Jail Time Records: The collective running a record label inside a Cameroonian prison

© Dione Roach

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Jail Time Records is a collective and non-profit record label based out of Douala, Cameroon.

More specifically, Douala Central Prison, which not only houses a string of Jail Time-affiliated rappers, producers and artists, but a permanent recording studio where hundreds of demos, instrumentals and fully-fleshed out tracks have been laid down since it opened back in 2018. It’s through this studio that a number of inmates (both current and former) have been able to hone their talents, refine skills – musical and otherwise – and experience creative enrichment seldom found within the system. 

The project was founded by artist, filmmaker and teacher Dione Roach after living in Cameroon between 2017 and 2018, where she worked for Italian NGO, Centro Orientamento Educativo. As part of her work, she would visit the prison and deliver creative workshops. It was during this period that she first encountered some of the talented musicians and rappers incarcerated within. Roach then obtained financial support from Centro Orientamento Educativo to build a recording studio inside the prison – the first of its kind in an African jail. The goal was to offer a necessary creative outlet and birth something that could support the social reintegration of the inmates – offering a new focus, or even a career goal. Perhaps even change the narratives surrounding prison life in the process. 

In January 2019, Steve Happi, who also goes by the alias Vidou H, joined the crew. As a multi-instrumentalist, sound engineer, producer and singer, Happi is Jail Time Records’ enthusiastic in-house producer and co-founder. When he met Roach, he was an inmate of Douala Central Prison. While inside, he managed the studio, its schedule, and recorded hundreds of songs spanning genres such as hip-hop, Afrobeat, gospel and more. He elevated his own craft too, picking up music theory and technical knowledge through experimentation but also necessity. 

Over the past few years, Jail Time’s output has largely consisted of music videos. However, the label is now set to release its first album. Jail Time Vol. 1 is a genre-weaving, 22-track compilation that celebrates the scope of the artists involved and their unique perspectives. It’s raw, moving and built with the kind of resilience that can only stem from an environment that’s equally, if not more, intense than the music itself. Looking to the future, Roach and Happi have big plans for Jail Time. In the meantime, though, we caught up with them to reflect on the project’s beginnings, the studio and prison reform.

© Dione Roach

Dione, how did you cross paths with Steve?

Dione: As part of my NGO work I taught painting classes to the underaged detainees. Then I moved to the courtyard with the adults. I was organising some events with hip-hop dancers [who would] come and give some workshops and do freestyles. That’s when I met some of the rappers who were inside.

Steve: I wasn’t aware that people were building a studio inside the prison. Then, a friend of mine, who was also incarcerated, connected me with Dione. He knew that outside I was doing music. He told me, “You see the white girl coming inside prison? She’s building a studio here.” I went back to my cell for 10 minutes and he came running in and said she wanted to meet me. 

© Dione Roach

How have your roles in the project changed over time?

S: At the start, she left me with these guys called La Meute Des Penseurs. I come from a hip-hop background, but I was more interested in researching singers or producers. That’s how the project became a little bit more open. We worked day and night – we didn’t even look at the time. To be honest, it was really the power of God, because we didn’t even feel the pain of it. We barely slept.

D: When I returned, they’d recorded more than 100 songs.

Is it fair to say this sort of project is somewhat rare?

S: Having a recording studio inside a prison? It’s so rare! That’s why, for me, it’s God’s plan. Even the media and journalists of Cameroon are wondering, how is it possible? Interest around the project is growing. You know, Cameroon, at this moment, is very political. It’s really delicate to have people inside prison recording.

D: Also, in general, there aren’t many organised creative activities. Art is not considered that relevant; it’s not given that much space. Things are changing, there are a few more galleries opening up and trying to really interact more with communities. But mostly everything is centred around – in terms of culture – the French Institute. 

© Dione Roach

What were the early workshops like?

D: Before there was a studio, there was this rap collective. We would meet every day with the idea to make an album. There were maybe 10, 15 of them and there were daily rehearsals, open mic-style. I would give them books to write their lyrics in and brought in some mentors. Steve would teach sound engineering and production to whoever was interested, too.

How was the project received?

S: It was pure excitement. Being in prison is really difficult because you basically live in a square; most activities you are willing to do because everything is boring. There are different kinds of people here: people who come just to pass the time, and people who are really passionate about music. There are people who have talent, but they’re not wanting to build a career. There were a couple guys who came just to hear music, vibe, give advice. It was a bit of everything, like life! 

© Dione Roach

How does a typical session work?

S: At the beginning, it was a problem because there was too much pride because, say, this one is not on good terms with the other one and they meet in the studio. I was kind of babysitting them, I really was. But we made a schedule to control the situation. You have to learn who works well with others.

Like life.

S: Managing – that’s life, you know? Over time, it became more about who was willing. At first, everyone was really enthusiastic. Now, when they see the work behind it, they disappear. We have less people coming daily but we have the most passionate ones. That’s a beautiful part of the adventure.

© Jail Time Records

What kind of genres crop up most frequently? Not just on the album, but in general. Is there anything that you hear more regularly?

D: There have been a lot of hip-hop artists, a lot of Afrobeats. There are less traditional artists but that’s something we want to work on; finding ways to merge electronic beats with traditional singing. And in terms of lyrics and themes, what the artists sing about is very varied. There are a lot of songs about mothers. 

S: They miss their mothers too much, they are babies! [laughs]

I guess that’s like outside life, too.

S: That’s true. We have a lot of songs about mothers – even girlfriends. “We miss you, behind bars” or “Mother, I miss your good food, I just want to eat couscous, eru, plantain...”

© Dione Roach

Would you consider the music coming out of the studio, or the artists working in the studio, to be political?

S: It’s social.

D: Politics is something that people prefer to avoid speaking about. There are a lot of journalists in prison; it’s not a free speech country. Instead, you write social criticism.

What are your goals for Jail Time Records, and what are your next steps?

D: We want to expand the concept to other prisons in Africa; to build recording studios and set up teams in other countries.

S: We are about to build a studio outside of prison. Prison is one thing – people are not born in prison, you know? They are born outside and just go to the prison, so, basically, they’re meant to be out one day. That’s our goal.

D: In the next couple of months we should be able to have a studio outside. It’s almost harder when the artists are outside of prison, like, that’s when the real work begins – having music as a way to reintegrate them into society and keep them away from whatever brought them to prison.

Are there any prison abolition movements in the region? It’s a topic being discussed in other parts of the world at the moment, but I’m interested to know what’s happening in Cameroon.

D: I can’t really speak because I don’t know of any. I think it’s still early to think of prison reform here. The penal system is so complex already. You can really go to prison for anything: stealing an apple, not having your ID card. 

S: For no ID card it’s two weeks.

D: What do you think, Steve? Do you think prison reform is something that people will be talking about, or do you think it’s way too early?

S: Maybe, who knows. I can’t predict it, but we have more urgent problems right now.

D: There are other things we’re more concerned about. For example, if you’re caught stealing, or just suspected of stealing, you can be subjected to extrajudicial mob killings. Nobody gets charged for these killings. There is complete impunity for whoever killed the person allegedly robbing. So, prison reform? One step at a time, but it will come.

Jail Time Vol.1 is out soon

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