Naima Shalhoub: Finding a Voice Behind Bars

The Oakland vocalist recorded her debut album live inside San Francisco County jail — producing raw, emotional tracks that grapple with the impacts of imprisonment.



Naima Shalhoub entered the "B" pod of San Francisco County Jail for the first time on May 8, 2014. The Oakland-based singer-songwriter and educator received her master's degree in postcolonial and cultural anthropology and has long been interested in social justice and mass incarceration. And on that Thursday last year as part of a Mother's Day event, Shalhoub convinced the San Francisco County Sheriff's Department, which runs the jail, to let her meet some of the women behind bars and do a short performance for them.

Shalhoub, who works as a restorative justice coordinator at Melrose Leadership Academy, a public school in Oakland, had read about how women are the fastest growing segment of the United States prison population and how the vast majority of women behind bars are mothers. But seeing the pain of so many moms separated from their children on Mother's Day changed the way she thought about imprisonment: "It's shocking and sad," she recalled in a recent interview. "There's a lot of grief and remorse, and frustration and anger." That day, she sang Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" and Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child" — and many of the women sang along. The tension of leading this free musical improvisation within the restricted confines of a jail deeply affected her, she said. "These women are in orange, and there are rules and regulations. ... But music can be this spiritual force that can bust through that — even if it's just for that moment."

Shalhoub's debut album, Live in San Francisco County Jail — due out in December — confronts the impacts of incarceration in a way that is uniquely visceral and raw. That's because she recorded it live inside one of the pods of San Francisco County Jail on May 5, one year after she first visited the women's jail. The album is a powerful nineteen-track recording that transports the listener to the jail in San Francisco's SoMa district where more than fifty women watched her perform — engaging in call and responses and offering cheers, applause, and other reactions captured in the recording of Shalhoub's live show. The soulful album is a mix of Shalhoub's originals and covers, along with spoken-word tracks performed by incarcerated women.

After gaining approval directly from Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, Shalhoub was able to bring recording equipment and a four-piece band, including acclaimed bassist Marcus Shelby, inside the jail for the Mother's Day performance and recording. Shalhoub recorded the album after spending a year volunteering in the jail, leading weekly music sessions with incarcerated women who were serving time for a wide range of low-level offenses and some more serious crimes.

While the jail setting adds a layer of intrigue, Shalhoub's performance and the compositions are stunning on their own — even with the imperfections that come with a live recording. Shalhoub, who is Lebanese-American, melds American soul and blues with Arabic folk music and has a soulful voice that seamlessly transitions between growly high belts, fragile falsetto, and deep rich low tones. "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" — the eight-minute song that kicked off the live concert — is the most intense track on the album. With Shalhoub's dramatic arrangement of the folk song that was popularized during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, the song's blunt lyrics about seeking freedom from imprisonment moved the crowd of women in the jail to shout along with Shalhoub. The jail doors open/and they walked on out, she belts, increasingly louder as the song progresses, Keep your eyes on the prize/hold on. She directs the women to sing an echo of hold on back at her. By the end of the song, referring to the acronym used to describe their location in "County Jail #2" (CJ2), Shalhoub shouts, CJ2 jail doors open, and we what? prompting the women in the audience to scream, Walk out! The recording powerfully captures the apparent anguish of the women in the room — and the seemingly therapeutic release the music offers.

"We were talking about getting rid of the shackles and running out — in the middle of the jail with deputies present," recalled Shalhoub, who plans to donate 50 percent of the album proceeds to programs that support incarcerated women and reentry services. "It was fucking powerful. ... They were really fired up about joining in."

The lyrics in Shalhoub's originals — which she sings with an understated quality that is conversational and intimate — also at times seem to speak directly to the women.

On "Rise," a more laid-back, bluesy tune that features her improvisational scatting, she says, Don't listen to what they say when they try to get you down/When they try to make you hate what you are. The vulnerability and empathy in her voice is palpable. Shalhoub told me she gets so emotional when she sings there was a period in her music career when she would sob before and after every performance. Live features lighter songs, too: Shalhoub's fantastic acoustic cover of "God Bless the Child" displays the warmth of her sweet alto register.

Naima Shalhoub. - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • Naima Shalhoub.

The spoken-word pieces on the album mix sorrow and hope with tracks that add further intimacy and urgency to the album. My life is yet just beginning/so I must watch every turn, one incarcerated woman, Susan Ferguson, says in her short piece. Sometimes, I miss the story/yet I always seem to learn that everything happens for a reason. Another incarcerated woman, Tameika Smith, offers a short poem about Mother's Day.

In an interview, Angela Wilson, program coordinator of the sheriff's department, said she saw that many women were the most at ease behind bars when they were working on music with Shalhoub. "It definitely breaks the isolation," said Wilson, who is formerly incarcerated herself. The live recording was a particularly moving experience, she added. "It was very empowering for them ... to feel like they were part of something bigger than themselves that will live on forever."

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