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  • "The Music Industry Funds Private Prisons":Analyzing Hip-Hop Urban Legend
  • Alisha Lola Jones (bio)

"Our people speak to the myth."

—A. A. Rashid, griot

Black love and hip-hop brought Calvin Taylor Skinner and me together in 2018 as we nurtured a commuter relationship between Knoxville and Bloomington, Indiana. During our five-to six-hour drives, I talked about my research on musical masculinity, while my theologian-activist guy shared provocative YouTube videos and podcasts facilitated by hip-hop sages to stir conversation.1 The sages self-identify variously as Pan-African, American descendants of slaves (ADOS) or Foundational Black Americans (FBA), among other Black-centered/African-centered terms. The ADOS/FBA experts probed a constellation of obscure discourses: extraterrestrial encounters, Dr. Sebi, erased ancient African histories, reparations, Black love, and "conscious" hip-hop.2 Discussing these topics with Calvin afforded me familiarity with Black men's curation of complex creative-intellectual space irrespective of dominant culture's understanding of their discourses. Central to this enigmatic genre of orality is speculation, inspecting structural barriers in an idiom their people recognize. From to to, controlling one's virtual presence is an essential facet of agency in the hip-hop tradition.

Our conversations inspired me to return to a juxtaposition I offered my students of esotericism performed in Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's [End Page 511] "Meet Me at the Crossroads" (1995) with global esoteric traditions and folklore surrounding Western classical musicians. "In what ways might you imagine your guru as a Black man from Cleveland, Ohio?" Since then, I have been analyzing the sociocultural listening biases that are exposed when we encounter portrayals of the long-winded, spitfire "Hotep" figure in pop culture, for example.3 To "speak to the myth" (rather than the patronizing Western notion of suspending disbelief) and resist sociocultural silencing, A. A. Rashid reminds us, I engage a joint venture urban legend relayed by Krayzie Bone and consult Black sages' observations ascertaining whether music industrial complex owners/ executives are colluding with privatized prison owners.4

While organizing a musical metaphysics event in October 2021 featuring online hip-hop curators, I received an intriguing email from a forerunner in online hip-hop curriculum design Portia K. Maultsby, Distinguished Professor Emerita of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University:

In the early 1990s a former graduate student, then keyboardist for Stevie Wonder, called me upset that some record labels were actively recruiting Black men with criminal records to record rap. He believed that they were encouraging criminal acts among this group. His account supports the views expressed in this video.5

Maultsby's accompanying memo illustrates Black pedagogy in which—true to our oral tradition—conversation remains citable. Black music educators are living epistles, griots transmitting the culture, guiding pupils through the academy and beyond through the music industry. Black music educators are their gifted students' confidantes, culture-bearing seemingly unbelievable stories. The referenced video displays a visibly shaken Krayzie Bone6 reading an intriguing account of a 1991 clandestine meeting:

. . . Little did I know, we will be asked to participate in one of the most unethical and disruptive business practices ever seen.

The meeting was held at a private residence on the outskirts of Los Angeles . . . Our casual chatter was interrupted when we were asked to sign a confidentiality agreement, preventing us from publicly discussing the information presented during the meeting . . .

One of the industry colleagues, who shall remain nameless . . . thanked us for attending . . . The subject quickly changed as the speaker went on to tell us that the respective companies we represented had invested in a very profitable industry, which could become even more rewarding with our active involvement . . . The companies we worked for had invested millions and millions into the building of privately owned prisons . . . built by privately owned companies who received funding from the government based on [End Page 512] the number of inmates. The more inmates, the more the government would pay these prisons . . . As [the private prisons] become publicly traded, we'd be able to buy shares . . . since our employees had become solid investors in this prison business, it was now in their interest to make sure that...