Ethnomusicologist Daniel Atkinson describes Louisiana State Penitentiary (commonly called "Angola") as a “living, breathing plantation.” The land where the prison stands today was converted from plantation to penitentiary after slavery was abolished.
Atkinson’s maternal grandparents lived in northern Louisiana. He credits his grandfather’s service in World War II for removing his family from a cycle of poverty and incarceration prevalent in the region. His interest in Angola stems in part from his belief that if his family had not left Louisiana, he may well have ended up behind bars like many of his peers. But he was also curious about the history contained within Angola's walls.
“[Angola] always hangs over everyone’s head,” said Atkinson. “I just wanted to get in just to see it, to see it for myself ... I could look through the system of an older structure then see back in time as to how people lived and thought and breathed, particularly my ancestors.”
Historically, in the South, music was used to communicate in code, and Atkinson wondered if today's prisoners were using hip-hop in the same way. But penitentiary officials only granted him access to older prisoners whose gospel songs sounded like they emerged from another era.
“[There’s] the old adage, ‘Nothing makes Southern whites happier than black folks singing about Jesus,’ … It means they’re under control or benign in one way or another,” Atkinson said on Thursday's Central Standard. “That’s the way things were handled on the plantation and that’s the way things are handled still in many ways in the South.”
The music made Atkinson feel like he was tapping into a part of history that has been buried, forgotten or simply goes unspoken.
“My grandparents saw lynchings,” he said. “They saw all kinds of horrible things and to protect us from that they would just say nothing.”
Atkinson said the music he recorded sounds similar to older blues and gospel because the conditions in Angola remain in many ways unchanged.
“They relate to the world in a very old way, where the oppression is real: it’s not encoded it’s not hidden and they have to address it in ways to where they can bring their humanity into the world without destroying themselves,” he said.
Atkinson worked with composer Howard Wiley to create The Angola Project, a jazz collaboration that reflected what he saw and heard at Angola. Creating something new has helped him process the experience.
Atkinson is no longer permitted to conduct research at the penitentiary. He recently joined KU's African Studies Center, which has set him on a whole new path — this one, to Africa.
- Daniel Atkinson, assistant director, University of Kansas African Studies Center