How a group of Malawi prisoners received a Grammy nomination

The song, ‘I have no everything here’, by prisoners from the Zomba Central prison has been announced as a contender for a Grammy award next year in the Best World Music category. This group of inmates are making waves nationally and internationally because this is the first time Malawi will be represented at the Grammy’s since its inception.

Some of the Zomba Central Prison singers in Malawi.  Credit- Marilena Delli
Some of the Zomba Central Prison singers in Malawi.
Credit- Marilena Delli

The Malawi Zomba Central Prison, which was built in 1923, is the oldest and only maximum security prison in the country. The facility, originally built for a few hundred, now houses over 2000 inmates who battle diseases and unsanitary conditions constantly. However, the deplorable conditions in which they live in have not hampered their creative abilities.

The producer of the album, Ian Brennan (an award winning music producer) and his wife who is a photographer, gained access to the prison in exchange for classes to the inmates and guards on violence prevention. Brennan described the prison as “a dilapidated brick structure that resembles a factory from a Dickens novel and was built in the 19th century,” and after witnessing the awful conditions in which the prisoners live, they both made a decision to advocate and raise awareness towards their predicament.

There were over 60 inmates who recorded the Zomba Prison Project music sessions and they were all between the ages of 2o to 60 years old at the time. According to Brennan, majority of the singers have been given life imprisonment for crimes such as murder, assault and theft, while others were charged for homosexuality and witchcraft.

The album, ‘I have no everything here’, released in January 2014, is a collection of 20 songs, of which the prisoners wrote 18 by themselves.

Is Hollywood diversifying?

In a statement to Aljazeera on the nomination of the group for the 58th edition of the prestigious Grammy Awards, Brennan remarked “I am very happy for the prisoners and quite shocked really. The awards have become extremely celebrity-driven and, ironically, the World category in particular has become so predictable – it’s the same names almost every year – so to see a group of unknown individuals get a nomination makes it that much more of an accomplishment.”

Brennan’s observation may be very astute because, in the last 3 Grammy awards nominee list, all the contenders were prominent musicians/celebrities who had already carved a niche for themselves in their art. However, with this nomination the Grammy’s have shifted that perception.

Angelique Kidjo won the 2015 Grammy Award for World Best Music.

Angelique Kidjo won the 2015 Grammy Award for World Best Music.

While the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) has been celebrating music across continents for decades now, the nomination of the Prison Project music is a groundbreaking achievement.

Hopefully, this is a step forward for the Grammy’s to prioritize fair representation across genres, class, religion and persons. Like Brennan said “How can it be that their are what are labeled music ‘centers’ in the world? Music is universal. It exists everywhere and is a necessity for survival spiritually. Our hope is to help tip the scales, in the most minuscule way, back to fairer representation. It is indefensible that literally hundreds of thousands of musicians from cities like London, LA and New York have been heard ad nauseam for decades, while not a single record has ever even been released internationally from entire countries composed of millions of citizens and that have been rendered so invisible that the majority of people on the planet would have a hard time even locating them on a map.”

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