When the Grammy nominations were announced yesterday, the list of nominees included a variety of artists: Kendrick Lamar, Taylor Swift, and 16 prisoners in a maximum-security prison in Malawi.
Among the nominations for Best World music was the album I Have No Everything Here by the Zomba Prison Project, a group of inmates living in the African country’s toughest prison. Released in January, the album contains songs written by 16 different prisoners and performed by more than 60.
Guards allowed producer Ian Brennan and his documentarian wife Marilena Delli access to the prison for 10 days in August 2013 after they agreed to provide classes on nonviolence. They recorded songs right in the prison cells, and some of the guards even joined in.
The music is simple but beautiful, with inmates singing alone and playing some instruments. Most of the lyrics are in the tribal language Chichewa, and the songs are deeply personal, with titles like “I Kill No More,” “Give Me Back My Child,” and “I See the Whole World Dying of AIDS.” (Malawi has one of the top 10 highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the world.)
Zomba, the county’s only maximum-security prison, is a crumbling brick building constructed in the 1930s. It’s severely overcrowded, with more than 2,000 prisoners living in a space designed for just 340.
When Brennan and Delli visited, the men’s side of the prison had an organized band with guitars and drums, while the women’s side had no instruments. But the women’s music is just as striking. “They all claimed, ‘we’re not songwriters,’” Brennan told The New York Times last year. “But then one of them got up and sang a song of her own, and once that happened, it was like a dam breaking.”
Many of the inmates in Zomba are serving life sentences, and some are behind bars for crimes like homosexuality and “witchcraft.” Others go years without receiving a fair trial.
The funds raised by the album have been used to get some of the prisoners legal help, and three of the female musicians on the album have since been released.
Now, the album is one of five nominated for the Best World Music Album of the Year. Winners will be announced in February, but the news website Malawi24 reported that none of the singers would likely be able to attend the award show if they won.
Brennan and Delli have previously recorded music in South Sudan, Rwanda, and Palestine, among other countries. “Literally hundreds of thousands of musicians from cities like London, LA and New York have been heard ad nauseam for decades, while not a single record has ever even been released internationally from entire countries composed of millions of citizens,” Brennan wrote on his label’s website.
Delli made a short documentary on conditions in the prison and how the music was recorded: