Activist and Musician Janet May Releases “Lessons to Learn” Vinyl to Benefit the Women’s Prison Association
Stories can help us heal and grow. Janet May is writing her own healing mantras for our time—and she wants to mail one directly to you.
Janet May is a singer-songwriter and activist from New York.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she had been playing a monthly residency at Riker's Island Women's Jail, bringing her music to some of the women incarcerated there. She also frequently plays shows at shelters in NYC as part of the Women's Prison Association's arts initiative.
Since COVID-19 hit, she found herself looking for ways to continue her activism while in isolation. Those efforts are culminating in the release of a vinyl of her single "Lessons to Learn," out today. 100% of the proceeds from the "Lessons to Learn" vinyl will be donated to the WPA, and, Janet told me, all proceeds over $15 will purchase a pair of headphones for a child living in the New York City shelter system. Anyone who buys the single will also receive a special package from Janet, which includes a vinyl press of the song and toolkits of information on the WPA.
These funds will all help deepen the impact of a program that empowers women and children to fight through their situations and to reclaim their narratives. "Many women experience desperation in the face of arrest, but I was introduced to WPA and given the opportunity to tell my story," said Kamilah, a graduate of the WPA. "WPA advocated for me in court. WPA helped the judge see beyond my crime. Thankfully, he agreed that a college student and mother of a young son should not be locked away. That's when WPA became like family to me."
Now more than ever, the WPA needs public support to continue its immensely valuable work. Janet's project is a part of that, an example of her ongoing commitment to making change through music. "While mass incarceration has always been a public health crisis, COVID-19 has presented unique challenges to WPA and the women who seek our partnership," said Georgia Lerner, executive director of the WPA. "We're thrilled to have Janet's support, and that of her fans, and are thankful to all who have elevated and supported the needs of systems-involved women during this crisis."
Janet is also working on a series of music videos and recordings that will be shown on TV and handheld devices for Rikers inmates, a project that will be coming to fruition in the next month or so. Her next single is called "Feet on the Dashboard," which is about having a loved one incarcerated, and both "Feet on the Dashboard" and "Lessons to Learn" will be on her forthcoming debut LP of protest songs.
Music is a way to break through differences and to share stories with other people, and in Janet's hands, it's a form of magic with real world-changing consequences. With its perfect blend of music and activism, the "Lessons to Learn" project fits well within Janet's body of work, all of which merges the power of music and storytelling with impactful action. We spoke with Janet about "Lessons to Learn," her work with the WPA, and her visions of the powers of storytelling, which are particularly vital at a moment when we so desperately need new stories.
POPDUST: Can you tell me a little bit about the song "Lessons to Learn" and the single rollout?
JANET MAY: "'Lessons to Learn" is about growing older and accepting all of the things that happened in your life. Those mistakes I keep on repeating—it's like, how do I get free?
I see it as a protest song. It's about raising your voice and using your voice, because that's going to help and heal you and ideally others, because we're all so connected. I was feeling a need to connect and organize, to reach out and keep the conversation going, because it's more important now than ever—and also to provide real relief in the form of donations to an organization that is on the frontlines.
The single will benefit the WPA, which is the Women's Prison's Association, a nonprofit based in New York that works with women who are either system-involved or have been affected by the system in some way. That's meant a lot to me, to be able to connect with these amazing women I know and work with in New York, and to provide support to them, even in these difficult times.
I'd love to hear a bit more about the WPA and your involvement in it.
The WPA is the nation's leading expert in the incarceration of women. When we talk about the criminal system, a lot of what we see is designed specifically for men, even though the number of women incarcerated every year has grown at twice the pace of men in recent decades. Eighty-five percent of women who are incarcerated in New York Prisons have not committed a violent crime.
We know that by incarcerating someone, we're limiting their access to the outside world, but also we're limiting whatever job they have and child support and housing. It's an all-encompassing way to hold someone back. Oftentimes, punitive systems will put a woman who's already at a disadvantage at an even greater disadvantage, rather than addressing the systems that led to "criminal" activity in the first place. The WPA considers what these women's real needs are.
What was playing your music at these prisons actually like?
The air is different on the inside. Everyone is on the edge of their seat.
We travel through three major security checkpoints and numerous gated hallways with all locked doors. I arrive at a housing unit to play for a number of women who are going through what has to be one of the hardest times of their lives.
But as soon as there's an instrument in the room, people open up. Music takes us to places where we aren't in the moment—to memories or distant dreams—and it's always so special to share those intimate stories together, whether it's a story from childhood or a dream about how things might be done differently, through recording or performance.
I have met some really incredible women. Some of the women I've met are graduates of the program, in that they are living on their own; they have jobs, they're no longer in the system, and they still come back to the WPA Arts to give back.These women are responding to their experiences by saying, "I want to lift other women up. I want to come back and let other women know they're not alone, because that's what I needed."
I've also been really amazed by some of the writing that comes out of WPA Arts. It's not just freeing for the individual who puts it down, but when it's read out loud in the room, it encourages us all to soften and be present.
I think we can all agree that in this pandemic, when you're in a tough spot, that's the difference that you need. A moment of clarity, a moment of peace or truth.
Janet May - Lessons To Learn (Official Music Video) www.youtube.com
How has COVID-19 affected your work?
Jails and prisons amplify problems as opposed to addressing the problems that are happening in our community. What we're seeing with this virus is so terrifying—but these problems have always existed.
As more individuals are being released from Riker's Island— where there's no such thing as personal space or sanitation—we're seeing that we're able to release people who are elderly or who have health needs, and that begs the question: Are these people a threat? Do they need to be incarcerated? Did they need to be held in these populations to begin with?
As long as this disease is in our jails and prisons, and as long as people are still going into and being released into these systems, this disease will never come to an end. This has amplified the ways we're connected to our jails and prisons.
It seems like the stories we tell ourselves can determine our reality. For example, the stories we tell about incarceration can be very distorted.
I prefer the words "system-involved" over the "criminal justice system," because the term "justice system" exalts a system which may or may not be just. As people, we need to be involved in shaping our laws, until that happens, justice will not be served. The system of incarceration as it currently is, has racial disparities. We need to check our language around the issue of mass incarceration.
I had an amazing professor who told me that the role of an artist or any creator is to travel and to be outside the realm of the world that we all agree upon. There are so many givens, so many frameworks and shared agreements, but music or art is about traveling outside of that into a realm of pure experience.
The role of an artist is to travel out, but the job is not done. You have to come back with something that fits in this world that we can agree upon, like a poem or a story. That's where the artistic process lives.
Music, for me, has proven to be something that doesn't go by the rules or the boundaries or the social structures that we know. Music should travel into difficult spaces; it should soar above a crowd to connect them. On the road, I had loads of conversations with people about how incarceration affected their lives. I found that to be true everywhere I played across the country.
There'd always be a few people who not only had been affected by the system, but they wanted to talk about it. You really find that others are experiencing the same issues, or have similar stories.