Unseen: Kalief Browder and Solitary Confinement in America

I'm about to begin preliminary work on a new commission, funded by a grant from Johns Hopkins University: a composition concerned with the unseen violence of solitary confinement in America, specifically the tragic story of Kalief Browder depicted by Jennifer Gonnerman in The New Yorker and Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic. In 2010, the 16-year-old Browder was arrested in New York on robbery charges. Unable to post bail but never convicted of a crime, he was held on Riker’s Island without trial for three years, two of them in solitary confinement. Browder committed suicide in June 2015, two years after his release. My project -- which will involve student and faculty musicians from the Peabody Conservatory of Music, as well as scholars and artists from across JHU -- is conceived as a springboard to longer-term academic, performance, and community engagement activities, generating new creative work and investigating the role of artists in social justice.

As this work unfolds, I hope to post occasional thoughts and experiences that emerge from my research and creative process. To begin with, I wanted to share a moving email from composer Steven Burke. Steve and I first met and became friends at the Yaddo Artist Colony in 2006. We connected again in 2011, when I interviewed him in New York for my doctoral dissertation on the legacy of his late mentor at Yale University, Jacob Druckman. Just before the New Year, I heard from Steve for the first time in years:

from: Steven Burke
to: Judah Adashi
date: Wed, Dec 30, 2015 at 11:04 AM

Dear Judah,

It has been a long time, but I just wanted to congratulate you on being awarded the Practical Ethics Grant from Johns Hopkins University. It is a very important work you are undertaking and I am happy to learn that you are concerned with specifically the story of Kalief Browder.

Kalief was my student in the Spring of 2015, his last semester at Bronx Community College. I thought the world of him and always looked forward to seeing him in class. He was a source of strength. We would always talk before or after class. He was a kind, generous and thoughtful soul. I once asked him, after noticing stitches in his nose, if he was okay. He said yes and that I shouldn't worry about him. A few weeks later I wasn't feeling well and he walked up to me and put his arm around my shoulders and asked if I was okay. I was touched by his warmth. He was one of those students I felt connected with somehow. The loss was very painful for me and it was made even worse by the fact I didn't know about his troubled past. I felt so ignorant and guilty.  My students write an autobiography at the beginning of the semester, but Kalief never mentioned a word. I found out after the school psychologist wrote to me about his tragic death. I have been composing a piece in his memory for piano trio. It is therapeutic.  

I just wanted to add my voice and recognize what you are doing. He was a very special soul. I also want to wish you a very Happy New Year of love, joy, peace, prosperity and good health!

All best,