Inside tracks: the record label providing hope in a Cameroonian jail

·7 min read

“We created a studio outside because a lot of people were not enjoying having to return to prison to record music. They don’t want to relive that experience, even for a few hours,” explains Steve Happi, the 33-year-old producer of Jail Time Records, a non-profit record label started in New Bell prison in Douala, the largest city in Cameroon.

In December 2021, Happi opened a second studio in the Deido district of Douala, providing a recording facility outside jail for former prisoners like him. “We have people who have really changed because they have the opportunity to record for free,” says Happi, who founded the label in 2019 with an Italian artist and director, Dione Roach.

  • Dione Roach, an Italian artist and director, poses with inmates of New Bell prison in Douala who record for Jail Time Records. Producer Steve Happi describes the studio as being ‘like a home’

Roach was inspired to set up the project while delivering creative workshops in the prison in 2017 and 2018 as part of her work for an Italian charity, Centro Orientamento Educativo. Impressed by the musical talent of many people she met in New Bell, she set up the in-prison studio with Happi, who had worked in music production.

“It gives them hope that, one day, they can be one of those artists with a lot of success. It’s like a new page in their life,” adds Happi, who describes the studio as “like a home” for its artists, many of whom live on the streets. The new studio is funded by Anti-Do-To, an activist streetwear brand from Italy that has produced a clothing line featuring artwork by prisoners in New Bell.

  • Streetwear made by the Italian company Anti-Do-To, which has funded the new music studio

New Bell made international news last month when there was a cholera outbreak in which at least six prisoners died. Human Rights Watch warned that the death toll could rise in the overcrowded facility, which houses about 4,700 prisoners (four times its capacity) “most of whom are in pre-trial detention, in violation of international norms”.

  • Sound engineer Steve Happi, also known as Vidou H, in the studio

Prisoners affected by the outbreak included those arrested during opposition protests in September 2020, the campaign group added. Cameroon’s ongoing civil war, also known as the anglophone crisis, has reportedly killed at least 4,000 civilians since late 2016.

Happi says he ended up in prison following a family dispute about what to do with his father’s body after he died. He and his brothers wanted a Christian burial but some older relatives wanted traditional rituals. “My father’s sister is a high court judge so she used her power to put us in jail. I don’t like calling her aunt because family don’t put you in jail,” says the producer. He was sent to prison for 20 years for killing his father, but the charge was dropped after two years.

  • Some of the Jail Time Records artists in the prison

“Life here is crazy. If you don’t have money, you can’t live,” says Jennifer, a 19-year-old from Nigeria speaking to the Guardian from inside the prison. “There is heat, there are people sleeping five on a bed, and there’s no space to breathe. People are sweating, bodies crushing,” she says, adding that prisoners have to pay to get a comfortable spot to sleep in.

  • Jennifer, a 19-year-old prisoner from Nigeria, says she would have ‘gone crazy’ without the music

The teenager, who has been in prison for two years, likes listening to the Nigerian star Burna Boy on her headphones. When she gets the chance, she goes to the men’s section of the prison to make Afrobeats music at the Jail Time Records studio.

“I miss my mum and my sisters and brothers, but I’m good because music is holding me up. If I didn’t have this, I would have gone crazy.”

Jennifer was sent to live with her uncle in Cameroon when she was 10. He was “beating me and all these things”, she says, to the point where she feared for her life. At 16, she stole money from him and ran away. For a year before she was caught and sent to New Bell, she rented a house with friends. “We were doing music together. We even bought musical instruments.”

  • Clockwise from top left: dancing at New Bell; a homemade version of a traditional stringed instrument; Stone Larabik sings during a concert in prison; a crowd watches a fellow inmate dance

Data on the prison system in Cameroon is limited but a recent field survey of 100 inmates found that 47% were in jail for the second time. The paper explains that after their release men whose wives have left them, or who are having marital problems, turn to friends for companionship.

“Unfortunately, these ex-convicts are mostly rejected, as people continue to label them as criminals. Those who are usually ready to accept these ex-convicts are mostly gangs of criminals,” the paper’s author says, adding that many take solace in alcohol and drugs, which increases their risk of reoffending.

  • Empereur became a gang leader and is now behind bars for the third time

Empereur is in New Bell for the third time. With multiple charges against him, he faces 10 years inside. “My father is a chief so I am a child of the kingdom,” says Empereur, explaining that he gets his inspiration from the traditional music and dancing he was surrounded by when he was growing up.

He started skipping school to drink with his friends as a teenager and ended up a different kind of chief: a gang leader, mostly involved in knife crime. Empereur also holds a powerful position inside the prison.

Now 34 and with three children outside, he wants to change but says that “people who belong to the criminal world are pushing me to fight”.

Reoffending becomes easy, he explains, because society distrusts people who have spent time in prison. “It’s easy for a police officer to put you back in jail, and they don’t even want to investigate whether you’ve done wrong. It’s easy for them to stigmatise us – you’ve been in prison so you belong to prison,” he says.

“I pray that my heart opens and that I can calm down and focus more on music, and buy a house for my kids,” says Empereur.

His new Afrohouse single, Sa Ngando, (meaning “dance”) – the fifth to be released by Jail Time Records – is sung in Duala, the language spoken in the coastal region where Empereur is from. “I breathe tradition, I sleep tradition, I eat tradition,” he says.

Related: ‘Stuck in limbo’: endless wait for justice for those in Nigeria’s prisons

Other artists with Jail Time Records were imprisoned for more minor offences. Kengol, 30, served seven months after being arrested on Christmas Day in 2019. “I was found in a cemetery. I was taking drugs, I had no ID card and was charged with ‘vagabonding’. When you stay out late at night, you’re seen as suspicious,” he says.

Across Africa, people like Kengol who spend much of their life on the streets, including sex workers and migrants, are criminalised by these “petty offences” originating from colonial-era vagrancy laws.

“These vague and arbitrary laws, rooted in the era of empire, are used to arrest and imprison thousands of poor and marginalised people every day,” the Open Society Justice Initiative said in 2020, adding that the penal codes of at least 18 countries colonised by France still included the offence of “vagabondage”.

  • Kengol (top left and bottom right) is a regular at the new out-of-prison studio. Fellow musicians join him in painting the studio, where Abdel and Vidou H (bottom left) are pictured making music

“When you’re a street boy, you’re called all sorts of names, but I don’t care because that’s not my inner life,” says Kengol, who is a regular at the new out-of-prison studio where he makes coupé-décalé and Afrohouse music. “Those who speak badly of me today are the ones who are going to speak of me with joy tomorrow, because of my music. It’s like my weapon.”

  • Moussinghi, Kengol and Abdel at the new studio

The label’s first double album, Jail Time Records Vol 1, a compilation featuring many of the artists, will be released this summer.

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