When the cell doors slid open at 6:30 a.m., the men inside New Jersey State Prison rushed to be the first to check early-morning emails at the kiosk provided by JPay, a prison information technology services provider.
But most were still groggy, so it wasn’t until later on August 17, 2021, that everyone began to discuss an email, which had been sent to the entire New Jersey State Prison.
Before I had even had my coffee, Carl Holdren, an aspiring rapper, approached me.
”Did you see that?” he asked with all of the emotions that come with the possibility of an opportunity.
”They’re allowing us to compete in a hip-hop contest!”
The subject line read: ”Aventivs Original Hip Hop Contest.” The email informed guys in select departments of correction across the country of an opportunity to collaborate on a track with Grammy Award- winning hip-hop and gospel rapper Lecrae on one of three beats provided by producer Zaytoven.
The campaign was sponsored by the prison communications company Aventivs Technologies. Those interested in competing could write a song to one of three Zaytoven beats, available for $0.02 in the Jpay media store.
Music students at the Morris Brown college in Atlanta, Georgia would select the top 25 lyrics and submit them to Lecrae, who would ultimately select the winning artist to record the track.
Men had from August 16, 2021 until September 15, 2021 to submit.
The contest had the New Jersey State Prison buzzing in no time, lifted by the feeling that the competition was a unique opportunity for incarcerated voices to be heard.
A few days later, on a slow walk back from a Friday prayer service, I joined a group of brothers discussing the contest.
Even those who never dreamed of writing lyrics before were considering entering the competition.
The loudest out of the group said, ”I might call home and have my man that raps write something for me.” He joked in a condescending way. He knew that we knew his man was a famous rapper.
Some saw the campaign as an opportunity to bring awareness to their current incarcerated status.
”If the track goes platinum, it might bring awareness to my case,” said the brother Muh, reflecting on the opportunity to be freed by his talent. He had just returned from a court trip and related everything to his case.
The group expressed skepticism over signing over ownership rights to Reach Records, which reserves the right to edit, play and use an inmate’s lyrics for distribution. There was no prize money. All funds made off of the lyrics were supposed to be donated to a charity benefiting the incarcerated community in the winner’s state. The winner would have no say in the matter.
As we strolled through the hallways we asked each other all sorts of questions. Who were Reach Records and Aventiv Technologies? What was a 501c3 charity and how would this charity benefit the New Jersey State Prison community? When the time to record comes, would the prison allow Lecrae to come in and record?
Some guys wondered how to write lyrics without swear words or any reference to violence, weapons, alcohol or drugs.
”The message says that we can write about any topic, but we can’t speak about illegal activity. That’s all I know,” said PW, the most skeptical of all in the group.
Some dudes tried to imagine how the students at the Morris Brown college would judge their lyrics without seeing or hearing their delivery. The email said that the lyrics would be judged on the basis of creativity and originality, which earned 50%, and potential entertainment quality, which earned another 50%.
Despite their concerns and lack of songwriting talent, every man on the walk back from Friday service agreed that they would try their hand at the competition.
Of course, some brothers made friendly wagers on their lyrics being better than the others and that their lyrics would be the winning submission.
As we counted down the days until the submission deadline, lyricists who believed that they had the talent started downloading the Zaytoven beats to their JPay tablets. From certain cells you could hear the beats being blasted through speakers of radios and guys practicing their delivery over the beats.
Though most men were reluctant to share their work prior to the contest, Carl Holdren proudly told me the title of his song: Justice and Peace.
I asked how he felt about his chances of winning.
”That’s money in the bank,” he said. ”I’m just waiting on Lecrae to pull up so we can record.”
As for the lyrics, he just smiled.
”You can hear it when I record it.”
On October 22, 2021, JPay sent another email thanking all who participated in the Aventiv Original Hip-Hop track campaign. The email advised us that a winner had been selected. However, the winner was not from New Jersey State Prison and the winner’s name was not mentioned. The email said that inmates would receive a message when distribution of the record was announced.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.