Baa Baa Black Sheep: Lullabies Behind Bars
“Yeah it’s a big deal! I mean my kids are here and that’s a huge deal because I don’t get to see them very often,” said Hiland Mountain Correctional Center inmate Falesha Taylor as she balanced her seven-year-old daughter on her hip Saturday morning. “And now, my kids get to leave here with a CD recording of me singing the lullaby I wrote. They get to hear my personal message, my voice.” “I get to bring it to school for show-and-tell” added her bubbly second grader. “You do? Did you ask your teacher if it was OK?” Taylor asks her daughter with astonishment. Her daughter nods enthusiastically as Taylor tightly embraces her, kisses her head and says, “I don’t know how I am going to get through this song without crying.” Incidentally, she didn’t.
Taylor is among 15 other inmates who participated in the Hiland Mountain Lullaby Project. Originally established in 2008 by Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections program, the Lullaby Project strives to create a sense of normalcy and emotional intimacy for distressed children and mothers struggling with homelessness or incarceration. Through a series of three interactions with a volunteer local musician, the mothers compose a lullaby for their children which is then professionally recorded and shared at a public performance. To date, the project has been held in 25 cities nationwide. However, this is only the second time that it has been replicated behind prison bars. The first was at the infamous Rikers Island Women’s Correctional Facility in New York.
The Alaskan incarnation was the brainchild of Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame member Shirley Mae Stanton. A long time human and civil rights activist, when Stanton heard about the Lullaby Project on a NPR broadcast, she knew she needed to bring the project to Alaska.
“Everything starts with an idea. When I heard about the project on NPR, I sat straight up in my bed and thought we need to do this in Anchorage,” recounted Stanton. Luckily, Hiland Mountain Superintendent Gloria Johnson felt the same way. Despite the security risks of opening the penitentiary to the public, Superintendent Johnson saw that she had the unique opportunity to inspire and empower her inmates through music.
Although some may scoff at the idea of giving convicted criminals an opportunity to create personal, professionally-recorded lullabies for their children, the benefits to the child are scientifically supported.
According to a 2013 article published in the journal Psychology of Music, personal lullabies can be a crucial element in parent-child bonding. Leading researcher Dr. Nick Pickett found that when a lullaby is sung to a child, that child experiences a lowered heart rate, less anxiety and a reduced perception of physical pain. He also found that lullabies were instrumental in creating feelings of togetherness and warmth for both child and parent.
As each mother took the stage on Saturday, it was clear that the hardened shell created by imprisonment was shed. These women were no longer thieves, addicts and violent offenders—they were mothers. With tears welling in their eyes, they sang lullabies praising the innocence and unconditional love of their children. Many also apologized for their mistakes and pleadingly asked for forgiveness.
“Music has a way of softening people and helping them express their deepest feelings,” said collaborating musician Dr. Mari Hahn. As the only classical musician in the group, Dr. Hahn was tasked with composing a pop song in just five hours.
“The inmates were supplied booklets from Carnegie Hall which were meant to help them come up with the basis of their song. They were asked to write about how they felt when they were pregnant, when they gave birth, what would they want to say to their child. In the middle of August, we met with our partner and we composed a lullaby,” said Dr. Hahn.
As most of the inmates had no song-writing experience, many of the lullabies featured familiar pop melodies. Although as some inmates discovered, their musical tastes differed drastically from that of their mentor’s.
“Can you believe that a lot of people don’t know who Tracy Chapman is?” laughed Taylor. “I mean, Tracy Chapman is classic, right? My mentor thought that it was a white man singing when I played ‘Give Me One Reason’ for her.”
“In my family, music is such a big deal, it is how we relate,” continued Taylor. “My seven-year-old loves Tracy Chapman so I knew I had to write a lullaby that would work with that song. I just didn’t want any minor chords—we have enough sadness and this is happy.”
Differing musical tastes wasn’t the only challenge for the collaborating musicians. For YWCA Alaska CEO Hilary Morgan, she had to learn a new language to record “Agelu Mai Luga".
“When I met Shawn [Paepac] we started talking about lullabies but the only ones she knew were in Samoan. We found out that we didn’t know any of the same lullabies,” said Morgan. “Then we thought, ‘why don’t we just write parts of this in Samoan?’ and I’m really glad we did.”
As Paepac sang alongside Morgan and the Jesus Is The Answer Samoan Choir on Saturday, there was scarcely a dry eye in the packed Hiland Mountain Correctional Facility gymnasium. Used tissues where strewn across the worn floors and inmates tightly clenched their children in their arms. A sense of loss and regret hung heavy in the air as Paepac’s song came to an end. Each passing moment brought the female inmates closer to the reality that when the last song was sung, their children would go home and the prison doors would slam shut behind them.
At 1:30 p.m., the dreaded moment came. Despite tearful goodbyes from their children, many of the inmates remained stoic as they posed for one last group photograph. Outside the gymnasium, an inmate from general population slowly filled a water bottle as she longingly watched a parade of civilians file through the prison’s open doors. Dressed in a yellow jumpsuit, the inmate was a staunch reminder that despite the opportunity to escape prison life for an afternoon, the women of the Hiland Mountain Lullaby Project would soon trade in their project issued clothing and return to a regimented life behind bars.
Still, Falesha Taylor is hopeful that her participation in the project will lead to a better life. “I can’t even express how grateful I am,” she said. “You know, I used to hate writing. Especially poetry. Now that I’ve written something, I realized that maybe I can do something creative, something that means something. I’m going to take a college-level writing class this fall. I would have never done that if it wasn’t for this project.”
For audience member and first-time mother Marvat Obeidi, the performances were an affirmation of what she already knew to be true about motherhood. “You think you have things figured out—that you know things—and then one of these pops out and you realize that you don’t know anything. Having a child makes you vulnerable in ways you never imagined,” she said rocking her baby in her arms as she softly hummed her own lullaby.
*Originally published in the Anchorage Press