“Who will you choose? What side will you choose? Here in America, there is always something to be choosing,” exclaims Reverend John Lee Hooker Jr. as he approaches a crowd of yellow jumpsuit clad inmates.
Almost as if scripted, a man in the front row throws up his hands and shouts “Amen! Hallelujah!”
Inspirational religious banners line the walls of the converted gymnasium at Goose Creek Correctional Center. In the adjacent recreation room inmates can be seen pumping iron and toss around a basketball. The indistinct sound of flushing toilets can be heard in the distance.
One hour earlier, Hooker Jr. hurriedly munched on a cabbage salad and bread in a back room. Joined by former Blues Central owner Frank Dahl and volunteer chaplain Gary Lewis, Hooker Jr. animatedly quoted Bible verses, talked about his love of Jesus and explained the importance of evangelizing.
“I can feel it, someone’s life will be saved tonight,” Hooker Jr. tells Goose Creek Chaplain Lewis as he prepares for sound check.
This will not be the first time Hooker Jr. has spent time behind prison bars. The son of legendary blues musician John Lee Hooker, was a correctional facility mainstay in his teens and early adulthood. A slew of drug related charges landed him in juvenile detention before he was eventually sent to the big leagues – the Correctional Training Facility, better known as Soledad.
Ironically, it was behind Soledad’s walls that Hooker Jr. gave his first prison performance alongside his father in 1972. When he returned in 1985, it wasn’t quite the same glamorous affair. This time around, Hooker Jr. arrived via a prisoner transfer van and he wouldn’t be leaving at the end of the night.
During his two-year stint in Soledad, Hooker Jr. became the resident blues musician hooking up with other inmates to form the Soledad Blues Band which would occasionally hold performances on the prison yard. It was also during his time at Soledad that Hooker Jr. says he found Jesus although it would be years before he would leave the “blues for the good news”.
In 2004, Hooker Jr. saw his first taste of commercial success with his Grammy nominated album “Blues with a Vengeance”. He continued making albums and was once again nominated for a Grammy in 2008. It seemed like the singer was hitting his musical stride but in 2013, Hooker Jr. made an unexpected departure from the blues scene.
“I was performing in a club in Sacramento. Everything was going well and then suddenly, violence broke out. Over the chaos I could hear the spirit of the Lord telling me to leave the blues,” Hooker Jr. explains.
“My Dad always said he would never get out of the blues alive and he didn’t. For me, I won’t get out of the gospel alive and that’s exactly the way I want it,” says Hooker Jr.
Hooker Jr.’s story isn’t unique. For the members of the Praise and Worship Band at Goose Creek Correctional Center, music was the path to finding the Lord.
“Playing music makes you feel better. Like you messed up but you can still be a part of something,” says Christopher Byers who is currently serving 30 years on multiple charges of child molestation.
“I found the Lord a year ago,” continued Byers. “He put it on my heart that I should sing his name so I started to learn how to play the keyboard and sing. God gave me the time to put my time into something that’s worth putting my time in to. Now I try to practice four hours a day.”
As the Wednesday worship begins, Byers happily pounds away at the keyboard and loudly sings alongside the rest of his bandmates. Song lyrics are projected on an adjacent wall so audience members can sing along but very few of the 120 men in attendance are compelled to join in. In fact, apart from the front row, the audience appears somewhat disengaged. That is until Hooker Jr. takes the stage with a live performance of his song “Holy”.
“You want to hear some music?” yells Hooker Jr. When the response is mixed, he playfully cups his hear and repeats, “I said, you want to hear some music? Then stand up with me because my God is holy!”
This time the crowd reacts as Hooker Jr. dances in between the aisle and throws his hands up in worship. A palpable sense of lightness and joy overtakes the converted gymnasium and for the first time, the inmates seem happy. Hooker Jr. still has swagger.
In true gospel fashion, Hooker Jr. wipes his brow and loudly proclaims “hallelujah” when he finishes singing. As the inmates once again take their seats, Hooker Jr. ascends the makeshift pulpit set out for him.
“Someone came inside a correctional facility and gave me the Word. Now I get the chance to give it to someone else. Oh yes, someone’s life will be saved tonight, Lord,” proclaims Hooker Jr.
“I know what you are thinking. Give me proof, I want the proof. Well, I am the proof of what the Word can do. I’ve been shot, I’ve been stabbed, I’ve been arrested and now, here I am a free man serving the Lord,” Hooker Jr. continues.
A number of inmates lift their hands in the air, shake their heads and whisper “amen” under their breath. A man in the second row clutches his Bible, the word “forgiven” tattooed on his knuckles and a cross hanging around his neck. To his left a man with a large tattoo of the crucified Jesus calmly sits, arms folded across his chest, a smile gracing his thin lips.
Thirty minutes later, the service ends and Hooker Jr. is surrounded by a number of inmates looking to shake his hand and extend their gratitude. He graciously speaks to each inmate reminding them that the decision they make tonight will decide what happens to them in the end.
The inmates slowly dissipate and Hooker Jr. is escorted across the yard by a corrections officer. Despite the dimly lit surroundings, Hooker Jr. is beaming as he recounts the events of the night to anyone who will listen.
When asked how he feels about returning to prisons to preach Hooker Jr. says with a smile, “It’s easy to come here because I know I get to leave.” While it’s unclear whether or not Hooker Jr. was able to truly convert those in the audience it is clear that he gave them 90 minutes of escape from the reality of prison life.
“Faith comes by hearing – the Word of God will transform men’s lives – and then there’s the music. The music is like the bread, you know what I mean? The Word is the meat and the music the bread. When you put them together, it makes the Word accessible. Music has a beat to it, a certain tingling to the ear. Music makes a person say ‘hey’ I kind of like that – it’s an escape and that’s what these men needed,” says Hooker Jr.
When asked how he would respond to those who are outraged by the idea that inmates are allowed to mentally escape their punishment, Hooker is succinct: “There’s none that are right. There is none that are good. But Jesus Christ died to take away that pretentiousness. He said he who is without sin cast the first stone. That’s what I would say to them. We are all no good.”
*Originally published by the Anchorage Press