LOS ANGELES – (AP) – Tributes poured in after Wayne Kramer’s death last week from musicians praising the MC5 guitarist’s contributions to rock music, as well as prison reform advocates extolling his legacy of bringing music to imprisoned people.
Kramer, who died Feb. 2 at age 75 of pancreatic cancer, influenced generations of artists with his screeching guitar chords on hard-hitting anthems like 1969’s “Kick Out the Jams.”
Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello said the MC5, with an uncompromising sound that fused music with political action, “basically invented punk rock.”
Kramer recruited famous friends such as Morello, Slash and Perry Farrell to perform concerts in prisons in California and his home state of Michigan, where he would leave his guitars behind.
Not long after the group broke up in 1972, Kramer was arrested on drug charges and spent two years in prison. Determined to straighten out his life while maintaining his activism, Kramer co-founded Jail Guitar Doors USA, based on a British charity that provided inmates with musical instruments. Kramer’s nonprofit is named after a Clash song that references his struggles: “Let me tell you ’bout Wayne and his cocaine deals.”
Gradually he began spending time one-on-one with inmates, helping them create their own songs and “watching the creative lights go on in their heads,” said Jason Heath, a close friend and executive director of Jail Guitar Doors USA.
“Working with prisoners was cathartic for him because music had saved his life when he was in,” Heath said this week.
“Creativity is the solution to the challenges we face,” Kramer told Mojo magazine in December.
His band eventually distributed thousands of instruments and created a songwriting mentorship program that expanded to closings nationwide. His work was cited in research by San Francisco University professor Larry Brewster that found that introducing the arts to incarcerated people led to fewer disciplinary actions, increased self-esteem, improved emotional health, and decreased recidivism rates. .
“He invited people to tell their story through music, that was Wayne’s gift,” said Elida Ledesma, director of the California-based nonprofit Arts for Healing and Justice Network. “He knew everyone was worthy of respect and dignity.”
In recent years, Jail Guitar Doors USA created a nonprofit partner, the Center for Community Arts Programming and Outreach. Its Hollywood headquarters includes a recording studio and teaches multimedia production to young people recently released from custody trying to start their lives over. A federally approved apprentice program for formerly incarcerated persons offers a 2 1/2 year curriculum in audio recording and a shorter program in film editing.
One of the new students, 24-year-old Joseph Jimenez, said it never occurred to him to become a filmmaker after spending more than five years in juvenile halls and other correctional settings. One day, he went to the mall with one of the residents of his halfway house.
“They gave me a camera and I just started learning,” Jimenez said.
He recently shot and produced a music video for a rap song written, performed and recorded by him and his fellow students. He said the program has instilled in him an ambition he didn’t know he had.
“Now I want to have my own production company,” Jimenez said. “I want to make independent film.”
Jack Bowers, who directed the art project at California’s Soledad prison for 25 years, credits Kramer with helping restore funding for cultural programs in state prisons. Amid a budget crisis in 2003, the state cut all money for the arts within California’s corrections system. Nine years later, a group of nonprofits, including Jail Guitar Doors, began lobbying for restoration. Kramer eventually testified before a joint committee on the arts, along with actor Tim Robbins and others.
“Wayne just gave this rousing speech about how important it was to have music and art in prisons,” said Bowers, who is now a mentor at the William James Society’s Prison Arts Project. “Because he had been incarcerated, he understood this from the perspective of someone who was on the inside.” His voice carried tremendous weight.”
It was out of that meeting that the program was reinstated, Bowers said. The state provided $1 million in 2014, and the prison arts budget has since grown to $8 million, he said.
Heath said the next steps for the Community Arts Outreach and Programming Center is to provide on-site housing for paid interns where they can focus on work to avoid the temptation to repeat the behaviors that got them into trouble.
“We can sign young people while they are still incarcerated. Then, when they are released, they go straight home, where they have a place to live, and straight to the center, where they have a job,” he said. “It puts them on the right track.”
Jimenez, the junior, admits that as a hip-hop fan he didn’t realize that Kramer, the unassuming guy who mentored people and ran the program at the center, was a rock star.
“I Googled it and it blew my mind,” Jimenez said. “He was so cool and so humble about the work he did with us. He is a legend.”