Hear the Grammy-Nominated Album Recorded by Prisoners

The Zomba Prison Project exposes some of the hardships in the world’s poorest nation.
Feb 15, 2016·
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Kendrick Lamar, Taylor Swift, and Justin Bieber are just some of the popular artists expected to grace the Grammy Awards stage in Los Angeles on Monday night. But one group of nominated musicians will be absent from the ceremony, and it’s not just because they live more than 10,000 miles away, in the tiny southeast African nation of Malawi. The 60-plus musicians involved in the Zomba Prison Project are behind bars, in a maximum-security prison in the city of Zomba.

Their album, I Have No Everything Here, recorded with the aid of American producer and global talent scout Ian Brennan, was nominated for best world music album of the year. The Grammy in that category went to Beninese vocalist Angélique Kidjo for her album Sings, but the newfound recognition of Zomba Prison Project is helping to shed light on the troubles plaguing the world’s poorest country, which suffers from high maternal and infant mortality rates and a low life expectancy owing in part to the persistent prevalence of HIV-AIDS.

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“Many people across the world who had never heard of Malawi are now saying, ‘There’s a country called Malawi,’ ” Chikondi Salanje, a 32-year-old inmate serving a five-year sentence for robbery, told The New York Times. His song, “Listen to Me (or I Will Kick Your Ass),” is one of 20 tracks on the album, most of which are sung in Chichewa and offer advice, reflections, or repentance for life lessons learned the hard way. Other titles, penned by the likes of convicted murderers, many of whom are serving life sentences, include “I Kill No More,” “I Am Alone,” “Forgiveness,” and “Last Wishes.”

“Please, Don’t Kill My Child,” written and performed by longtime prison guard Thomas Binamo, is an acoustic string-accompanied plea against the crime of killing children out of jealousy. “Some people get jealous and they can think of killing someone’s child without any reason,” Binamo told the Times. “It is a problem in our communities. People get jealous. Maybe he’s better educated. He’s earning more. He’s doing better.”

Malawi has been rocked by corruption scandals and accused by human rights organizations of enabling human trafficking and child labor. The country has a life expectancy of just 61 years—a decade below the global average—and slightly more than half the population of 16.7 million lives below the national poverty line, according to the World Health Organization. Malawi is also grappling with an AIDS epidemic in which the infection rate among adults is slightly more than 10 percent—one of the world’s highest, according to UNICEF.

Prisons in Malawi are notoriously overcrowded. On the website for Six Degrees Records, which released the album for Zomba Prison Project, the facility where the album was recorded is described as a dilapidated brick structure dating to the 19th century. Built to house 340 people, its population is now nearly six times that. Brennan, a Grammy-nominated producer who has worked with members of TV on the Radio, Los Lobos, and Wilco, traveled to the prison in the summer of 2013 with his wife, Marilena Delli, who coproduced the album.

A violence prevention specialist, Brennan taught conflict resolution workshops to inmates and guards in exchange for access to the prison and permission to record the inmates. While the album has garnered worldwide attention from its Grammy nomination, it has also helped bring justice to several of the inmates at the Zomba prison, according to the Six Degrees Records website. Three female inmates who had been jailed on accusations of witchcraft have been released as a result of the project, and three other cases are now being reviewed thanks to funds raised by the album.