Music can be the dream activity which allows one to recapture life. There are many who are imprisoned and see music as freedom, also it can be the way back to a life full of possibilities. The story of Jail Time Records, a label housed inside of Cameroon’s Central Prison of Douala, is one of something that brings some magic back to the existence of current and ex-detainees who participate in this one of a kind musical program.
Dione Roach was born in Italy in 1989. She studied fine arts at UEL in London graduating in 2012. She is a multidisciplinary artist working with photography, video and painting as well as working on community art projects. Since 2018 she has been based in Cameroon where she has founded Jail Time Records, an audio-visual and musical project and recording studio inside the Central prison of Douala. Alongside her activities in the prison Roach has been documenting the life and people she meets behind the bars of the most populated prison in Cameroon. Focusing on black and white photography, Roach moves between documentary photography as well as more experimental ways of approaching the medium, always working with people and characters she has close at hand.She has participated in various exhibitions internationally and is the second place winner of the Sony World Photography Award 2020 in the creative category.
Jail Time Records is a non-profit music label that was born as the result of a music project started in 2018 in Cameroon inside the Central Prison of Douala. After succeeding in creating what is the first permanent recording studio inside an African prison Jail Time Records has become a collective of musicians, music producers and filmmakers from inside and outside the prison that produces the music of detainees and ex-detainees from Cameroon’s toughest prison. It has the scope of scouting and promoting talent while helping social reintegration and changing society’s perception of imprisonment. It is seen as the means to give a voice to a part of society that is highly unrepresented. For these artists undergoing the hellish reality of Cameroon’s jail, music has become the reason to continue fighting and believing in a second chance in life. The aim of the project is to expand its mission to other prisons both in Africa and internationally bringing a fresh and original contribution to music.
After setting up the recording studio inside the institution in 2018 and following four single releases, the collective released their first double album Jail Time, Vol.1, featuring 24 heavy-hitting rap, afrobeats, afro-trap, trap, drill, afro-house tracks from the Jail Time squad. Tracks journey through the languages spoken in Cameroon: French, English, Douala, Fulbè, Bamoun, Bassa, Sango, and explores a wide spectrum of themes and experiences of life incarcerated. Frustration, pain, love, guilt, hope, social and political criticism culminating in a communal showcase of resilience through the redemptive power of music. From within the grim prison grounds, music allows the artists to overcome the limitations of their condition and becomes an expression of hope, solace and common purpose, as felt in the urgency and intensity of every track. The album is intersected by skits composed by recordings of prison sounds, testimonies of the artists, phone conversations between the incarcerated artists and their families, creating an immersive experience of the universe of incarceration.
The album was anticipated by the release of the fifth Jail Time Records single, Show me the way, an afrobeat ballad sung by Jeje, JTR’s first incarcerated female artist. The emotional yet danceable banger recorded inside the Central Prison of Douala, is crowned perfectly by Jeje’s sweet and catchy voice, and her lyrics expressing the loneliness of her condition and the absence of someone guiding her during her life. The video clip was shot at the entrance of the female quarter of the Central Prison of Douala at twilight, reflecting the intimate and moody atmosphere of the song.
Jeje is Nigerian but has been living in Cameroon with her extended family since she was a child. She is 21 years old and has been incarcerated for two years for theft. Having always known that her path was music, with the complicity of an artist-friend Jeje stole her uncle’s money to try and escape back to her home-country Nigeria and invest in her career as an artist before both were arrested. Inside prison Jeje has been working on her debut solo album which will be released in 2023.
The album was accompanied by the drop of the video-clip for the track Offline, a collaboration between two JTR members: D.O.X. and Vidou H. The catchy pop tune sung in French compares being in prison to being offline, out of reach and network, and highlights both the frustrations and strengths that are gained through this experience. The video-clip was shot inside the Texas and Regime quarters of the Central Prison of Douala that no longer exist following a big fire that burned them down in 2020.
D.O.X. and Vidou H are cousins and spent two years unjustly incarcerated over family quarrels involving black magic until they were acquitted of murder and released. Vidou H is also JTR’s co-founder and producer and has recorded and produced the whole Jail Time, Vol.1 album from behind bars. Jail Time Records is a registered charity, to donate please visit the support page.
Jail Time Records aims to help with social integration, and for many of these men music has become their reason to continue fighting and believing in a second chance at life. The long-term aim of the project is to expand the Jail Time Records mission to other prisons both in Africa and internationally, also to bring a fresh and original contribution to the contemporary music scene. Regarding this, we met Dione Roach for an exclusive interview.
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Hi Dione, I am so glad to have you here on METAL. Tell us when was your first approach to creativity ( art, photography and film ) and how this process brought you to create Jail Time Records?
My father is an artist so I grew up surrounded by art and being encouraged from a very young age to express myself visually. As a child and then a teenager I already knew I wanted to be an artist and painting was my medium. At art school I started to experiment also with photography and video, and at 24 years old I started working on social art projects while in South America. I think that being aware of the privilege I had in being exposed to art from a very young age and being always and unconditionally supported to do so made me want to share this experience with people that have not received that support either from their families or from their surroundings, or have never been given the tools and means to go forwards with their creative passions. I also believe that the strongest and most urgent messages come from the most marginalised parts of society, from those who fall between the nets of society and are often its victims. So when I came across a collective La meute des penseurs inside the Central prison of Douala it seemed like the most necessary thing to do, to help them get their voices heard. Music was so powerful in that context, and they were so talented that I felt I just needed to make this get out and I decided to create a recording studio. As well as leading the creative direction of the project together with our producer and co-founder Vidou H, I am responsible for the visual side of Jail Time Records, so all the photography and the video direction.
How did you meet Vidou H and give birth to Jail Time Records?
I met Vidou H as soon as the recording studio was ready in prison, and we didn’t have anyone to run it. Another inmate introduced me to Vidou H who is a producer and sound engineer and was incarcerated with his two brothers. We immediately connected and I straight away gave him the keys to the studio, the following months he spent day and night recording all kinds of musicians and produced some amazing stuff. That’s how we developed the idea of running the project as a music label. Since being acquitted and released from jail three years ago we have kept working together side by side.
What is the social impact on prisoners and people involved through art and music?
The project has a very big impact on the life of prisoners, both during their incarceration as well as once they leave prison. Firstly it gives them means to express themselves and find a voice, it gives them an activity to focus on and feel passionate about and a reason to keep believing that their future might hold new and unexpected experiences and success. Music also unites people, we work with artists from all backgrounds, all walks of life, ethnic groups and beliefs. Music and art is an instrument to get to know oneself better, shed light on parts of ourselves and our character that might actually be detrimental to ourselves and others. Some of the artists we work with are very talented and have a high industry standard, and could realistically have careers in music and that's where we try and push them. Often what they really need is someone to help them believe in themselves. The project also has an impact on how society perceives incarceration, so it helps with reinsertion on many different levels.
Is the aim of the project to expand your mission to other prisons both in Africa and internationally? If yes, share with us a few.
Definitely. This year we are already committed to building a recording studio inside the central prison of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, and in a new prison that has just been built in Ngoma, Cameroon. We want to share this opportunity with as many people as possible and amplify its impact internationally. We believe our mission can be part of a change within how we think of the justice system.
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What is the most challenging part regarding the talent promotion while helping social reintegration and changing society’s perception of imprisonment?
Limited resources, limited staff, at times also managing some of the artists, some of them have problems of drug addiction and can therefore be quite difficult. We definitely need a lot of patience.
I know you were creating painting workshops inside the Central prison of Douala before Jail Time Records and you organised dance and music events.  How did you came across a few extremely talented incarcerated artists, musicians and rappers? How do you see for the first time the potential of a creative person inside prison?
During a dance event I had organised, a few guys got hold of the mic that was used by the MC of the event and started performing some tracks. It was really powerful and amazing. Some time later I remembered the name of one of them and I asked to see him, that experience had stayed in my mind and I was still thinking about it. When I met up with him he told me that they were a collective and were organising a rap concert in the prison. He invited me to join them in their daily rehearsal in the death sentence quarter. I started going and decided that we had to record an album, and therefore would need a recording studio, and that is how it all started. I think the first time I saw them perform I saw immediately what potential they had and how powerful their music was, and that is what inspired me to continue.
How do you approach communication with different prisoners? Do you have a specific language with each one of them?
Yes, just like in everyday life. The environment is quite tough and intense in the prison, with many people trying to intimidate you just for fun so it is important to put boundaries and always have a strong stance, and not react to the continuous provocations one receives. At the same time with our artists we have a very strong and intimate relationship, it feels much like a family, although there can often be tensions arising between them.
Is there any spiritual connection between creativity and prisoners? What actions are necessary to give a long-lasting meaning to Jail Time Records through the years and how others can contribute to this?
Jail Time Records message is one of deep positivity and belief, that in whatever dreadful situation you find yourself in life there is always space for change, for some sort of beauty, a redemptive act. There is a very strong spiritual component in the work all members of Jail Time Records collective do. Prison is a kind of human purgatory, and music is lived by many of our artists as a means of searching for peace with themselves, with the harsh surroundings. Few other experiences in life are so extreme, and this is felt in the urgency of their music. In this perspective music also appears as a form of spiritual evasion, a force capable of projecting those who have been deprived of their physical freedom beyond the perimeter of their confinement.
Although the most important activity of Jail Time Records in terms of impact on the life on prisoners is to give them access to the instruments to create music while in prison and once outside prison, it is also through the reaction and support of the public that their work feels validated and appreciated.Therefore we really hope for people all over the world to show love and support the music and work of our artists and share it beyond.
Jail Time Records is also a registered charity in constant need of funds and support, so all donations and volunteer work are big contributions to the cause.
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How important is for Jail Time Records the first album Jail Time, Vol.1 and what do you expect from it?
Jail Time, Vol.1 is our first album so it feels particularly special for us. It is the result of the sweat, love and tears, and many sleepless nights of many people. It actually mostly showcases the music of the first couple of years of our project; the newer music will be released in the second volume in 2023. It was important for us to give a voice to as many artists as possible, and to those that were there from the start.
It is a very varied album, with all kinds of genres of music, from hip hop to afro-house, world etc. It is a journey through the regions of Cameroon, as represented by the many languages the album is sung in. I think it can be appreciated by a very mixed public, so far it has been received with a lot of enthusiasm and we are really proud.
Walk us through the creativity process of this album and how long it took to realise it. Can you share with us a few creatives involved in the production?
Most of the tracks of the album were recorded by Vidou H between 2019 and 2020, with a few exceptions of tracks added later. For a series of reasons it took very long to get the album out, so it feels really good that it is finally happening. Vidou H is the person behind the whole production of the album, although he let me choose the selection of tracks and do the skits; our way of working is a kind of creative fusion, I take part in the music process as much as he takes part in the video-making part and we always bounce ideas back and forth between each other. All together the album took about two years in the recording and production, and it was a very beautiful  and intense process because it was like building a journey through the universe of incarceration, of Cameroon, through so many moods, stories, characters and emotions.
Walk us a little bit though the songwriting process? Do you contribute to it with the musicians or do you just let them go with the flow?
Mostly each artist comes up with his own songs and lyrics, we give them a big catalogue of beats produced by Vidou H or they download them from the internet and then we produce an original one for them after. Sometimes we have very specific ideas for the artistic direction of a song and we give a specific beat to an artists and ask him to sing in a certain way, sometimes Vidou H writes parts of their songs, other times I also give very specific directions both to the producer and the artists, for example in our single Sa Ngando I asked Vidou H to create an amapiano sounding beat and chose Empereur to sing on it giving him some references from Naira Marley.
How do you think Jail Time Records can make the ordinary world more conscious about a society in which the rights must be equal for all, no matter the race, nationality, gender or social status? How can social media have an impact on this?
Jail Time Records work is also that of educating society on the need to break down the stigma tied to incarceration and that prison reforms are urgently needed worldwide. Extremely high recidivism rates in all countries show that the way we conceive and carry out justice is not effective, and rather than focusing on punitive systems we should be adopting and testing out rehabilitative ones. Art and creativity are definitely very useful tools to lower recidivism rates, as shown by many case studies around the world, including our own experience. Our message is one of tolerance, equality, non-judgment, positivity, and I hope our work can communicate that. Social media can have a large impact on spreading this message since they have such a wide reach, so again, I invite everyone to take action and share the world, the message and the work as much as possible.
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How do you think independent magazines, creative platforms or brands can collaborate with Jail Time Records in order to empower more the creatives involved?
I think collaborations with brands and creative platforms is essential for this kind of work, what we are trying to do is not only to promote the music and the message of the artists we work with but to promote a shared culture. Being a small, independent reality we don't have the means to promote our work on a large scale so the support of magazines, platforms and brands is essential.
We know that the new Jail Time Records recording studio was built outside the prison. Where was it before? How important is involving other people or organisations for the reintegration of ex-convicted creatives into the community and why?
We have two recording studios in Douala, one inside the prison and one outside. It is very important for us to involve other people and organisations in our project and work because we can reach more people, have more support and the prisoners themselves feel appreciated, validated and more confident if people and institutions from the outside show interest in them.
Share with us a few successful artists from Jail Time Records and how kept them away from what brought them to jail.
Moussinghi is a good example, he spent most of his youth in and out of prison, he was arrested five times for robbery and also armed robbery and was part of gang life. In 2018 he came back to prison for the last time and took part in the project. After receiving grace in 2020 he has been out of prison and has taken up music very seriously, has become very aware of the dangers of street life and and changed completely lifestyle, finding a normal job and using all his free time working on his music and talking to the youth around him  about his life experiences to guard them from making bad choices. Mostly we have had really few recidivism rates amongst the guys participating in the project, so I would say that is already a really good turnout!
In a letter to your future self, what would you write?
Be courageous, continue following your passions and the dreams you are building and sharing with others, make art that touches people, that has a real impact and serves deeper scopes.
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