Theater of the Resist: The Escorts and Lifers Group

Nicole Fleetwood, Associate Professor, Department of American Studies, Rutgers University, moderates discussion between Lifers Group members Maxwell Melvins, president, and rapper Picard "Original" Galette as part of Theater of the Resist, a series of edgy, timely, and pointedly political performances and films produced by culture writer Kali Holloway in conjunction with the exhibition The Body Politic: Video from The Met Collection. Special guests include Ralph McDaniels, founder of Video Music Box; Reginald Haynes, founder of The Escorts; and Billy Martin, singer and member of The Legendary Escorts.

The event that took place at The Met Breuer on August 4, 2017 was the first time in history that members of The Escorts and Lifers Group had ever met.

The Lifers Group formed in Rahway prison. The prison, which opened in 1901, was designed to hold 1,000 inmates; however, the actual number incarcerated has, at times, exceeded 2,000. In 1968, Reginald Haynes joined with inmates at the Trenton State Prison to practice the R&B singing style known as doo-wop as a way to do something constructive with his time. In 1970, Haynes was transferred to Rahway prison, along with the men he sang with, where they reunited as The Escorts to perform at an inmate talent show. Motown record producer George Kerr, who happened to be in the audience, was impressed by their performance and embarked on a mission to produce their album.

In 1976, a group of Rahway inmates serving sentences of 25 years to life created the Lifers Group. Raised in Camden, New Jersey, Maxwell Melvins became incarcerated in 1980. In 1987, Melvins was transferred to Rahway, where he interviewed with the screening committee to join the Lifers Group. He was interested in the fundraising and the business practices that supported their programs. At that time, the message of the Lifers Group's Juvenile Awareness Program was about self-control and resistance to popular media's glamorization of incarceration. In 1991, Maxwell presented to the Lifers Group his idea for putting their message into the form of rap music.

Picard Galette, who goes by the rap moniker "Original," was born in Brooklyn and raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He became incarcerated at the age of 17 and was transferred to Rahway at 18, where he fell in with the Lifers Group. Although he wasn't serving a life sentence, the Lifers asked the young man to work with them in the Juvenile Awareness Program to tell his story to the youth. Melvins asked Original to help audition other inmates, which led to the Lifers incredible musical output, an eventual Grammy nomination, and a copy of their first album now being in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Recorded August 4, 2017

This program was offered free with Museum admission, thanks to Janet and Howard Kagan and The Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, Inc.

The series was made possible by Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon B. Polsky.

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