Photo by Richard Ross of Juvenile-in-Justice

Those who have worked inside juvenile justice facilities in the US know that education is not a priority in the incarceration system—and music education certainly is not a priority either. Kat Crawford, a technology innovator for BreakFree Education, can attest to this, having worked with more than 120 facilities over the past decade to try and change this reality.

“Music is huge for our students,” says Crawford. “If they can’t hear it, they’ll make music themselves, either by tapping a pen, or singing all the lyrics to a song, or getting a whole group of people to sing together. So there’s really no way to turn music off in this space.”

BreakFree is a nonprofit with a mission to provide educational solutions to students who are incarcerated. When Mike Moyes, the Assistant Vice President of Enrollment Strategy and Operations at Berklee, learned about BreakFree, he knew that Berklee Online could help be a part of that solution. 

“It was something that was always on my mind, that there are incredible musicians who ended up in the prison system, often because of circumstances out of their control,” says Moyes. “They have the skill, ability, and talent, and just need the opportunity.”

Circumstances out of their control include the disproportionate number of in-school arrests of students of color and students with disabilities, according to the ACLU

Infographic by Community Coalition and featured in the Unsung Songwriting Contest curriculum.

The partnership began with an initiative called the Unsung Songwriting Contest, which Crawford developed. Currently in its third year, the Unsung Songwriting Contest provides students with a curriculum to learn how to write and produce their own protest song. Crawford and Moyes decided that the contest would offer insight into who would be a great candidate for a Berklee Online course scholarship. 

The first lesson in the Unsung curriculum discusses lyrics in songs like “We Shall Overcome,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday” by U2, “Get Up, Stand Up” by Bob Marley, and more. Students are then encouraged to write about issues in the world that impact them, such as the school-to-prison pipeline. They are then taught how to adapt their writing to a song format, and finally, produce their song in the online DAW program, SoundTrap, and submit. 

A slide about the protest anthem “We Shall Overcome,” featured in the Unsung Songwriting Contest curriculum.

“No matter what, you can change people’s perceptions through music by creating protest songs,” says Crawford. “That was the idea behind the curriculum that I designed and when we pushed it out there, we got so many incredible songs and we’ve continued to have some just amazing stories.”

One of the amazing stories that Crawford references is that the two, first-place winners of the 2020 contest were separated in their facility as a punishment for singing together too often. A teacher who knew about the situation asked for permission to bring the two students into a visitation room, where they went on to create their winning song in that one session.

“That to me was just absolutely incredible,” says Crawford. “Not only that the teacher recognized that this wasn’t something students should be punished for, but also that they took the initiative to say, ‘We’ve got to not think of this as a barrier, but what can we do to bring these students together to create great music?”

During the 2021 contest, five winners were selected from 54 student entries from across the country. Moyes consulted with Crawford about how to choose students who would be most equipped for success in a Berklee Online course. There were many factors to consider, and the last thing they wanted was for a student to have a bad experience in a course because their technology was not up to par, or because they did not receive the support they needed within their facility. BreakFree coordinated with the teachers from the winners’ schools to determine the scholarship recipients.

 Here is a playlist of last year’s top five winners.

I remember laying in my cell, just thinking, reminiscing 
Y’all wouldn’t understand cause ya’ll ain’t in my position 
What ya’ll know ‘bout ramen noodles, only thing that’s in the kitchen 
I still think about you every day, I hate the way I’m livin’
—First-place winner’s song, “R3M3MB3R

“What I like to do is work with the facilities, ask them, ‘Hey, you’ve gone through this whole exercise, who’s really excited about digging in further to the musical aspect?’” says Moyes. “‘Who really lit up when they were doing this project and wants to learn about chord progressions or lyric writing?’ And then of those folks, who has a friendly corrections officer who’s going to partner with us to let them use the internet and all that. We want to find students who are not only interested, but also set up to succeed from the inside.” 

One of the great advantages to the scholarship program is the recipients could take their Berklee Online courses without their online peers knowing that they were incarcerated. Moyes offered them mentorship and paired them with instructors who he informed about their situation and trusted would nurture their progress, including Andrea Stolpe and Danny Morris. Here’s what one winner said about their experience, their identity kept anonymous to protect their privacy:

Brotha told me gotta watch who I be ridin’ with
I didn’t listen now I’m back up in the fire pit
They throw me in this cage
and they expect a change
but it only made me worse and y’all the ones to blame
—Second-place winner’s song, “How I Feel

“Professor Danny Morris was very open to the things that weren’t accessible to me due to me being incarcerated. I feel many incarcerated youth would benefit and actually grow through the class. I’m not going to pretend like the whole thing was a piece of cake, it wasn’t. It was all very new to me but my professor understood and did everything in his power to help me. Being incarcerated gave me nothing but time to soak and grasp the foundation of music and its language.”

This student’s correctional officer also had positive things to say about their learning experience:

“This experience ‘normalized’ her and made her feel as though she had a connection to the outside world. I am so proud of her for stretching herself and learning about a topic that did not come easy to her. Overall, this opportunity was one that I know she will never forget! She has taken many college classes during her incarceration, but never a fully submerged online class and never anything that taught her the basics of a subject in which she felt so connected.” 

Crawford and Moyes plan to keep expanding this partnership, with hopes of offering more Berklee Online scholarships and more collaborative opportunities between students at different facilities across the country. 

“We are so honored that Berklee Online is helping students with a passion for music continue to pursue their music education,” says Crawford. “We can’t wait to see the long-term impact this program could have on our scholars.”