B.L. Shirelle knows all about the apprehension inmates experience before returning to civilian life.
In May 2015, Shirelle was finishing up a prison term at Muncy State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania, after having spent most of the previous 10 years behind bars.
That experience now serves as the basis for a track titled Headed to the Streets.
“It took me maybe 15 minutes to write that song,” Shirelle tells Rolling Stone. “I had all that anxiety in real time.”
The Birth of Die Jim Crow
Fury Young, founder of the multimedia project Die Jim Crow, shared Shirelle’s lyrics with Anthony McKinney and Mark B. Springer, who are both serving life sentences at Warren Correctional Institution in Ohio, and the two set the words to music.
When Shirelle was released, she added her own vocals, rapping over a rugged amalgam of distorted guitar and staggered drums.
The visual for Headed to the Streets, the first single from the Die Jim Crow project, is out today and merges modern prison images with old photos of black male prisoners doing forced labor. It also features Shirelle rapping and at one point using an axe to chop up a fake prison cot.
“The song is showing how vulnerable a state it is to be in coming out of prison,” Shirelle explains. “Be mindful. If you have a business, give somebody a shot.”
Headed to the Streets is part of the Die Jim Crow EP, which will be followed by a full-length in 2020. Young says their goal is to encourage empathy, increase awareness, and to get listeners to “step inside the shoes of someone that grew up in a community infested with discriminatory policing and a high incarceration rate.”
The activist-musician-filmmaker says he became interested in criminal justice reform in 2013 after he read Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
“I felt a major responsibility to shed light on the issue,” he says.
Check out the video for Headed to the Streets, below.