Soul music: Khari Allen Lee brings jazz performance to Tutwiler Prison
Khari Allen Lee, the Daniel F. Breeden Eminent Visiting Scholar in the Arts and Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts, performed a once-in-a-lifetime concert this fall through the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project, or APAEP.
In a small chapel within the walls of the Tutwiler Prison for Women, Lee led a group of women incarcerated there in gospel songs, soul music and a moving chorus of “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers.
Lee has worked with iconic artists including Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, he’s won awards for his music and composition and said his concert with the APAEP is worth more than millions.
“It means worlds,” Lee said. “These are the reasons that we do what we do. These sorts of experiences, these sorts of moments, are more powerful than selling 100 million records or having 50 million views, because we never know what may come about from these. It’s a shared experience, so I’m thankful to have been here and that we were able to share it together.”
Lee’s performance was part of his outreach work with the Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts & Humanities. The APAEP, an Auburn University initiative that provides access to sustained, quality education to people incarcerated in Alabama, has hosted concerts at prisons since 2005.
Audience members, identified by their initials to protect their privacy, described the performance as moving and inspirational, with many sharing they’d never thought they’d hear live music again.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve heard an actual instrument,” said ‘MK,’ an APAEP student at Tutwiler. “It really took me somewhere. It’s a great honor for someone to see that we are human and that we are still here.”
The concert was open to individuals throughout Tutwiler Prison, including those enrolled in the college degree program offered by Auburn and APAEP. Through that program, students can complete a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies.
Students join the program to get an education, honor their parents, set an example for their children or prepare themselves for transformative careers after release.
“I wanted an education, and incarceration is often lots and lots of time doing nothing,” one student, ‘MR,’ said. “We work hard to lift each other up and support each other, and I was very appreciative of Auburn of being willing to come and take the time, effort, energy and money to invest in us.”
The college degree program began at the Tutwiler Prison for Women earlier this year, and almost a dozen students were admitted for its first semester. Courses are taught by Auburn faculty and graduate students, along with other educators across the state, and the curriculum is the same as at Auburn’s main campus.
“I want people on the outside to never underestimate the intellect of the incarcerated community,” said ‘CC,’ a student enrolled in the degree program. “We work hard, and we are really driven. We’re going to make people proud. We’re grateful for every conversation, every visitor, every speaker. And we matter.”
For Lee, hearing stories of how his performance impacted the students and made them feel like people again speaks to the higher power of music.
“I realize that with my work as a musician, as an artist and as an educator, that something is being done through me,” Lee said. “I don’t know what it is or all the details, so I just do my best to be of selfless, loving service and just let the work happen. I’m surely changed, but can any of us really put it into words?”
APAEP Academic Program Manager Shaelyn Smith said the concert and other arts opportunities are an essential part to offering APAEP students some of the same opportunities they’d have on Auburn’s main campus.
“Music really does unite the community,” Smith said. “Moments like this are my favorite part of this job. Bringing experiences like these to the students in the college program as well as people in general population is so remarkable, and bringing Auburn University experiences to the prison campuses is so important for connection and community.”
For more information about the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project.