilitation efforts in prisons across the country. By providing access to musical instruments, recording equipment, dance, self-expression and mentorship opportunities, the programs empower incarcerated individuals to explore their creative potential and rebuild their lives through artistic expression.


C-Note says it’s crucial to acknowledge the transformative role music plays in the lives of those behind bars, to support arts-based rehabilitation programs and to advocate for criminal justice.


"African American music is the story of people who've come back from immeasurable suffering, with a smile and swag,” C-Note says. “(It’s the story of) a people that refused to be beat."


C. Dreams is an advocate who writes and lectures about prison and criminal justice reform, LGBTQ rights, harm reduction, and government and cultural criticism.


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