“My spirit is rattled inside” – No Malice
Prison. The idea is so embedded in the American consciousness that it is hard to conceive of an America without it. This thought remained with me as I drove towards the penitentiary in Chesapeake, Virginia. Even more so, since I was accompanying a musician who famously inaugurated an entire sub-genre of rap known as ‘coke rap’.
That irony doesn’t change the fact that there are still 2.2 million people incarcerated in the US, representing an upward trend of nearly 500 percent over the past 40 years. America is exceptional in that it remains the global leader for imprisonment, followed only by Russia and Rwanda. In Virginia alone there are 78 correctional facilities, housing 38,403 inmates.
Regardless of these grim statistics, we still have an unholy fascination with prison–one that is almost entirely filtered through our consumption of media on the subject, specifically music and movies.
Which is what made my trip to St. Brides Correctional Center with Virginia rap legend No Malice to screen his documentary, The End of Malice, so relevant to everything happening in the US right now. No Malice was accompanied by his publicist, Charles “Batman” Brown. I decided to take a backseat so the two could discuss the party they threw the night before in Virginia Beach, debuting tracks from his new album, Let the Dead Bury the Dead.
No Malice’s influence on the music scene is storied, and along with his brother Pusha T they comprised the rap duo known as The Clipse. Along with notable musicians like Pharrell, Chad Hugo, and Timbaland, they ushered in a new renaissance of Virginia rap and hip-hop. Their first album, Lord Willin’, peaked at number one on Billboard’s R&B / Hip Hop chart and number four on Billboard’s Hot 100. At a time when popular music was lukewarm at best, and tawdry at worst, The Clipse offered a visceral glimpse into a world that was stark and thoroughly honest.
Therefore it was little surprise that the previous night’s listening party was attended by Nottz Raw, Hannon Lane, and other big name producers who’d worked with artists like Snoop Dogg, Notorious B.I.G., Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, and Kanye West; along with political mavens like Reverend Yearwood from the Hip Hop Caucus in Washington DC. But that world is precisely what led to the conversion from his past persona as the ‘coke rapper’ known as ‘Malice’ to ‘No Malice’, a man who has made faith and redemption the foundation of his new music.
The idea of redemption is not a hard concept to consider when spending a morning surrounded by inmates in prison. We spoke about this at length as we left the suburbs of Chesapeake and entered into the rural area where the prison was located. “Let me tell you,” said No Malice. “People think they are in a battle now–fighting their relationships, fighting health issues. But when you find faith, that is when the real battle starts.” When I asked if faith helped him articulate this transition away from the trappings of celebrity into a more introspective worldview, he replied, “Yes. It definitely does… you should know this within yourself without asking anybody.”
Talking about issues of faith and religion is always a dangerous game with people you just met, let alone rap royalty. However, there was no proselytizing tone in No Malice’s message, just one of self-acknowledgement. “What I do is share my story. I don’t go anywhere and try to tell people how to live, what to do and don’t.”
Most prisons have a similar look, one that we instantly recognize from movies and television: drab beige buildings ringed with multiple layers of razor wire, which are intersected by guard towers and confined spaces. That sense of familiarity is one thing, but the realities of coming face to face with prison and the men who are confined within it is something else entirely.
Prior to our visit we were issued guidelines for admittance. The email we received stated plainly: “No cell phones, Apple watches, fit bands, etc. are allowed. In addition, no clothing of a blue jean material is allowed.” Inmates in this particular facility all wear blue denim, so if there is a problem, there is a way to differentiate prisoner from visitor.
The particular unit where No Malice was screening his documentary was called the ‘Cognitive Community.’ This specialized program, implemented by the Virginia Department of Corrections, is for inmates who have a year or less on their sentence. It encourages a collaborative environment emphasizing interpersonal connections, decision-making, and behavioral expectations for re-entering society. Some of the men I met in this unit had been incarcerated for up to 15 years.
On this particular morning the collaborative effort was on full display. As we entered a room that resembled little more than a high-school cafeteria, we found around 75 inmates sitting together in ordered rows. All were clad in blue denim; some wore sunglasses, others quietly talked amongst themselves while administrators and corrections officials hovered about.
At the front of the room was an inmate named Mac Sequra who was rapping to the other prisoners, a band set up behind him.
“Cause and effect for being righteous, people living and losing. The devil trying to damage us.”
Our entrance with No Malice went unnoticed until he got into character with a loud, “What up, what up” to the room of inmates. The music briefly stopped while the room erupted in applause. We took our place at an adjacent table which sat catty-corner to the rows of inmates as Sequra continued.
“Open up to the heaven’s gate. Listen to the thesis if your life is in pieces.”
Looking around the room, the racial disparity between the inmates and the general population couldn’t have been more obvious. In Virginia the African American community represents 20 percent of the total population, but 60 percent of the overall prison population–a sad reality that is reflected nationally in most prison populations, and one of the great legacies of institutional racism that defines modern America. It’s one that another inmate named Jacoby intimated in the second performance when he stood in front of the other inmates and sang:
“They threw the book at me, mamma. Let me tell you about this pain, I look up at the lord, let me take you away.”
Watching a documentary about yourself in a correctional facility surrounded by inmates, a lot of whom were incarcerated for the same things you built a career rapping about, must be a strange experience. It was one I was particularly curious to ask No Malice about. “What is powerful to me is how people interpret it, right or wrong,” he explained. “In that facility people need hope, and I believe that is what that documentary delivers.”
During the documentary highlighting his career and spiritual journey, the inmates constantly stole glances in No Malice’s direction. I found myself doing the same thing.
Trying to adequately capture the feelings of men who have been incarcerated without sharing that experience is almost impossible. But there seemed to be a genuine appreciation for his presence in the prison, which was far more interesting than the events on the screen. This was due in large part to No Malice’s visit breaking the monotony of life in prison. Yet there was also a kindred sense of familiarity with him. During the question and answer session that followed, more than one inmate talked about either growing up with him or his brother Pusha T or an experience where they had crossed paths years before.
While this kept the interactions conversational and informal, it didn’t change the fact that some of them were still inmates for the very same things No Malice became famous for glorifying. Indeed, these issues have hit very close to home for him. In 2010, The Clipse’s manager, Anthony Gonzalez, was arrested and sentenced to 32 years in jail in one of the most high-profile drug cases in Virginia history – an episode featured prominently in No Malice’s documentary.
Despite everything, No Malice openly confronted these contradictions with the inmates. Taped to the wall behind him was a poster of him with The Clipse. Looking at the audience he simply said, “Look at this picture. He’s dead.”
For some, the idea of faith, redemption, and salvation is overly sentimental and more than a bit self-serving. Yet those animosities seem trivial when balanced against the perspective of incarcerated men looking to connect to something bigger than themselves. When one of the inmates asked, “How hard is it to live a righteous life?” No Malice easily responded, “Once I made my money, I thought everything was going to be cool. But I still felt an emptiness in my soul. I still felt frustrated.”
Another inmate named G Kelly asked a similar question a short time later. “How do you not compromise your faith? How do you stay clean and not be influenced by the negativity?” On the way to the prison, No Malice and I had spoken about negativity in the world, and I could tell he was replaying that conversation in his mind.
“My story is about suffering. But it is also about God, and that quiet place within yourself. You have a decision to make.”
By the end of the morning, No Malice had shaken hands and spoken one on one with a majority of the inmates–all of whom had lined up to speak with him personally. There was no rush to leave or desire to make a fast getaway; the prison administrators allowed us to take our time interacting with the inmates. It was easy to see why No Malice’s message had such an impact on the inmates–their paths diverged only at the point of musical success. Before leaving he spoke to Mac Sequra, the inmate who was rapping when we arrived. No Malice told him in front of the entire audience, “I teared up. You put a lot of dudes to shame.”
Sometime later when we were having coffee, I asked No Malice what his biggest takeaway from the prison visit was. He paused before answering, “I still find it hard to fathom that I am being used for something. Everything I did was designed to shame me.”
I asked him to elaborate on that, understanding that every person carries a specific burden from the things they’ve done in their life, or things they wish they hadn’t done. “This applies to everyone to some degree, but I believe there is a lot of things we should not have said.” Asking him what some of those things were, he told me in an animated voice, “Drug dealing, drug using, womanizing, me, me, me…there was a lot of that, but I am only talking about me.”
He finished by coming back to a point that truly expresses the dichotomy of No Malice, his worldview and how that connects to everything he has planned for himself in the future.
“We probably glorified things that should not have been glorified, no matter how true they were. Looking back at how I once was, there is a lot to be desired. I went through that, but for a reason. And this helps me deal with that.”
*Photos by Landon Shroder