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Prison Inmates Get Voices Heard Through Choir

Becca Shall, courtesy of Cathy Roma
Cathy Roma directs a choir performance in Cincinnati.

UBUNTU choir is a group of men who are prisoners at the Madison Correctional Institution in London, a few minutes outside Columbus. The choir’s been recording its first album—and one prisoner is the composer of many of the songs. 

Dr. Cathy Roma, a longtime Yellow Springs resident, is the Director of the UBUNTU choir. She visits Madison Correctional at least twice a month, and has worked on multiple other prison choir projects since she started working with people in prisons.

“I am an activist, an artist and I guess I'm an academic too. In that order probably!” says Roma. She’s been involved with prisons since 1990, when she taught college level courses to help inmates get their degrees. The government stopped issuing degrees for inmates in 1997. An arts program began and that’s when Dr. Roma created her first prison choir, UMOJA.

“There are people in the prisons who wanna contribute back, they've made, sometimes, huge mistakes,” says Roma. “Some people are in there for nonviolent drug crimes, so they're not violent people. The bottom line is that these incarcerated men and women have something to contribute to society.”

Eddie Robertson is one of the inmates that Cathy Roma works close with. He’s a tall, older man and clearly a respected inmate amongst his peers. He says he’s a big fan of Motown, Stevie Wonder and Sweet Honey in the Rock, among other influences.

Robertson grew up in Dayton and has been incarcerated since 1989, but he has been writing music since he was a kid.

“My role here is I sing in the tenor section and I write some of the original compositions that we do,” Robertson says. “It's easy to write because I get inspiration from everything around me, from friends, my family who's been very supportive of me during the time I've been locked up.”

Robertson estimates he’s written about 25 songs for Dr. Roma’s choirs, and with her help, his music can go from a hummed tune into a song with studio instruments to accompany.

Roma explains: “We get a little recording and then I give it to a friend of mine and he transcribes the piece into a piece of paper. Then the next step is a take that raw recording and the printed page and I send to another friend...he works with a synthesizer and he is an amazing orchestrator.”

Roma directs the choir, but with a lot of help from Robertson. The group of about 30 men rehearses in the prison’s chapel, lined up according to voice range.

Robertson stands in the front near Roma’s piano during rehearsals, and solos in a lot of the songs. Roma fine tunes the harmony and pronunciations, while Robertson makes sure that the song stays true to his original vision.

Cathy Roma has always had her choirs sing spirituals, which are important in African American communities.

“The pieces the men are writing, to me, are new spirituals,” Roma says. “They are the 21st and 20th century pieces that capture the same qualities and elements and text. So here are men who are incarcerated, it's a racialized form of control and out of that comes these amazing pieces that are full of transformative elements.”

Robertson credits Roma for influencing his style and subject matter—and, for seeing what life is like on the inside. “Dr. Roma and her wisdom, she's pretty tuned into what we go through in prison and what we need to help us get through each day,” he says. “And that's ubuntu, ya know, togetherness, love, watching out for each other.”

The UBUNTU choir’s first album, “Begin to Love: Building a Bridge of Unity,” was recorded inside Madison Correctional in December 2015, and will be released this spring. Proceeds for the album will go to a charity involved in hunger, domestic violence or re-entry support, and chosen by the choir members.