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'Musical worlds within prisons': Story of death row inmate performed


Photo by Jessica Walker.

Michael "Alim" Braxton has been incarcerated since he was 19.

Over 30 years later, his story of a life in prison and time on North Carolina’s death row is being told through a performance of his written words to UNC music professor Mark Katz. Braxton's story was performed on Friday and Saturday nights at Swain Hall.

What started as a letter in 2019 from Braxton to Katz about producing an album evolved — first into a book and then a theater production, titled Rap and Redemption on Death Row. The theater performance, adapted by Jalen McKoy and voiced by Broadway actor Keith Randolph Smith, is part of The Process Series. The series produces a selection of new works in the performing arts that tend to address social issues and social change, artistic director Joseph Megel said.

The theater performance at Swain Hall was the first time the piece was performed and Braxton’s story was shared publicly.

“[Braxton] decided that even though he's writing to me, and for me, it was also for, in a sense, posterity,” Katz said. “At one point, he wrote to me and said that he thought of me as his diary because it was a way of getting his words out of prison.”

Smith recited Braxton’s letters during the two-hour performance, starting with his childhood in Raleigh and continuing with how he ended up in prison. He described his crimes, his life now on death row and his path to seeking redemption.

Megel said this event is ultimately a window into an experience that most have little access to — prison and death row.

Megan Foster, a doctoral candidate in the UNC Department of Communication, works closely with muted voices and marginalized populations in her research and correctional education at the Friday Center as part of the UNC-Chapel Hill Correctional Education Program. She said she valued the performance’s ability to share the hidden voice of Braxton and focus on humanity.

“I think what this show does, in so many levels and so important, is brings this person to the stage," she said. "You experience their life in more of its entirety. You get a point from childhood to within the last two or three years. You're seeing someone grappling in their mind, with their entire experience, with their accountability for things that they've been a part of.”

Since the original letter in 2019, Katz has received over 75 letters from Braxton. As someone who studies music, Katz said he decided to respond because he believes that musical expression and self-expression are human rights.

Although initially only corresponding about recording music, Braxton ultimately wrote to Katz about his crimes — not to claim innocence, but to create a document of his own experience outside of just court documents, Katz said. He added that reading Braxton's letters made him feel like he was "watching a movie" as Braxton described parts of his life.

When Katz first visited Braxton at Central Prison in Raleigh, right before the COVID-19 pandemic, Katz told Braxton that his letters were valuable historical documents that should be preserved. A composition of Braxton’s letters will be coming out in April.

“He feels like writing these letters is a way of preserving his thoughts and more fundamentally preserving or attesting to his existence because our criminal system essentially disappears people, and he wants a record of his existence,” Katz said. “Even though these were letters between two people, he saw it as more than a pen-pal correspondence.”

Braxton has limited access to most technology, Katz said, and won't be able to see the performance in any way. However, Braxton has heard some of the performance via phone call.

“Alim was really taken aback," Katz said. "He said he was almost speechless about how powerful it was to him because he was hearing someone else speak his words back to him. It was a pretty emotional experience for him, and for us all to witness that.”

Foster said there wouldn’t be access to Braxton’s story without the “Alim Team,” a group consisting of music producers, UNC artists, Braxton's family and more. Some of the team members have said they want to bring awareness to Braxton's mission, which is to highlight wrongfully incarcerated people on death row who Braxton said have strong claims of innocence.

Katz runs Braxton’s Facebook page under his rap name, Rrome Alone. Braxton's music is shared on SoundCloud under the same name. His next album is coming out later this year.

“I would say one of my goals is to help show the humanity of incarcerated people and to show that there is so much talent that's being locked up,” Katz said. “There are rich musical worlds within prisons in this country.”


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