Content warning: This article contains use of the N-word.
Monday, November 25. Dawn. Bryonn Bain is one of several inmates chained together to board a bus to Rikers Island. Once on the bus, the men, rolling 12-deep, are told that they will be heading to a new location, Vernon C. Bain Correctional facility.
“A prison boat named after the white folks who owned my ancestors. Damn,” Bain says to himself. Arriving at the facility, he is ushered into a Manhattan criminal courthouse. There he meets with his court-appointed attorney. Having been detained for three days and two nights in a cell with a feces-clogged toilet, Bain is now being arraigned. Despite his resilience, he is weary and convinced that he will be spending yet another night in lockdown.
Once inside, the prosecutor recognizes Bain before addressing the judge. “Due to a conflict of interest,” he says, “I must recuse myself from this case, your honor. I know the defendant standing before us today.” He continues, “Mr. Bain was in my class back at Harvard Law.”
Time stops. Bain freezes as a bass line creeps in. Then, Bain, the protagonist, addresses his audience. “The prosecutor is the guy who’s got my back?” he cries out. He transitions into song before interrupting himself to speak again. “You despise this cracker ass system the white man designed EXCEPT when it’s working out fine for your privileged behind. You do need to get yourself free but from an even bigger prison: your own hypocrisy.”
This is a scene from Lyrics From Lockdown, a one-man, multimedia theater piece utilizing elements of hip-hop, Calypso, and spoken word. Lyrics from Lockdown tells the story of Bain’s wrongful incarceration at the hands of the New York City Police Department. Bain assumes over 40 different characters to expose the system of mass incarceration through rhyme, underscored by the sounds of live musicians and a deejay.
Developed in prisons nationwide before premiering professionally at Harlem’s famed National Black Theater, Lyrics From Lockdown has traversed the globe. Performed in Belgium, Singapore and at Brown University, Rikers Island, Sing Sing, and beyond, the show has brought its indictment of the carceral state and its unjust treatment of Black and Latinx people to a wide range of audiences: from dignitaries to students and, most importantly, incarcerated people. Lyrics From Lockdown speaks to more than Bain’s individual experiences and expands its scope to uplift the humanity of the incarcerated. The show grew through collaborations with the likes of actor, singer, and civil rights icon Harry Belafonte, his daughter Gina Belafonte, and director, dramaturg, and theatermaker Mei Ann Teo.
The heart of this show relays Bain’s experiences as an artist, prison activist, organizer, , 1995 graduate of Columbia College, 2001 graduate of Harvard Law School, and a twice unjustly arrested Black man in America. Born in Brooklyn during the dawn of hip-hop, Bain was nurtured in communities where people boldly claimed their space. Bain recalls his early experiences in the burgeoning hip-hop culture in the performance: “My first time on the mic? Seven years old and couldn’t be told nothing,” he raps. Emceeing and the aesthetics that went into it, especially the word play, informed his writing style. “The funky-fresh, stupid-def Bain brothers had to get our learn on with no less than they very best, I’ma get me a college degree in Crazy legs and Run D.M.C.,” Bain raps to the audience.
In the late 1990s, while working toward his master’s in urban politics, cultural studies, and performance at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, he gravitated toward the Lower East Side’s legendary Nuyorican Poets Cafe where he established himself as a performance poet through its poetry slam. “I started getting on the mic. I was like I’ve been watching this long enough,” Bain recalls. He would go on to win the 2000 Nuyorican Grand Slam, represent New York as a member of Team Nuyorican, and go on to take second place at nationals that same year. He also nurtured his own creative spaces as a co-founder of the blackout arts collective, a nonprofit that brought artists and activists together to speak to social and political issues through performance. The poetic, lyrical, and movement-based elements of Lyrics From Lockdown grew out of the prison workshops the collective co-facilitated.
“I call him the most incredible human being and also a force of nature because you cannot meet him and not remember,” recalls friend and former schoolmate Rita Pietropinto-Kitt, a 1993 graduate of Columbia College and 1996 graduate of the School of the Arts as well as former Columbia Alumni Association board chair and Bain’s former acting teacher.
Leaning on the mic and the pen as tools to clap back against forms of oppression is part of Bain’s heritage as a West Indian. “He is a griot; storytelling comes so deeply in all of the traditions that he is deeply connected to,” says Teo. Bain’s father was a photographer in the U.S. military and a renowned practitioner of the subversive Caribbean art form of Calypso, whose political art took him from his native Trinidad to the world-famous Apollo Theater. His mother, also a native of Trinidad, was a teaching assistant and later an intensive care unit worker who stressed education and the possibilities it presents to Bain and his siblings at a young age. “She always instilled in us this idea that we could achieve whatever we wanted to achieve,” he says. Bain’s mother worked three jobs to support her family.
As teenagers, Bain, his brother Kristofer “K” Bain, and their cousin Kyle “Red” Vasquez were bussed into a predominantly-white school district in upstate New York. Bain explained to 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace that “every week there was a different racial incident.” Bain’s response: excelling in academics, running for student office, and boldly asserting his presence in front of his white peers. As his cousin recounted to Wallace, “I remember in seventh grade him running up and down the halls with posters, ‘Bryonn Bain for president.’” Walking down the hallways of his middle school and high school a proud, unapologetic Black man was his way of fighting back against the racism he experienced there.
Matriculating to Columbia College in the fall of 1991 after graduating high school early, the then-16-year-old first-year student and his classmates entered in the midst of tremendous racial upheaval, both on a local and national level. Six months before the fall semester began, Rodney King was brutally assaulted by a member of the Los Angeles Police Department, racial tensions centered around curriculum reform and academic freedom at The City College of the City University of New York were reaching a boiling point just north of College Walk, and, most saliently, Columbia student-activists were laying the groundwork for the eventual Save the Audubon movement. Under the tutelage of campus activist and surrogate “big brother” Ben Jealous—who would later serve as the CEO of the NAACP—Bain gravitated toward the megaphone to make his voice heard.
Elected president of his class each of his four years and serving as vice chair of the United Students of Color Council, Bain spoke to the major concerns of the day, most notably the administrative attempts to cut the University’s need-blind admissions policy. Moreover, he extended himself to others looking to work within the radical politics of the time.
“Navigating [these politics] came through people like Bryonn who walked me through that racial consciousness and turned that into something very practical,” New School professor Hussein Rashid, who graduated from Columbia College in 1996, recalls. “We had a lot of agency coming into this protest tradition at Columbia.”
As campus activists, Bain and his peers in various campus affinity organizations not only challenged institutional injustice at the administrative level but also at the student level. He and others who fought alongside him on issues related to race and racism on campus publicly criticized Spectator’s perceived complicity in upholding structural racism at the University. “Their reporting was very deferential to authority,” Rashid—who wrote several pieces critical of the paper’s treatment of Black and Latinx voices and concerns—says. “There is so much talk about racial justice and equity in these spaces coming from ‘changing the narrative.’ What we really need is a movement that changes the narrators,” Bain adds.
“He’s always been deeply interested in community,” Pietropinto-Kitt says, “deeply interested in building community and fighting for community.” By the time he delivered his presidential address at Columbia College Class Day, Bain was adept at building bridges, using the power of the word, and stepping onstage. Despite that, the events that preceded Lyrics From Lockdown had not yet transpired.
The first incident began on the corner of 96th Street and Broadway on a late October evening in 1999, four years after Bain graduated from Columbia College. He was home from Harvard Law School and with his brother Kristofer and cousin Kyle. After leaving the now-defunct nightclub, the Latin Quarters, the family made a pit stop at West End Deli before boarding the express train back home. Leaving the bodega, the trio noticed a group of men in front of a car arguing with someone in an apartment above. As Bain recalled in an article he authored for the Village Voice, tensions were exacerbated when one of the young men began throwing bottles at the apartment.
Wanting to escape the ensuing mess, Bain and his family began walking toward the downtown subway station when they were accosted by the Latin Quarters bouncers who accused them of throwing the bottles. As Bain tells it, despite the presence of other passersby, the bouncers zeroed in on him and his family. “Where do you boys think you are going?” Bain recalled the bouncers saying in his article. The use of the pejorative boy to refer to him, his brother, and his cousin as Black men alerted them that the bouncer viewed them in a particular light. Deciding to ignore the bouncers, they proceeded toward the subway. Unbeknownst to them, the bouncers called the police.
Before long, three white officers grabbed Bain, his brother, and his cousin, threw them against a wall, and began to frisk them. Bain recalled that the officers accused them of throwing the bottles and ignored the protestations of his cousin Red who attempted to explain that they had not done anything wrong. As Bain explained on 60 Minutes, “every time Red would turn around, [the officer] would push him as hard as he could and was telling him ‘Shut up. Shut up.’” According to Bain, the officer in charge, Ronald Connelly, told the men that unless they complied he would “treat them” like they “were trying to fight back.” The countless hours Bain spent pouring over legal theory, precedent, and civil procedure in his law school classes could not substitute the lesson he learned that night.
Bain recounts going to the 24th Precinct for processing, despite having been denied due process. Bain wrote that he and his family were never advised of their rights to an attorney or to remain silent. The three men were later bailed out by one of Bain’s college mentors, the noted legal scholar, civil rights activist, and first tenured Black law professor at Columbia Law, Kellis Parker. Parker would remain by the men’s side over the next five months as they made four separate court appearances. On February 23, 2000, the case against the three men was dismissed.
On the night of their arrest, Bain recalls the officer processing their paperwork telling him that Latin Quarters had partnered with the New York Police Department to deal with suspicious-looking characters. In chronicling his experience, Bain wrote that on the afternoon before his arrest, he overheard an elderly white lady discuss how safe then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani made her feel. But Bain knew that for Black people, life under Giuliani was a different reality.
His arrest occurred within the context of the aggressive policing practices under the Guiliani administration; the year before Bain’s case was dismissed, four members of the NYPD’s notorious street crimes unit fired 41 shots at an unarmed West African street vendor named Amadou Diallo, murdering him outside his Bronx apartment. In the aftermath of Diallo’s killing, the then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer issued a blistering report on the NYPD’s practices, laying bare the systemic patterns of racial profiling. Mayor Giuliani staunchly rejected the findings of the federal probe into the NYPD. Then-Deputy Commissioner and NYPD attorney George Grasso took a similarly denialist approach in response to questions of the targeting of Black and Latinx people by the NYPD.
While detained in his cell, Bain began to write.
“The first lines of the ‘Walking While Black’ article were scratched on toilet paper in my cell,” Bain recalls. “On my way back to law school, I transferred those notes to my journal and that week professor [Lani] Guinier asked those of us in our class to write about an experience of injustice,” he says. With the assistance of Guinier, the noted legal scholar and first woman of color tenured at Harvard Law School, he published his account of his arrest in an article for The Village Voice titled “Walking While Black: The Black Bill of Rights.”
According to the Village Voice’s editorial team, Bain’s article received an unusually large response, so much so that the Voice published a collection of letters written to Bain in response to his article in a follow-up titled “Walk Black Live.”
“It literally went viral before viral was a thing. Over 100,000 people wrote letters in response,” he recalls.
Bain received letters from mothers, from Indigenous people in New Zealand, and, importantly, from incarcerated people, including death row inmate Nanon Williams. Convicted of capital murder in 1995 and sentenced to death, Williams’ sentence was commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 2005, as he was a minor when the alleged crime occured. Williams has maintained his innocence and was the subject of the 2019 documentary Making an Exoneree. Williams shared Bain’s article with other inmates and began corresponding with Bain. “Dear Bryonn,” began Williams’ letter. “I read everything I could find on you. Had my lady make copies of ‘Walking While Black.’ Passed them to all the brothers on death row.”
Bain’s writing took on greater urgency as did his commitment to standing in solidarity with and fighting for those caught in the carceral state. “That was something that he continually fought for, Nanon [Williams]’s voice,” recalls Teo.
“Three days and two nights can infinitely change one. My story goes,” raps Bain as he launches into a scene from Lyrics From Lockdown. A hip-hop riff creeps in as he continues, “cops on your jock round the clock acting like you cooking up rocks when you not.”
Saturday night. November 2002. Bain is driving on the Bruckner expressway in the Bronx when an NYPD officer pulls him over for a broken tail light. As Bain detailed both onstage and in another Village Voice article titled Three Days in NYC Jails, the stop began with a seemingly innocuous request for his license and registration. His truck had a flickering light as a result of a recent accident. The arresting officer informed Bain that he needed to run a routine check. By the end of this police encounter, he would wind up in jail for three days, be called mentally ill, and be accused of having two misdemeanors and a felony.
As Bain describes it, after retreating to his police cruiser, the officer returned and ordered him to step out of his vehicle. With his hand already placed on his gun, the officer searched and handcuffed Bain. “Why are you arresting me?” Bain recalls asking. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Since his initial arrest in 1999, Bain had been a victim of identity theft by his account more than a dozen times. The real culprit, Anwar Bostick, a man with whom Bain had no personal connection, obtained his personal information, was arrested, made bail, and passed off Bain’s information as his own. When Bostick failed to show up to court, warrants were issued in Bain’s name. His arrest photos and fingerprints were never compared with those of Bostick. But Bain did not know any of that.
On Bain’s first night in jail, the authorities took his mugshot and fingerprints, then held him in a cell without telling him what the warrants alleged. Moreover, he says he was not allowed to call a lawyer. This treatment at the hands of the officers embodied a line about the United States’ racial order from one of his essays: “any nigger accused of a crime is to be punished without any due process whatsoever.”
On his second day at the precinct, he was greeted by a court-appointed lawyer, Rachel Dole, from the Bronx Legal Aid Society. She too refused to explain to him what the warrants alleged. “I don’t know anything about those; they have nothing to do with me,” he remembers insisting. Bain recalls that Dole informed him that she could have his fingerprints taken again and compared against the warrants. He was to wait in his cell while that process took place. Later, Bain was again taken to an interrogation room where a second lawyer, Alison Webster, met him in the interrogation room. Webster would be his new court-appointed attorney.
Webster flipped through his file and wondered how, given his birthdate, he entered college in 1991. “I had skipped two grades before college,” he recounts telling Webster in his article. Confounded by his story, she probed further: he recited his biography of starting Columbia at 16, obtaining a masters at NYU, graduating from Harvard Law School, and attending a fully-funded research trip in India. As Bain recounts, Webster leaned forward and told him that “In addition to being an attorney, I am also a registered nurse specializing in mental illness,” and “sometimes people create alternate realities for themselves as a coping mechanism for dealing with stress.”
Later that night, Bain’s family arrived to pay the $3,000 required to bail him out of prison, but the jail ran out of the paper needed to print receipts for his release. He was forced to remain in custody.
Bain’s third day in jail brought the end of his carceral nightmare. He now had a new lawyer, Eric Williams, who would help shed light on the mystery of the warrants allegedly tied to Bain.
Once the judge ordered Bain’s release, the officers to escort him threatened Bain with more jail time unless he admitted that Bostwick was his alias. Bain refused and was again taken to a holding cell until he was eventually released. In Lyrics From Lockdown, Nanon Williams suggests to Bain that “you got all them overpriced degrees. You might get someone to listen to you.” Williams, it turns out, was only partially correct. As Bain sees it, it was not him who was listened to—it was the white prosecutor who was heard.
In the aftermath of his two arrests, Bain’s writing shifted toward indicting the criminal legal system. “I didn’t even want to write a show until Lani Guinier pushed me and I realized that I could use the media platform I had to shine a light on the case of other folks,” he says. Those other folks remain at the heart of Bain’s practice. He left the 41st Precinct after three days and two nights; those other folks could not.
“The show is not about, ‘Hey, I was innocent and look how bad it is for me. Woe is me,’” Bain emphasizes. It is about a system that targets, incarcerates, and ultimately robs human beings of their dignity. Through his work, Bain articulates a vision of mass decarceration. He laid out his vision during a 2015 performance of Lyrics From Lockdown: reeducate, reemploy, enfranchise, ban the box, and reduce the prison population. His most meaningful performances were in prisons with the people most affected by the crisis of incarceration. “The most important place for him was when he was able to share his story with people who deeply understood the oppression of being in a Black man’s body,” Teo recalls. When Nanon Williams first wrote to Bain in December 2003, the correspondence sparked a bond and friendship that has endured for close to 20 years. “He was a huge encouragement for me to continue,” Bain says.
Bain was equally passionate about bringing the discussion to communities he felt needed to bear witness to the plight of the incarcerated. He got that opportunity when he brought the piece home to Columbia on two occasions.
Monica Byrne-Jimenez, the former president of Columbia’s Latino Alumni Association, played a pivotal role in bringing Lyrics From Lockdown to Columbia’s Miller Theater in 2011. Bain brought the humanity of Nanon Williams and others to his home turf, a home he felt was in need of awakening. “For many of us, it was the first time that a light was shone so brightly on the experience of the incarcerated,” Byrne-Jimenez recalls.
When Bain, his brother, and his cousin sat down on 60 Minutes after the initial arrest, he said to Wallace, “I’ve gone to Harvard for two years now, but I’ve been Black all my life.” While Nanon Williams’ suggestion that Bain’s degrees offered him some modicum of protection only proved partially true, it embodies the absurdity and hypocrisy Bain seeks to confront and dismantle.
“You think gettin’ out this jailhouse is gon’ to make your Black ass free? Loooooord, Harvard has ruined more Negroes than bad whiskey!” Bain yells out onstage.
Lyrics from Lockdown references Bain’s achievements while illustrating that none of his achievements ultimately mattered in his interactions with armed agents of the state. More importantly, Bain seeks to emphasize that none of these credentials should matter, perhaps most saliently in this portion of the show:
Black man—accused of a felony, but innocent
Thrown on Death Row — locked up at 17 — for over 20 years!
Black man—accused of a felony, but innocent
Going back home – after only three days up in here!
’m gone tell you why ...
You went out and bought yo’self
THE most over-priced degrees Uncle Sam’s bloody hands ever seen!
You know damn well that judge wouldn’t budge
… for your gangsta-ass brother—or your switch blade-waving mother!”
Lyrics From Lockdown returned to Columbia in 2014. Immediately following his performance, Bain participated in a talkback co-sponsored by the Black Students Organization inside Hartley Hall’s Malcolm X Lounge—his original campus organizing home. Afterward, Bain walked toward the University gates at 116th Street and Amsterdam Avenue and tried to hail a cab. None would stop for him. Armed with only a signed poster from his show, he stood without a means to get home. After some time, he relented and took the express train home to Brooklyn.
Giving voice to others and uplifting them remains Bain’s mission. “Bryonn just fills the room with this amazing human love,” says Byrne-Jimenez. In Lyrics From Lockdown, Bain shares over six letters penned by Williams. Today, seven years after he last brought Lyrics From Lockdown to Columbia, he continues on as an educator at the University of California, Los Angeles where he connects UCLA students with formerly incarcerated students through spoken word workshops. He works as a creator as he adapts his work Ugly Side of Beautiful into a limited series. And he works as an activist who continues to advocate for Nanon Williams’ release.
When Bain first walked onto the steps of College Walk as a 16-year-old, Rodney King was fixed in his consciousness. When he returned to Columbia in 2014, bringing Lyrics From Lockdown with him, Bain recalls that that performance coincided with Troy Davis’ execution, who had been convicted in the death of officer Mark Macphail in Georgia.
As the stories persist, so does Bain’s work. At the end of Lyrics From Lockdown, Bain reads another of Williams’ letters to him. “In many ways we wear the same shoes.”. In an alternate reality, Bain is the one on death row and Williams is the one at Harvard. United in struggle, Bain addresses his audience one last time:
“Who could it be? Believe it or not, it’s just me and believe it or not I’m just WE.”
“A whole lot of folks in need.”