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Raise All Voices: Music as a Powerful Tool for Reform in the Justice System

By Mary Andom and Jesse Moore

Kenyatta Hughes woke up each day and laid down each night to the harsh sounds of Sing Sing Correctional Facility for 13 years as part of a longer sentence. Behind those walls, feelings of isolation, guilt, and hopelessness can become overwhelming, even in moments of relative silence. For most, Sing Sing is a prison not only for the body, but also for the mind.

For 10 years of his sentence, Kenyatta was part of Musical Connections, an ongoing creative workshop developed by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute—the education and social impact programs arm of the Hall—that supports select men at Sing Sing in cultivating music skills, including composition and instrumental performance. Through the power of music and his own artistry, Kenyatta was able to transcend the harsh realities of prison and develop a vision for a more positive future.

As Kenyatta began to think about how he might like to spend his first moments outside of prison, he envisioned going for a swim for the first time since his incarceration began and taking his wife out for a quiet dinner. Eventually, a bold new idea took hold: He began to picture an intimate concert for family and friends. As a musician and storyteller, it seemed fitting for him to use music to share his story of struggle and redemption in a meaningful way with the people he loves most.

Kenyatta and his wife, Cecily, brought this idea to the Carnegie Hall team a couple of years before he came home. They all began to put plans in place for Kenyatta to take center stage in the Weill Music Room in Carnegie Hall’s Resnick Education Wing upon his release. Cecily served as a contributing producer for the project, arranging everything from the guest list to Kenyatta’s wardrobe.

In the months leading up to his release, Kenyatta had been unexpectedly transferred to Fishkill Correctional Facility. On the day of his release, Kenyatta left Fishkill and traveled straight to Carnegie Hall, where he stepped onto the stage with a powerful musical story to tell. He was joined by Carnegie Hall teaching artists and former members of the Musical Connections program who had recently returned home from prison themselves. The performance was aptly titled First Free Note.

“It was greater than anything I could have ever imagined,” Kenyatta says. “Music is a particular blessing—a gift in the literal sense.”

For more than a decade, Carnegie Hall’s innovative programs in the justice system, including Musical Connections, have invited people to tap into the power of music and their own potential in ways that not only develop their artistry, but also improve their lives, their communities, and our shared understanding of the human experience. These programs are built on the belief that everyone—no matter their level of formal training or the circumstances in which they find themselves—has the capacity to explore and express their own creativity.

Now in its 11th season, the workshop at Sing Sing brings men together to write and perform original music alongside visiting musicians, forming a dedicated artistic community that produces several concerts throughout the year for the facility’s general population. The depth of the artistry and the rigor of the instruction is high, with music created through the program now featured in programs presented on the legendary stages of Carnegie Hall. After returning home to New York City, men also meet regularly at the Hall to support each other, make music, and inform the program as an advisory committee.

Sarah Johnson, director of the Weill Music Institute, describes this work as crucial in supporting the Hall’s mission to make the arts accessible to as broad an audience as possible. It also provides a unique opportunity to challenge assumptions and build bridges of understanding.

“It is wonderful to shine the light on the voices that emerge in this work,” Johnson says. “As we share music made through the Musical Connections program, it can help people hear perspectives they might not otherwise have the opportunity to hear.”

A key goal of Carnegie Hall’s workshop at Sing Sing is to contribute to the rehabilitation process as men prepare to return to life after prison. Alongside their artistic accomplishments, men in the workshop build skills and find a positive outlet to explore and express themselves, work independently towards goals, communicate and work with others, and become a productive part of a community.

At Sing Sing, it was music that helped Kenyatta begin to cope with the sense of loss, pain, regret, and guilt that consumed him. He grappled with these feelings as he played the simple keyboard on which he began composing. “It had no bells or whistles, so I made melodies,” Kenyatta explains. “The limitations were a blessing in disguise because they forced me to start writing music.”

When Kenyatta began working with musicians from Carnegie Hall at Sing Sing in 2009, he started to connect music more directly with his healing. “The value of the program went further than the musical instruction,” he says. “The musicians were invested and dedicated in giving us a sense of value.”

While in prison, Kenyatta also earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He was released six months early with parole, and since his homecoming concert at Carnegie Hall, he has continued to spread a spiritual message of love, forgiveness, and redemption through his music, and will begin working on his first album this year.

In addition to its work at Sing Sing, over the last 11 years Carnegie Hall has significantly broadened its engagement in the justice space to include creative programs for young people in secure and non-secure juvenile facilities and schools in New York City and upstate New York, the commissioning of new works that explore related themes, programs for young people at Carnegie Hall, and convenings of thought leaders from across the country who are committed to harnessing the arts as a tool for justice reform.

Ana Bermudez, commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation, has partnered with Carnegie Hall for more than five years on NeON Arts, a highly praised program that facilitates free arts programming for people of all ages in probation centers in seven neighborhoods throughout New York City.

NeON Arts offers participants hands-on opportunities to explore a range of arts disciplines, including dance, music, theater, visual arts, poetry, and digital media. The program also focuses on career development and community building, with a particular focus on providing pathways for youth to develop their talents and thrive.

“The results have been profound in the justice space for community members, parolees, and officers,” Bermudez says. “NeON Arts chips away at the social stigma for people on probation, and they start to be seen as assets in the community. I’m a huge believer in the arts as a therapeutic strategy in the justice system. It changes lives from the inside out.”

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