Live from the Edmonton Young Offenders Centre: “When I’m Out”

Laura Young is a Castle Downs librarian who runs an incredible book club inside the Edmonton Young Offenders Centre. Last spring she asked me if I could pay them a visit and maybe run a writing workshop. I said, “Of course, but…”

The “but” was this: Would they maybe be more interested in a rap workshop?

The answer was a resounding yes. They gobbled up my lecture on the art of writing raps and got to work on their own verses. Most of them needed little prompting or guidance because they were skilled MCs already. The next week I returned with a PA system and we had a rap battle that was somewhat unsettling for the program facilitator, Jill, until it was explained to her the battle rap tradition of verbal aggression and lyrically attacking your opponent.

I was invited back in November but I wanted to do something else. I wanted to make a single song with them — a cohesive track around one theme — and I wanted to record it for them to take with them when they get out of prison.

“When I’m Out” was recorded literally feet from their jail cells. In less than five hours, 10 boys and young men serving time wrote and recorded their verses to Kendrick Lamar’s “HiiiPOWER,” which I took back to the office and mixed.

Some of them stuck to the theme, and others didn’t. Some saw their futures as hopeful, others couldn’t or wouldn’t pretend to. We did not try to censor them, or nudge them in a positive direction, so some of the content might offend you. The point was simply to give them something to look forward to for the future and to have them express themselves artistically.

Due to privacy issues, I can’t share the song with you. But it’s probably the most important song I’ve ever been a part of. Props to Laura, Nicole, Jill and Caitlin for being a part of it too.

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