Agenda: Utrecht Colloquia in the Musicologies 2022-23
Rap and Redemption on Death Row
Prof. Mark Katz (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
Thursday, 13 October 2022, 4.15 pm
Location: Ravensteijnkamer, Kromme Nieuwegracht 80
(NB: this is a different location than usual)
This talk explores the life and work of Alim Braxton, aka Rrome Alone, a rapper on North Carolina’s Death Row. Now 48, he has spent much of his nearly 30 years in prison working to transform himself.Music, which he sees as a form of self-therapy, has been central to this process. As he has explained: “Through writing rhymes about myself and being brutally honest I began to unravel the years of falsehood and eventually heal and grow. Music gave me a safe place to express my truths without the fear of being judged.” Using the prison telephone as his microphone (he has no access to recording or playback equipment), he collaborates with producers on the outside who record his vocals and provide beats for his rhymes.I have corresponded with Braxton since August 2019. His letters (more than 125 so far) havechronicled an eventful period in his life that has included the tragic death of his sister, a cruel and unwarranted 37-day stint in isolation, his work on behalf of wrongfully convicted prisoners, the nationwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the reality of living on Death Row in the shadow of COVID-19. We have become friends along the way and are collaborating on a book to be published in 2024. My talk is in three sections. The first—called “Hip Hop is My Life”—introducesBraxton, the man and the musician. The second section, “Rrome Alone and the Technology Gap,” addresses the technological challenges Braxton has faced as he works towards his dream of creating and releasing an album on Death Row. In the final section, “When ‘Do No Harm’ Seems Impossible,” I reflect on the ethical dimension of my position as a privileged white scholar working with a Black man awaiting execution.
About the speaker
Mark Katz is John P. Barker Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Founding Director of the U.S. State Department hip hop cultural diplomacy program, Next Level. His books include Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music (2004, rev.2010), Build: The Power of Hip Hop Diplomacy in a Divided World (2019), and Music and Technology. A Very Short Introduction (2022). He is co-editor of Music, Sound, and Technology in America: A Documentary History (2012) and former editor of the Journal of the Society for American Music. He is currently at work on a book, Rap and Redemption on Death Row, a collaboration with incarcerated musician Alim Braxton.