Date September 29, 2023
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A piece composed in solitary confinement and never performed gets its world premiere at Brown

“Vampire Nation,” composed in prison in 2009 by Mumia Abu-Jamal and arranged by Brown Ph.D. student Marcus Grant, had its world premiere at a symposium focused on mass incarceration.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Fourteen years ago, inside a 6-by-9-foot solitary confinement cell in Pennsylvania, Mumia Abu-Jamal taught himself how to read and write music using only books. The political activist, who has been imprisoned since a 1982 murder conviction, composed four original pieces, including “Vampire Nation,” a haunting piece about racial power imbalances in the United States.

The piece has never been performed — until now.

During a three-day symposium at Brown University focused on Abu-Jamal and the impact of the American carceral system, in-person and virtual audiences had the unique opportunity to hear the world premiere of “Vampire Nation,” arranged by Brown Ph.D. student, percussionist and composer Marcus Grant.

“It’s a commentary on America,” Grant said of the piece. “The title ‘Vampire Nation’ is this allusion to how settler colonialism was so focused on extraction that it sucked the life out of Black people and Native Americans. It goes through the whole history of extraction in America, starting with 1492 and chattel slavery and going all the way up to Jim Crow segregation.”

Grant, whose doctoral musicology studies focus on Black American protest music, said that six months ago he knew nothing about Abu-Jamal. That changed when, on the heels of his Spring 2023 performance of music by Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln, leaders from Brown’s John Hay Library approached him with the invitation to arrange and perform “Vampire Nation.”

“A lot of the music of Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone touches on topics surrounding civil rights, including critiques of the criminal justice system,” Grant said. “When I started looking into Mumia Abu-Jamal and his music, I saw lots of throughlines there. What’s unique about Mumia is that he is critiquing the criminal justice system from the inside, and it’s fascinating to think about how that has influenced his commentary.”

Grant said that before he read or played a single note of Abu-Jamal’s music, he did a deep dive into the John Hay Library’s vast collection of Abu-Jamal's records and writings. A Philadelphia journalist, Abu-Jamal was arrested and convicted of murdering a city police officer, spending nearly 20 years on death row before a federal court reduced his sentence to life without parole. Over the course of 41 years in prison, he has become perhaps the most outspoken incarcerated person in the U.S., weighing in on the American criminal justice system via numerous radio interviews and published books and essays.

Grant said that once he started studying Abu-Jamal’s music, he wasn’t surprised to see the man’s same frank, vivid writing on display there. “From the very beginning to this very day,” the piece begins, “this country has gone its own special way, from placing Indians in chains and graves to bringing Africans across the waves. How can we call this freedom’s land?”

Grant said the Hay Library invited him to compose a 25- to 30-minute piece centered on “Vampire Nation,” itself no more than 3 or 4 minutes long. To precede Abu-Jamal’s original composition, Grant wrote a haunting, bluesy overture that employs chains as percussion — a metaphor for the inextricable connection between historical slavery and the structural inequalities in today’s society. And to follow “Vampire Nation,” Grant composed a cautiously optimistic closing movement titled “On A Move” — a signoff expression Abu-Jamal often uses in letters, phone calls and interviews. Throughout the piece, Grant sprinkled in audio clips taken from Abu-Jamal’s interviews and news coverage of his case.

Grant said he hoped the three-movement piece maintained a balance between respecting Abu-Jamal’s original intentions and introducing new concepts that add complexity and food for thought.

“Mumia’s lyrics are full of so much tension and anguish, and I wanted to bring that out in the musical composition,” Grant said. “I introduced lots of complex, haunting minor chords that give the piece lots of tension and a few points of release, to kind of illustrate how we have made progress on inequality in America, but there’s still so much to resolve.” 

Grant performed the piece during the symposium alongside New York-based pianist Camila Cortina Bello, bassist and Brown computer science Ph.D. student Kweku Aggrey, Providence saxophonist Leland Baker, and New York vocalist Tyreek McDole.

“When I listened to some of the interviews Mumia Abu-Jamal has given, I was so struck by his deep voice,” Grant said. “I wanted a similarly deep, profound voice to sing the words he wrote, and Tyreek has that kind of incredible voice, despite being only 23.”

Grant feels certain that after his extended exploration into “Vampire Nation,” his doctoral dissertation on protest music will include a close study of Abu-Jamal and his creative pursuits. 

“I think understanding more about the lives of people in prisons and jails is so crucial to understanding the state of our prisons and criminal justice system,” Grant said. “Most of us know so little about this growing population of people that we only know them as statistics, or as the crimes they were convicted of. But folks are in there are reading, writing, putting out art. They are complex people with complex pasts and presents. We need to study that and recognize that.”