The fiery rhymes of Bryonn R. Bain, spoken word artist and visiting lecturer, filled the Student Organization Center at Hilles on Thursday night at a performance co-sponsored by the Harvard Progressive Jewish Alliance and Harvard College Speak Out Loud.
Bain, a graduate of Columbia and Harvard Law School, focused on “the prison industrial complex,” a term used to describe the burgeoning inmate population in the United States and the impact of the prison on the African American community,
“Every black man with sagging pants ain’t a criminal,” said Bain, “despite subliminal media messages to the contrary.”
In the first of two spoken word performances last night, Bain criticized those who claim that racism is no longer a problem, telling those people to “check the Thirteenth Amendment; slavery wasn’t abolished, it was just polished.”
As a second-year student at Harvard Law School in 1999, Bain was wrongfully arrested for vandalism outside a New York club. The police threw him against the wall and questioned his law school background, he said.
“The whole process is just dehumanizing,” said Bain, whose essay on his experience, entitled “Walking While Black,” was published in the Village Voice.
“I have all the degrees that the President has, plus one,” Bain said. “He ended up in the White House and I ended up in the jailhouse. How did this happen?”
The experience inspired Bain to educate young students about prison reform and to create a Columbia class called “Youth Voices on Lockdown” in 2003. The class, whose title was eventually changed to “Lyrics on Lockdown,” has been taught at New York University and The New School. Students in the classes spend part of the semester visiting a corrective facility.
Bain is currently teaching a course at Harvard called “Hip Hop and the Spoken Word.”
In addition to discussing mass incarceration and racism, Bain covered topics as varied as America’s fading spirituality and the death of creativity at the hour-long event.
The audience expressed their admiration of Bain through laughter, applause, and snaps at particularly smooth lines.
“I thought it was quite powerful,” said Daniel J. Solomon ’16. “Anytime you connect politics to art, it makes it that much more potent.”
Bain’s new book, “The Ugly Side of Beautiful: Rethinking Race and Prisons in America,” will be published next week.
Bain ended his performance with a call for change.
“If we can use our privilege to raise awareness about these issues,” Bain said, “we have not only an opportunity but an obligation to do that in some way.”