Category: American Studies – teaching

What prisoners think of prison movies

Please see a piece I wrote for The Conversation website recently:

What prisoners think of prison movies



Rapper, Writer, Pop-Cultural Player; Teaching Ice-T

METCALF PPC(240X156)pathLast year I co-edited a volume of essays on the rapper Ice-T with Dr Will Turner from the University of Manchester (Ashgate, 2015). In a recent conversation with Will, he was telling me about the teaching he is currently doing. “Hip-Hop and Hollywood”, convened by Dr Eithne Quinn, is a third-year American Studies module which charts hip-hop’s evolution from a youth subculture to a dominant popular cultural form. This semester, one of the primary texts used on the course is Ice-T’s 2011 autobiography Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption—from South Central to Hollywood (co-written with Douglas Century). I asked Will why he had Ice memoirincluded this text in his workshops on the course, and he said it provides a useful tool for anyone looking to dramatise the key debates that frame hip-hop as a cultural, political and commercial phenomenon. He added that the memoir was a great way to familiarise students with cultural studies approaches more generally. Here he has documented his top five reasons for using Ice-T’s memoir as a teaching text:

  1. Literary Self-Representation

“I’d taken my name as a tribute to Iceberg [Slim], and then it hit me one day—dude is a writer. I thought he was fly because he was a pimp, but I realised that I really admired him because he was a writer.[1]

As a written form, the memoir provides Ice-T with the perfect medium in which to illustrate and reflect on the African American literary roots of hip-hop culture. Throughout, he is keen to emphasise the influence of 1970s pulp crime writers Iceberg Slim (from whom he took his Iceberg Slim bookmoniker) and Donald Goines on his own uncompromising, first-person gangsta rap narratives. This genealogy appears to be a central focus for Ice-T in his later career. In addition to penning his memoir, he has recently published noir crime novels (Kings of Vice [2011], Mirror Image [2013]) and in 2012 produced documentaries that explored the literary nature of rap composition (Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap) and the genre’s debt to earlier African American writers (Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp).

These ventures reflect the recent emergence of best-selling hip-hop memoirists and authors such as Jay-Z and 50 Cent, and the mainstream success of “Street Lit” urban crime fiction—a genre estimated to consist of anywhere between 50 and 70 percent of total sales at black bookstores in the US. Ice-T’s memoir not only exemplifies these shifts, but illuminates the intersection of hip-hop, autobiography, and (African) American literature. In doing so, it allows students to cut across generational boundaries, and locate gangsta rap narratives within broader traditions of African American literary (and “criminal”) self-representation—a lineage encompassing the abolitionist slave narrative, the Black Power-era memoirs of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver, and the contemporary gang memoir. Similarly, this approach encourages students to challenge conventional binaries between high/low, literary/oral, canonical/commercial culture. Indeed, the rise of the hip-hop memoir and Street Lit provides a contemporary angle on long-standing debates over canon formation and cultural prestige.

  1. Masks and Personas

“Mac was constantly telling me I was cut to make a great pimp, but I also understood that this was part of his game: a pimp will tell you whatever he thinks you want to hear. That’s what they do: they’re masters and wizards of charisma.” (41)

Iceberg Slim movieFrom his 1987 track “Somebody Gotta Do It (Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy!!!)” to the recent documentary Portrait of a Pimp (2012), Ice-T has long traded on his pimp persona. However, as detailed in his autobiography, Ice-T never actually pimped. The closest he came to pimping was in the mid-1970s, while stationed in Hawaii with the US army. Here, he befriended a pimp called Mac who he credits (along with Iceberg Slim’s autobiography, Pimp) with teaching him the talents that define a successful pimp: style, cunning, enterprise. Rather than verifying Ice-T’s pimp persona, then, the memoir presents it as a calculated act of self-stylisation. Following on from Mac’s advice, Ice-T candidly discusses how pimping (at least as it relates to his own public image) is a matter of word over deed.

In this sense, the memoir offers students a highly irreverent examination of hip-hop authenticity. Since the late 1980s, the pimp has proved a highly marketable hip-hop persona—and one that trades knowingly on stereotypes of pathological black urban sexuality. Ice-T’s autobiography foregrounds the performative politics of this brand, offering an engaging take on Frantz Fanon’s theories of racialised power, looking relations, and racial “masks” or stereotypes. Additionally, it can be placed alongside recent efforts by hip-hop artists to frankly examine the contradictions of the pimp persona. Most notably, Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed album To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) offers a deeply ambivalent commentary on both the creative uses and restrictions that such a persona offers the contemporary hip-hop artist. As Lamar raps on “The Blacker the Berry” (a track which directly references Ice-T’s debut 1986 single “6 ‘n the Mornin’”): “You vandalise my perception but can’t take style from me.”[2]

  1. Hip-Hop Synergy

“If there’s any one thing I take pride in—as far as helping this hip-hop game to grow into the empire it is today—it’s the number of firsts.” (215)

Throughout his memoir, Ice-T emphasises his role in hip-hop’s evolution from an inner-city subcultural practice, to a globalised, multi-platform media “empire”. As one of the first gangsta rappers to ascend to mainstream cultural prominence in the late 1980s, Ice-T’s career trajectory not only showcases the growth in popularity of the genre, but its diversification. Among other Law & Order: Special Victims Unitventures, Ice-T has lent his gangsta image to rock music (Body Count), network TV drama (Law & Order: SVU), reality TV (Ice Loves Coco) and Hollywood cinema classed as both “urban” (New Jack City) and mainstream (Johnny Mnemonic). In addition, Ice-T has also engaged in more prestigious forms such as literature, documentary film, and jazz poetry—he will perform Langston Hughes’s Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz at London’s Barbican Theatre in November.

As a case study, the many-sided career of Ice-T encourages students to map the ways in which popular cultural texts and icons are rearticulated: over time, across cultural boundaries, and across political divides. How can the Ice-T’s persona encompass both cop killer and TV cop? Reality TV star and jazz poet? These questions can be used to frame the complex political needs of hip-hop culture. Firstly, they illuminate the contradictory appeal of the gangsta icon—as both a marginal and a peculiarly middle-American capitalist icon. In addition, these contradictions present students with a case study in Gramscian theories of cultural hegemony. Ice-T’s journey from dissident criminal to household favourite illustrates the way in which oppositional cultural meanings can be absorbed into the mainstream, and vice versa. In this sense, Ice-T’s memoir opens up the forces of containment and resistance that define hip-hop culture, and popular culture more broadly.

  1. Marketplace Politics

“I got news for you, dog, the system is a monster. Sooner or later you’re going to have to learn how to work it. There is no overturning or overrunning the system, you need to learn to manipulate it. Even if you’re a gangster, there is still a system.” (172)

In the summer of 1992, Ice-T became the most talked about rapper in the US when the single Body Count“Cop Killer” (by his heavy metal band Body Count) was the target of a censorship campaign waged by police groups and senior politicians including President George Bush. Later that summer, Ice-T shocked many of his fans when he agreed to the demands of his record company Warner Bros to withdraw the single. Hip-hop magazine The Source promptly labelled this moment the “death of rap.” How could a hardcore rapper like Ice-T capitulate so visibly to the demands of the white political and corporate establishment? In his memoir, Ice-T’s answer to this question is unapologetic and sobering—the system is a “monster” and there is no pure authorial space outside of it.

Ice-T’s frank analysis of the episode provides students with a clear picture of the precarious position of black cultural producers within conglomerated cultural industries. Recent case studies remind us that the “system” is both legal and global in nature. In the summer of 2015, the rapper Tyler, the Creator was banned by the UK Home Office from entering Britain on the charge of provoking his listeners to “terrorist acts” with his lyrics. These examples can be used to illustrate a broader pattern of the capitalistic co-optation and criminalisation of African American expressive forms. Yet they also encourage students to consider the nuances of contemporary authorship; Ice-T’s enduring success, and the stellar rise of hip-hop “moguls” such as Jay-Z and Dr Dre, point to the determination of black cultural producers to carve out a semi-autonomous commercial and creative space within these industries. In his memoir, Ice-T’s frank discussion of his limited authorial agency provides students with a compelling commentary on this dynamic.

  1. Raptivism

“When I talk to kids, I know damn well that if I was broke they wouldn’t give a fuck what I have to say. But they see the success. They want to know how to be successful. That’s the only reason people follow anybody, from preachers to politicians. It’s in human nature to chase success. He did it—how can I do it?” (241)

The PeacemakerOver the course of his career, Ice-T has sought to lend his celebrity to various philanthropic causes including Children United Nations, YOGA for Youth, and LA gang truce initiatives such as Hands Across Watts and South Central Love. However, in his autobiography, Ice-T plays down these organisational or structural approaches to social and political change, endorsing instead a brand of activism centred instead on models of individual “success”. Be it through the writing of his memoir, or his production of the television program The Peacemaker: LA Gang Wars (2010), Ice-T has sought to fashion himself as an inspiring symbol of social mobility, entrepreneurialism, and capitalistic redemption.

This aspect of Ice-T’s career captures a dominant form of “raptivism” that purposefully blurs the line between activism and entrepreneurialism; philanthropy and industrialism. Most visibly, Jay-Z and Beyoncé have lent their public support and commercial acumen to radical movements for social change (Occupy Wall Street) and racial freedom (#BlackLivesMatter). This dynamic has been at once celebrated as evidence of hip-hop rediscovering its sense of political engagement, and criticised as an example of hip-hop entrepreneurs opportunistically looking to develop their brand. These tensions are addressed with characteristic candour by Ice-T in his memoir. It is a text that encourages students to locate raptivism within conflicting traditions of African American protest—Civil Rights, Washingtonian, nationalist. More immediately, it challenges students to consider the limits of (black) political activism in the age of neoliberalism.

Will Turner, October 2015

[1] Ice-T and Douglas Century, Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption—from South Central to Hollywood (New York: One World, 2011): 52. Subsequent references to this edition cited in the main body of the text.

[2] Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker The Berry”, To Pimp a Butterfly (Interscope, 2015).

Reflecting on Prison: Inside & Out


As part of my “American Prison Culture” university module, in the final weeks of term we undertake a visit to a creative writing group at a local prison where Russ Litten is the Writer-in-Residence. I want students to ask inmates about the politics and act of writing while incarcerated (a topic which we probe with novels, memoirs and poetry on the course). Moreover, each year the inmates will watch one of the films we study, then they discuss with us their views of that text. Following the visit, students write a 1,000 word reflective piece that contributes to their overall module mark. Students are often uncomfortable writing introspective essays but I explain I would like to hear whether the visit made them rethink any of the core texts on the course (and if so, how / why?).

Other thoughts for consideration in this essay may include: what did they learn from the visit? Was the creative writing workshop what they expected? How did the experience make them “feel”? I stress that there are no set rules for writing this piece as long as they demonstrate that they have carefully considered our visit in hindsight. Predictably, students are generally enthused by the visit, reflected in past module evaluations that have said: “The prison visit was an amazing experience, thoroughly recommend they keep this in the module”; “The prison visit was a unique and fascinating experience”. Both module evaluations and the reflective pieces regularly describe Russ’s leadership along the lines of “inspirational” as well as the availability of creative writing to inmates as “vital”.

As part of the reflective piece I also suggest students should flag if the visit provided them any inspiration for their future career (whether paid or volunteering). In the subsequent week back on campus we receive a talk from a careers adviser, who helps students consider how they may take any interest forward. We are not naively assuming that students may wish to suddenly explore a graduate training scheme for prison officers, nor undertake work in probation. Nor do we presuppose that the prison visit alone has guided a student’s career path. Nonetheless, I am aware that in the past, following the prison visit and careers talk, students have sought roles in not-for-profit and activist areas, whether paid or as a volunteer / intern, as well as teaching and bell hooksin the charitable sector. I hope that even for those students who already have an alternative career in mind, that the visit may open their outlook. My intention is not to convert each student into an anti-prison radical, but to open up lines of thinking and worldviews that classroom discussions cannot always guarantee. Scholars like bell hooks have discussed “new ways of knowing”, and stressed the need for discussions (particularly around race, class and gender) to be extended beyond the classroom.[i] It goes without saying that critical thinking skills are an aspired outcome of further education, and will hopefully serve students valuably in future.

Last year I had a student who voiced concern after the visit that it had been a little exploitative. On one hand, I am slightly surprised that this is the first time the query had been raised given that we discuss at length the “annals of dark tourism” on the course. On the other, I have explained each year that inmates are not required to attend, though as one informed us previously, they are happy to do so for a few hours reprieve from the monotony of prison life. I ask students to prepare two questions each to put to the group (for instance, about the film in question), and I inform them that they need to be prepared to speak up and answer questions themselves (an inevitable one is “What is American Studies?”). Though I aspire for the visit to be a two-way process / discussion, the inmates unavoidably do more talking, whether expressing disdain about the IPP sentencing (of which many of the students are unaware) or describing the day-to-day routine of prison life. I would like to share with you here (with permission) excerpts from the reflective piece of a student who attended a visit last year. Their essay was memorable for the way in which they observed that “In the mismanagement of prison inmates one sees gentle echoes with society beyond the walls, and an opportunity for discourse and improvement.” But moreover, they astutely justified the visit on the grounds that, “The justice system is, after all, a realm of people, and what better way to understand people is there than interacting with them?”

From May 2015:

Our visit to the HMP Humber was a fascinating reminder that the study of theory, literature, and culture is often incomplete without first-hand experience of the topics that they address. Having spent the semester on the outside looking in, the trip provided a rare glimpse of the inside looking out. It appeared the visit provided [these inmates] with an opportunity to vent—and to achieve a degree of catharsis. The fact that we were not party to the system that regimented much of their lives allowed for a candidness one expects is typically refrained from. Although one cannot treat the experiences of these prisoners as indicative of the penal system as a whole, one would do well to deny that their sentiments were reflective of a wealth of issues and themes touched upon during the semester. The fact that only a fraction of them can be reasonably addressed here is a testament to the productiveness of the visit.

FoucaultIn my first assignment—writing on I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang—I cited Michel Foucault’s conviction in Discipline and Punish that, “From being an art of unbearable sensations punishment has become an economy of suspended rights.”[ii] Such mechanisms of control were plain to see at HMP Humber. From different privilege tiers, to the fact that the right to interact with us was reserved for the best behaved inmates, it was clear we were briefly privy to an economy of power in full flow. That one inmate referred to prison as “a city within a city” was telling. Certain tangents concerning minimum wage, representation, and the right to vote would not have been out of place in a typical political discussion.

 That said, the prison ecosystem seemed distinctly isolated from the outside world, though not necessarily from other prisons. Some qualities seem to transcend any one region or period. Like the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, the humble inmates of HMP Humber have their writings vetted before publication. Tobacco enduring as the leading prison ‘currency’ was a surprising revelation, aligning neatly with a number of the works we have examined, The Shawshank Redemption being conspicuous among them. Cut off from the rest of society, the formation of a twisted microcosm in its stead appears close to inevitable—so long as it is kept out of the public eye. I found it interesting that HMP Humber was not one of the destinations listed on the digital schedule at the Hull [Bus] Interchange.

 Private subjugation of the soul was a focal tone of the visit. Foucault posited that during “the Foucault 2150 or 200 years that Europe has been setting up its new penal systems, the judges have gradually… taken to judging something other than crimes, namely, the ‘soul’ of the criminal.”[iii] The imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentencing system seemed an uncanny extension to this process, maintaining judgement well after conviction.[iv] In one prisoner in particular there were echoes of James Allen in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, imprisoned far longer than was initially expected and suffering deeply as a result. The inmates effectively spend their entire sentence and probation period on trial. As each of the inmates testified to, it keeps incarceration on the mind.

[i] bell hooks, Teaching Community: a Pedagogy of Hope (New York: Routledge, 2003): 8. See also hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994).

[ii] M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin Books, 1991): 11.

[iii] Ibid, 19.

[iv] For more information on IPP, see Matthew Stanbury, “What’s an IPP?”, The Justice Gap, [Accessed 1/10/2015].