Sask. lawyer helping U.S. record label support incarcerated musicians

Saskatoon lawyer Kurt Dahl has worked on many aspects of the entertainment industry, but one of his new clients is taking his practice to a completely new area: behind bars.

Kurt Dahl working with US-based label Die Jim Crow on record deals and management agreements

Musicians Charles 'C-Will' Williams (right) and Deonte Leary at the Warren Correctional Institute in Ohio in 2015. (Catherine Roma)

Saskatoon lawyer Kurt Dahl has worked on many aspects of the entertainment industry, but one of his new clients is taking his practice to a completely new area: behind bars. 

Recently, Dahl has begun providing pro bono legal services to Die Jim Crow, a US-based record label that supports incarcerated or formerly incarcerated musicians. 

When Die Jim Crow founder Fury Young reached out to Dahl nearly a month ago to ask for help with a record deal contract and a management agreement, Dahl found he couldn't say no. 

"I get requests like this often, and this just really hit me," he said. "This was before the George Floyd incident and tragedy and all that process, but in my heart I've always known there's an incarceration problem in America. There's also a racism problem in America. And I felt like this is a little thing I could do to help out."

Saskatoon-based entertainment lawyer Kurt Dahl is providing pro bono legal services to Die Jim Crow, helping with record deals and management agreements. (Submitted by Kurt Dahl)

Young began working on Die Jim Crow in 2013. His initial idea was to create a concept album about racial injustice in the U.S. prison system with currently and formerly incarcerated artists. The idea grew from that concept album to an EP to the nonprofit label it is today.

"There is a tendency to view people who are incarcerated as monsters, judge them for the worst mistake they made in their life or the worst ten minutes of their life, and throw away the key," Young said. "In America we have extremely harsh sentencing, and the system is racist on top of that. So I [want] to draw attention to that matter and to humanize voices through music."

Young used formerly incarcerated musician BL Shirelle as an example of what Die Jim Crow does. 

"I wasn't able to get access to record her perform [while she was incarcerated], but I was able to send her lyrics to a prison in Ohio where we turned the lyrics into music," he said. "A couple of those songs were released on our EP in 2016, and she was released shortly after that and we started collaborating on the outside."

Now, Shirelle is the deputy director of Die Jim Crow and will be releasing her first solo album, ASSATA TROI, on June 19. 

Musicians BL Shirelle (left) and B. Alexis work on a song at the Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institute in South Carolina earlier this year. (Fury Young)

Maxwell Melvins, senior advisor for Die Jim Crow, also has personal experience creating music in prison. Melvins was a member of the Grammy-nominated Lifers Group, a hip hop group formed by prisoners at East Jersey State Prison in New Jersey. 

Melvins said the visibility that can come from making music allowed him to connect with and help at-risk young people while he was still incarcerated. He said he got responses from parents and children all over the world.

"Actually, Canada was one of the biggest supporters," he said.

"I got a letter from a young lady over there in Canada who saw us on TV. She said she was trying to get out of a gang, and every time she tried to get out, the guys would blackmail her. She had planned to kill those guys. And she said the only thing that really stopped her from doing it was that she saw our interview."

Melvins said he is enthusiastic about Die Jim Crow's mission because music has the power to change lives and help people connect with skills and passions they may not have known they had. 

"Music can take you back to a memory - it can make you happy, it can make you sad, it can take you back to a time and space in your life," he said. "Making music gives people in prison a chance to speak out and tell their stories in their own words and their own voices."

Dahl said part of his motivation for helping the project is his belief that everybody should have that chance. 

"The people who end up working with us deserve to be heard," he said. "It's just music. All people, I think, deserve to be able to make music."

Young said the record label's mission hasn't changed as protests about systemic racism sparked by the murder of George Floyd continue throughout the United States and globally, but he thinks the response to it might. 

"What's so amazing about what's happening now is that more people are recognizing how important it is to discuss these issues of racial injustice and the prison system specifically," he said.