On the coastal city of Douala, in the Central African nation of Cameroon, lies a stiflingly cramped and chaotic prison. Resembling a refugee camp more than a prison, 3000 inmates are packed into a space built for just 800. Gangs and ensuing violence go hand in hand with emotional and cultural isolation, drug addiction, decaying facilities, and rampant corruption. As a prisoner, you are voiceless, cast aside by the wider society and left to fend for yourself. Forget rehabilitation; merely surviving in there, both physically and mentally, is a full-time job. Right in the middle of all this chaos, a record label might be the last thing you’d expect to encounter. This is exactly where you’d find Jail Time Records.
Jail Time Records is a non-profit multimedia music label run out of the Central Prison of Douala, Cameroon’s toughest prison. Producing music and video of both current and ex-detainees, it features one of the only permanent recording studios based inside a prison. Growing out of Italian artist and NGO worker Dione Roach’s passion for rehabilitation and the arts, the label boldly works to give voice and hope to the severely underrepresented detainees.
The project also supports their integration back into the community and looks to change society’s perception of imprisonment, which in Cameroonian society is often riddled with shame and discrimination, often leaving many with little choice but to re-offend. Since becoming operational in late 2018, the label has recorded over 100 tracks and several music videos. Three years later, and Jail Time is now about to release their much-anticipated debut album.
How It All Began
Wandering the grounds of Cameroon’s toughest prison seems like an odd place to find a 32-year-old visual artist and photographer from Italy. However, Dione’s strong passion for the rehabilitative and transformational power of art led her to this strange new world, and to eventually create this ground-breaking project, the first of its kind in Africa. It all started in 2017, as she was looking for a change of both scenery and direction.
“I was living in London and just being an artist, but I was really tired of London and I always wanted to travel and live in other parts of the world. And so I found a job abroad, an art project in Cameroon with the Italian NGO [Centro Orientamento Educativo]. They had a program there teaching photography, and the same NGO had other programs inside the prison focusing on reinsertion into the community. So I started volunteering, teaching painting to the underage prisoners.”
Being in this environment was completely new to Dione. Instead of frightening and dissuading her, it further stoked her desire to do something about it.
“I'd never been in a prison in general, although I can imagine others in the West being very different to this big African prison. There are no guards accompanying me, and everyone's free to move around. It's so crowded and there’s a very intense energy in everyone. Everyone's asking you for money, or insulting you, or admiring you, you know, everything at the same time. That’s one of the things that inspired me, to use that energy to do something good and beautiful and meaningful, rather than to just have it go to waste or be converted into negative actions or thoughts.”
As Dione worked amongst the detainees, she met many talented musicians, all of whom were unable to express themselves and realise their true potential due to their situation.
“I had the idea of doing a project with the musicians that I had found in prison. And they were very talented and I thought it would be something very powerful to put them together and give them a voice. We’d use art and music as a tool, both for making their life better in prison, for helping them when they would get out of prison and to help the broader Cameroonian society realise how important it is to accept formerly incarcerated people.”
As a visual artist, Dione had not expected to create a music label. While she films Jail Time’s hauntingly beautiful music videos, the idea of starting a record label was one that found her.
“It ended up being music because that is who I found there, basically; I found really talented musicians, artists. I also think it’s such an immediate and universal way of expression and sharing. So I didn’t really want to be teaching anything. I just wanted to give a way, an opportunity to people to do what they already love doing.”
Faced with so many obstacles, it might be hard to exactly see how a record label could give so much to those suffering inside the jail. Music and dance are fundamental to the Cameroonian culture. For inmates, the deprivation of the chance to tell their stories and express themselves goes while detained goes hand in hand with their lack of representation in the broader community.
“Music is really important in the wider Cameroonian society and it’s really present in all life” says Dione. “Everyone’s a musician, everyone sings. A lot of these people have lived really hard lives, especially with the tough conditions of the prison. It definitely brings something to the music they make, a raw element, intensity.”
Having found the talent, Dione needed the means to get these peoples voices heard and bodies active. She was helped by the head of the prison who was sympathetic to the need for rehabilitation programs. He granted them the use of a space for the inmates to rehearse, located in the death sentence quarters of the prison. With some funding from the NGO where Dione volunteered, and some delicate handling of prison bureaucracy, they were able to set up a fully functioning record studio within the prison grounds, and Jail Time Records was born. This innovative project would soon completely change the lives of many of the detainees, and nobody’s more so than Steve Happi.
Meeting Vidou H
Happi, aka Vidou H, was an inmate at the time, falsely imprisoned on the accusation that he murdered his father. After two long years of waiting, his conviction was later overturned by a judge after finding no evidence of his crime whatsoever. Happi also happened to be a music producer, sound engineer and DJ. After hearing about him from fellow inmates, Dione sought Happi out and the pair struck an immediate rapport.
As much as his professional experience as a producer, Happi’s experience as an inmate in the prison was a fundamental part of the success of Jail Time Records. He recounts his early impressions of landing in Douala Central Prison.
“Being inside prison is different, you know, prison is prison” he says. “The state of mind, the energy is very different. Imagine being taken out of civilisation and being thrown into the Jungle. You see everyone as tough, they welcome you with shouts. The heat, the smell are strong, everything is strong there. It’s really raw.” (BBC Outlook)
Dealing with the daily issues of boredom, gang fights, drug abuse and the countless issues of an overcrowded and resource-deprived prison community was a challenge that Happi not only survived, but also sought to better himself with.
“I really put my faith on God. I really trusted the process, the Almighty, the eternal. The main challenge was practising patience. I've gained patience through this job and it’s been a big adventure. [I have also embraced] doing things for free, being long term, doing things for others. And we are still living the adventure because things are still ongoing. We’re still there like even right now. We still live in the regime.”
Happi transformed a torrid and unjust situation into an opportunity to help those suffering around him. A few months after Dione helped set up the studio, Happi began producing the other artists for the label. For him, it was the saving grace he needed to get him through his precarious situation and baseless sentence, and life now on the outside.
“Thank god for the studio being built in prison so I didn’t have to just watch time pass. Just being in the studio, walking, playing sport, and fasting too in the name of God. That's what helped me basically.”
The pair set about tracking down some of the other talent around them. This wasn’t a difficult task, as the word of such a project ran rapidly.
“Finding artists is not such a difficult task, because like prison is information basically” says Happi. “We were searching for singers or traditional artists, and then these [connections] came up randomly. I met a guy like was singing in the corner with pain, he was sitting in the corner of his cell, and that's how I met the artists like Macondo. For guys like Petit Batonette, he was in charge of the security in the part of administration.”
As the program grew, the benefits became immediately apparent. Dione explains;
“The project also gives them a lot of hope. It's a huge plus for them to have the opportunity to focus on music. You have so little to do in prison, and your mind is very tortured, so the project really helps this. Although music might have been their passion, they'd never really found the time and concentration to dedicate themselves to it before. We’ve also seen results once they leave prison, they really want to kind of keep being on track.”
Vidou’s experience on the inside is a testament to this.
“The project brings a lot of life to the prison, I would say like joy and happiness. No more thinking about being incarcerated. It's weird to say, but it almost made us feel free inside there, and feel no pain. You can heat a house with music.”
Another of Jail Time’s goals has been to help change society's views of the incarcerated, a major problem both in Cameroon and indeed globally.
“Many families have problems accepting having someone in the family that has been in prison, since it's a very big taboo. So seeing what they do, seeing that they are concentrating on a project and can do something good with it kind of changes the way the family might accept them once they come out of prison.”
Recording in a Prison
Recording in prison is no easy task. Fusing the technical and creative processes of making music and film with the realities of life in such a high-pressure environment is never easy. For Dione, who takes care of the visual element, keeping a good relationship with the prison authorities while maximising the visual element is fundamental.
“It's never easy to film inside prison because obviously it's a sensitive place to be filming and the authorities are not always comfortable about you bringing cameras inside. I think it’s a huge achievement that they actually let us film. I don't think there's many prisons where they would let you film, so yeah, so I'm very grateful.”
She explains the process of shooting the first few videos;
“With the first video we were really limited to where we could shoot in that video” Dione tells me. “We couldn’t go anywhere that you could recognise. That's why I just focused on the details of the faces, bodies and the eyes and mouths, like that.”
“Another of the videos was done in a location where we were more free. It was done at the end of another video shoot, and think it was Steve who told me at the end of filming, let's go quickly and try getting the video of Stone done. So it was done in like 15 minutes. I'd never been to that place of the prison before either. So we just freestyled it, but everyone kind of came in and the energy was great. We’ve also done some other videos and they’re more articulated, which will be coming out in the next few months with the album.”
For Vidou H, recording the artists music in such an environment can be a challenge.
“The energy is really raw and pure, you have to organise and manage all this energy of those artists. They are tough, you know, [there are] problems with fights and all that. Time is also difficult to manage. Things are very spontaneous, so you have to capture the artist really quickly, just at the right moment. Outside, you have the time. My technique was to record a lot of vocals in there and then I can write up the song later because of time. I lay the chord progression and then later we put down the beat behind it and I can lay down [the other parts].
You only need to watch one of Jail Time’s immaculately produced music videos to understand the raw power of the project and music. The label has released a trickle of singles and accompanying videos over the past few years, and are now excited to be releasing their very first keenly awaited album. The album is a compilation of the over one hundred tracks recorded by over 40 artists in the collective. Dione's superb videography, all of which was recorded inside the prison walls, paint a picture of the human lives trapped within a hellish reality and hopeful for a better future.
Tuerie 1 - The first single to drop from the upcoming album
Dione explains; “the album has many different genres. There's a hip hop, trap, world music, traditional or world music, reggae, electronic, afro. So it's really a mixture of everything.”
Thematically, like the range experiences of those that have wound up in the prison, there’s huge variety.
“There's some social denunciation songs, like for example Quimico and Do Stylo’s songs” says Dione. “And then we have more kind of romantic songs as well. We have songs about conscience too, like Stone's song about having an irresponsible father who didn’t take care of him, and how that affected his life.”
Happi adds; “and we have the opposite. Like Jafar’s track talking about his love for his Mother, that’s really beautiful. Basically, it's a mix of everything, it's a mix of life.”
Getting the pair to pick a highlight was an impossible task.
“They're all original and have really crazy songs. With this first album, we wanted balance, but they're all good” said Happi.
I asked Dione and Happi whether they see any other projects like Jail Time happening around the world, and where they see the label going in the future.
“That we are aware of there's nothing really of the sort inside prisons, with a permanent studio” says Dione. “I know of some similar projects like Die Jim Crow who we are in contact with, but it’s quite rare. Yeah, I think it's something that could be done like on a global scale, not even just with music, but with other art forms. And not necessarily only in prisons, but like in places that are very complicated and people have little access to ways of expressing themselves and ways of getting the voices heard through art.
Happi says “my vision for Jail Time in the future is for the project to never stop. And even after us, people keep the project going. It's a long-term project and I see it expanding in other countries. That's my vision for the project. And may the project change the life of many others and solve a lot of problems. May God give us the power and the strength for that.”
In a world ridden with injustice and suffering, Jail Time Records is a testament to the ability of art to give hope, create change and inspire. It is also a pertinent reminder to all of us that every person deserves respect, a voice, and most importantly, a second chance.
Written By Sean Ruse
Thanks to: Dione Roach, Steve Happi and all of those involved with Jail Time Records
All Photos By: Dione Roach and Jail Time Records