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In '16 Bars' Grammy Award-Winning Hip-Hop Artist Collaborates With Inmates

Resonant Pictures
Todd "Speech" Thomas in the recording studio with Richmond City Jail inmate Anthony.

Editor's note: This piece was originally published on Oct. 24, 2018.

The documentary 16 Bars explores how music can bring healing and rehabilitation to people who are locked up.

The movie, which is featured this week at the Milwaukee Film Festival, centers around four inmates at the Richmond, Va., city jail — and their interactions with Todd "Speech" Thomas, a Milwaukee native and MC of the hip-hop group Arrested Development.

Speech came from Atlanta to work in a recording studio with the inmates, as part of REAL, a voluntary initiative at the jail designed to reduce reoffending. And he admits he did have some preconceived notions before he went to volunteer in the jail.

"I felt like I'm going to be around hardened criminals, and that doesn't feel comfortable," Speech says. "But I was hoping for the best, and that the people I'm around were also musical, and talented, but I wasn't sure."

He says he started to see men who wanted to change and transform themselves. He also came face to face with many of society's ills that contribute to incarceration, including drug abuse, mental health issues, poverty and racism.

"There are pathologies that are totally destroying families," says Speech. "The generational disadvantage that black people have had in our country since the days of slavery, from a socio-economic standpoint, educational standpoint, well that has repercussions in real-time."

"What you saw in many of the men in this film even, is generations of drug dealing, generations of drug addiction," he says. "It's very evident in this film the types of things that literally cause people to go astray, and it's hard to bring them back."

Speech says it's important to bring music and education to these men, what he calls the "enlightenment of reform."

"Through music, I was hoping to tap into the deep feelings of these men and give them an opportunity to express in a different way, and to feel validated in a different way," he says.

Speech says rehabilitation is not only key for the inmates, but also for society.

"Ninety five percent of those who go to jail will be coming back to our communities," he says. "If there is not a sincere effort to rehabilitate, we are inviting back into our community possibly worse criminals than those who had came out of our community. If we're not focused on sincere rehabilitation and even prevention, then we are doing a disservice to our own society."

Speech is producing an album with the music the inmates created that he is aiming to release in early 2019. 

Maayan Silver has been a reporter with WUWM’s News Team since 2018.