Twist and Shout

Twist and Shout
Life is never straight (Joey Kulkin photo)

Monday, November 25, 2013

Tom Freeman Presents: "Zu Life: Breaking the Cage"

Zu Life with a model (Photo by Devin Wade)

BENNINGTON -- The subject of Tom Freeman's documentary "Breaking the Cage" is a rehabilitated urban statistic by the name of Zu Life who went to prison at the age of 17 for carjacking and paid the price for 9 years. He won his freedom 14 months ago and went home to Burlington, New Jersey, to begin a career in hip-hop.

Can that be any more cliche?

In seeking publicity, Freeman provided a 10-point brief about the documentary, which he wrote and produced. It hits the big screen at Loews Theater in Cherry Hill on December 5.

1. Success story -- went to college a month after serving 9 years in prison (graduated in September)
2. Real life events -- shares the true horror stories of prison life
3. Therapeutic to gang members, young people in general
4. Touches several real life issues in urban community
5. Entertaining. Zu Life is currently one of NJ's hottest new rappers
6. Thought provoking -- raises and answers questions concerning judicial system and department of corrections
7. Revolutionary -- Hardcore Trenton gang members discuss meeting Zu Life in prison and falling in love with the music and the person
8. Family oriented
9. Inspirational -- Started a non-profit from a jail cell and followed through with his plans
10. Local -- He's from a small town in New Jersey and this has never been done before! Independent documentary on the big screen! People from all walks of life gravitate towards the movement.

Pursuant to those bullet points, here is Kulk's Q&A with Zu Life -- born Jay Sykes.

His answers are anything but cliche.

Q1: What were you convicted of? How old were you? Did you care that you were going to prison or was it a badge of honor? Congratulations on graduating college! (which one?). But, and not to be negative, why are you rapping? You have a college degree now. Seems so cliche to do the prison/rap thing. What are your dreams and goals outside of the entertainment industry?

A1. Carjacking. 16 when charged 17 when convicted. Yea I cared it wasn't a badge of honor. Institute of Audio Research NY,NY, certification in studio engineering/audio recording, I'm rapping because it's a gift I've had since a child. It was always a dream of mine to pursue music and entrepreneurship in entertainment. My dreams and goals outside of the entertainment industry are to provide opportunities in self-employment and entrepreneurship to people who share similar stories, or come from similar backgrounds as myself. My vision is to foster peace by educating, assisting and helping to develop at risk communities through our non-profit organization Hotep Inc.

Q2: What are some "true horror stories" of prison life? What are the 3 worst things you experienced?

Tom Freeman appeared on Trentonian TV
about 18 months ago (here)
A2. Police Brutality (Corrections officers), severe and inhumane punishment. (Solitary confinement for years at a time), harsh realities of gang life. (Being Crip in a prison system where 80% of active gang members are blood)

Q3: How so? Because this sounds like a cliche.

A3. Therapeutic by providing solutions to problems that have plagued our communities for decades. Particularly in New Jersey, gang violence was the leading cause of death for African-American males between 16-35 from 2000- until. And gang violence was no different inside the penitentiary system. Through music I was able to cross barriers and bridge gaps that seemed to be nearly impossible to accomplish. My story is a testament on how to find positive solutions to detrimental problems within our culture through peace.

Q4: Again, a cliche. Rappers have been singing about the hood for 25 years, hell almost 30 years. I listened to Slick Rick talk about the hood in the '80s with "Children's Story" ... Then there was KRS-1 breaking it down succinctly (here) ... So again, why is this generation any different? I thought this was the most thought-provoking rap and video ever made, with one of the great lines from Kool Moe Dee: "I never ever ran from the Ku Klux Klan and I shouldn't have to run from a black man." (here) ... So, how are you and your peers "touching" on the same issues in 2013 that the rap/black community touched on in 1988? After 25 years, don't you think you need to do more than just touch on an issue? What are you doing to change the culture?

A4: Since 1988, not only has the culture of music changed, but the culture and consciousness of African people as a whole has changed as well. In 1988 these hip-hop artists that you've named weren't in control of their art form and therefore couldn't truly be lucrative from their messages. In time, the messages changed and the art form was lost in almost totality when the objective became more about profit than artistic expression. On top of all of the major crisis' that has sky rocketed statistically in urban communities since the 80's, (Drug Infestation, Poverty, Staggering Incarceration Rates, Homicides, etc) as a reflection of the music the urban communities have been in a steady decline as well. More and more in this 'Information Age" that we're living in, the music industry as a whole is changing. More artists are seeking entrepreneurship and creating innovative ways to generate revenue from their music. Also, within the communities, more and more solutions to problems that once held us bacc are starting to manifest into existence. My story is nearly an example of how things that once seemed impossible can now be seen as attainable. And how unfortunate circumstances can be looked at as blessings in disguise.

Q5: Until I hit play on this 50-second clip I'd never heard Zu Life. You sound a bit like Tupac. Who are your influences? Have you ever listened to rappers pre-2000?

A5. Any rapper with a background of gangs, incarceration, and street life, with social, political, and spiritual consciousness is always compared to Tupac lol. I like a lot of Pac songs, but I don't know his catalog entirely. I was also musically influenced by Biggie, Jay-Z, Nas, Nore, DMX, Mobb Deep, MOP, Snoop, Dr. Dre, Eminem, and countless others. I was a hip-hop head growing up and I started rapping at an early age and excelled at it. Outside of music I was influenced by my family, Noble Drew Ali, Marcus Garvey, Ivan Van Sertima, Cheik Anta Diop, Dr. Joy DeGruy, Malcom X, Stanley "Tookie" Williams and many more.

Q6: How so? What kind of statistical data will you present? Who did you interview?

A6. I provided statistics on the juvenile incarceration rates, percentages and ratios of blacks to whites incarcerated with both juveniles and adults, etc. I also interviewed correctional officers and former inmates. As well as raised issues on the conditions of prison, the mistreatment/injustices within the department of corrections towards inmates, and the recidivism rate within the state of New Jersey.

Q7: So they're basically slurping you?

A7. Not funny at all, bro. And no they're not "slurping" anybody. They're telling their stories about juvenile incarceration, excessive sentences, and HARSH realities of life inside of New Jersey's Dept. of Corrections. The circumstances of how some of us met are at times breath taking. You'll hear stories of people finding companionship and forming bonds where under any other circumstances, these tasks would have been impossible. Friendships formed amongst chaos, understanding established amongst confusion, and hope, respect, and common ground found through music. All for the same cause, PEACE.

Q8: Define "family oriented." How many guns appear in this documentary? How many bottles of liquor? How many children are shown reading a book?

A8. Now you're just being close-minded, stereotypical, ignorant, and disrespectful, but I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt because you're used to dealing with lames, frauds, and "arm chair revolutionaries" in this nut ass society we live in lol. But nonetheless I'll be as real as possible with you, because I'm serious about what I do. NO, there is not 1 gun shown in this film. NO, there is no liquor displayed in this film. Actually, through our nonprofit organization, Hotep Inc., we show the various ways we are being a part of the solution to the problems that plague our culture and communities. The documentary shows positive transformation within 1 person that influenced his peers, his family, his community, and ultimately his state. It shows my vision of what I consider "Breaking The Cage".

Q9: What is the nonprofit? What were the plans and how did you follow through?

A9: Hotep Incorporated is an education nonprofit organization founded by myself and two other close friends that I've met through my journey within the penal system. We were passionate about our culture and the issues within society and our communities. We would always study and discuss ideas on how to provide solutions to these problems. Discussing these ideas got the attention of another friend who suggested that we get a 501 c 3 and bring some of these ideas into fruition. In May, 2012 after years of education, studying, research, building, and planning, Hotep Inc. was established. Our purpose is to foster Peace through educating, assisting and developing at risk communities, by way of Education/Financial Literacy, Vocational Training, and Ex-offender Re-Entry Programs. As soon as I returned to society I formed my Board Of Directors, established our vision, mission, by laws, and called our first meeting. Since then we've done several fundraisers, established a summer program for the youth (Friday Night Live, sunday kickball games, teen summits, introductions to business, cultural awareness, etc..) We've donated to other charities and have been a constant positive presence in our community since we've been established. Not too mention I've been on parole 1 year and already completed school, got a job in the field I studied, got a drivers license, started establishing credit, put out a mixtape, several videos, packed several big show venues, clubs, etc., been on several radio shows, done collaborations with many established artists, etc.. I make every parole appointment, never got a dirty urine, or had any other altercations or incidents with any law enforcement. And now I'm premiering my documentary in Loews Theater.

Q10: Honestly, is this just a promotional video to sell a few CDs, to make up for lost time?

A10: Listen Joey, this isn't a joke, game, fad, or gimmick. This is my life. This is my story. This is one story that many people can relate to. This is a movement that can potentially move mountains. This story needs to be told/shown to the world. How many of us are forced to live in, or intentionally place ourselves, in CAGES? Whether physically or mentally the majority of people in society are in some form of a cage and many of us can't find a way, or are AFRAID to find a way to BREAK it. This documentary is bigger than music. This documentary is a piece of a portion connected to a universal movement, and that movement is PEACE. This is my attempt at BREAKING THE CAGE.

Bonus Q: Explain how it feels to be "caged" as a black teen into his 20's. How did it make you FEEL every day? Day after day. Year after year. Take away all of the hip-hop, the nonprofit, all of the extracurriculars. What does freedom feel like one year after getting out of the cage?

Bonus A: To have your freedom taken away is something I wouldn't wish on any man. To have your freedom taken away as a teenager, that feeling is indescribable. Prison is a world within a world, a society within a society, with its own set of rules followed by all kinds of hardships and trials to face along the way. I went from a stage of denial, to a state of shock, to a deep depression, to numbness, to resurrection, to a divine and spiritual journey of knowledge, education, reflecting, understanding, and building. I was blessed to be around positive and spiritual people. People who shared similar stories as mine that I grew bonds with. These people grew up with me and helped me become a man. I was fortunate enough to be around people who motivated me to want to progress in life. People who pushed me to write music and perfect my craft. I was also blessed to have a support system throughout my journey of family and friends who wanted the best for me and believed in me.

I've been to every prison in the state of New Jersey, including the segregation units. I've been in administration segregation units (The Hole) for months, years at a time. I've been in the security threat group management unit "Gang Hole" (and completed it). I've seen and went through a lot of things throughout my journey, but I never lost faith in God. I don't know where I found the strength sometimes, but through prayer (meditation), reading, studying, exercise, and, writing I became stronger. Prison went from being like Hell to being a Universal Learning Center. It taught me patience, discipline, history, culture, and so much more.

A year out and I feel blessed. I thank God for another day and I try to live in the moment all while pushing towards my goals. Honestly, at times I still feel stuck in a cage. Adjusting to a world in 2013 has its ups and downs. Fortunately I have a good support system that helps me when I have difficult times. I try to enjoy the life of freedom as much as possible but my mission always plays in my mind. Everyday someone comes home from where I just was, but they all don't know how to rap. Most people don't have a support system at all. This is why so many of us die or go bacc to prison. I cant forget my mission.