Te-Ping Chen

March 6, 2008

It started with the 1996 murder of gangsta rap legend Tupac Shakur.

Across the nation, Tupac’s death triggered a tidal wave of sorrow and controversy, but in the Bay Area–the rapper held Oakland roots–the response was particularly vivid. Fans wept, held vigils, and blasted his music in the streets. The emotions rang out clearly: disbelief, anger and despair.

At the time, David Inocencio was a social worker in San Francisco’s juvenile probation program. Shaken by the outpouring that followed Shakur’s death, Inocencio asked the youth to write about what the rapper’s killing meant to them.

In response, he got pages and pages–a fierce and raw reaction, unlike any that he’d seen before. The strength of the emotions, remembers Inocencio, begged to be shared. Inspired, he typed up the youths’ responses and distributed them throughout the program.

And thus, The Beat Within was born.

Today, The Beat Within is nationally recognized juvenile hall program that offers writing workshops in over 40 different youth facilities throughout the Bay Area. (Satellite versions of the program have also popped up in Arizona and New Mexico.) According to Inocencio’s founding vision, The Beat Within views writing not only as a form of empowerment and activism, but also as providing a kind of community. Every week, The Beat Within distributes a newsletter that showcases submitted art and writing–some sixty-to-eighty pages of it.

With over 100,000 minors incarcerated nationwide ( PDF)–the highest rate in the Western world–the need for an outlet like The Beat Within, says Inocencio, is urgent. “These kids are hungry,” says Inocencio. “Beyond the maze of counselors, probation officers and teachers, the success of The Beat Within is our consistency, the fact we always want to hear what they have to say.”

For incarcerated youth cut off from the rest of the world, The Beat Within can be something of a lifeline. Every week, says Inocencio, The Beat Within receives some 200 letters from readers and contributors. As one letter from a newly incarcerated female put it:

When I first seen The Beat, the feeling I got was so overwhelming…. I was encouraged by you, truly inspired, to see you all coming to the realization that your lives are worth so much more.

Yet despite the weekly’s immense success in prison, on the outside, The Beat Within is nearly unheard of. “It’s almost like a secret publication,” says Inocencio.

But no longer. With the publication of their first book, Illustrations from the Inside, The Beat Within is challenging a fresh audience to enter into the imaginations, fears and hopes of incarcerated youth. The book is complex, filled with black-and-white pencil drawings that mix shadow, pride, whimsy and vulnerability. Above all, it compels. After all, while the traditional image of someone in prison is a hard-bitten adult criminal, the images in Illustrations from the Inside recall another, forgotten class within America’s 2.3 million incarcerated: the youth.

Navigating Emotions

Though as one of the pioneers of gangsta rap Tupac’s celebrity was indelibly linked with images of violence, in his later years he came to reject that identity.

In 1993, he would tell the press: “I am not a gangster and never have been.”

Likewise, images from Illustrations from the Inside capture that central theme of ‘toughness’ projected against the search for another lifestyle. Pencil sketches of clown faces–a reoccurring motif in Latino gang culture representing stoicism and masculinity–peer out from the pages, with grimaces that seem poised to burst. One clown image that bears a smile and eyes full of stylized tears reads: “Smile Now, Cry Later.” Another clown face, mouth gaping in a garish scream with eyes dripping tears, accosts the reader with the caption: “Take it All Away.”

Other black-and-white sketches feature images of popular rappers, juxtaposed against self-portraits of black and Native American detainees whose faces wear expressions alternately tired, stoic, or challenging.

“Everyone wants to have this tough image in jail,” says Inocencio. “There’s a lot of fear of saying what you feel. But when some of them step out of that box and read their pieces out loud, it’s so powerful.”

One youth, “Lil José,” writes: How long will the judge mourn me/A ‘gangsta’? A ‘thug’?/Will they some day show me love? Another pens a poem “Who Failed? What Failed?” that includes the lines The teachers barely taught, and they never try to/Understand. It’s learning communication and support/That turns boys into men.

Many of The Beat Within‘s participants are on the fence about what to do once they are free, says Inocencio. “They need to be shown there’s more to the world than the block, the ‘hood, the game,” says Inocencio. Some have never seen the Golden Gate Bridge, or even the Pacific Ocean.

“They want to be empowered,” he says. “They just don’t know how.”

Beauty Among Hardships

Life on the inside is sparse and lonely. One black-and-white photograph in Illustrations from the Inside shows a nude 15-year-old partially swaddled in a prison blanket, with legs and arms covered in letters and symbols carved in self-mutilation. Another depicts the huddled form of a 12-year-old lying in a solitary holding cell. Most youth live in single-room cells with just one hard bed, a toilet, and bare walls.

In this world, pencils are seen as contraband: a potential weapon. Youth smuggle them into their rooms to write in spare moments. At the end of the week at The Beat Within‘s workshops, says Inocencio, it’s not unusual for someone to come and pull eight or ten pages of poetry out of their pants.

As Adam Mansbach writes in the Illustrations intro: “It is in the midst of life’s most inimitable hardships…that the act of creation assumes its most crucial role. In these dark and trembling moments, art is the match we strike to illuminate the blackness.”

Accordingly, the drawings that fill Illustrations from the Inside are filled with dense imagery and vivid scenes, and packed with symbols. Traditional Aztec designs with eagles and snakes snake around a cityscape. Crowds bearing signs that read “People of color are an endangered species, too” protest amidst soldiers wearing riot gear. In one drawing, a dove weeping tears carries not an olive branch in its spindly claws, but a key. Religion is a recurring theme, like images of a rosary dangling from clasped hands, a reference to Matthew 7:13-14.

“It blows my mind what comes out of these kids’ minds and hearts,” says Inocencio. “There’s a real desire to break those stereotypes they’re tagged with,” he says, “and connect.”

The Beat Within‘s staff strives to cultivate relationships with youth that extend past just the workshops. Every submission to the publication is answered personally, with critiques and feedback that often leads to an ongoing conversation. “They actually asked me questions and sounded interested in what kind of person I was,” says Omar Turcios, a former Beat Within participant. “They wanted to know how I felt.”

A Candle in the Dark

For Melvyn Wool, who immigrated from China to California at a young age and started getting involved in gangs shortly thereafter, The Beat Within introduced him to something new: a friend.

That friend, says Wool, was a piece of paper. Something that “helped him figure out how to turn [his] life around.” Something that couldn’t “laugh back at you when you keep it real.” Something that allowed him to “use [his] imagination and set [himself] free.”

That’s why he writes short stories today. “I ma[k]e myself the main character,” he says, and writes about “what I went through, and what I want to be.” Today, Wool is a student at San Francisco State University.

The Beat Within is full of other such vignettes. One 14-year-old black juvenile, who had never learned about Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglas until after he was incarcerated, was inspired to sketch their faces. Like Turcios, many other Beat Within participants go on to be employed by the program after their release, giving back to the community that once nurtured them.

Inocencio sees the book as a candle in the dark–an appeal to an outside world that for too long has failed to hear the voices of the young and incarcerated. “The youth we hear from are really hoping for readers,” says Inocencio, “just hoping that any reader will feel their words and say, I hear you.”

Before his death, Tupac said, “I’m not saying I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.”

If The Beat Within is any indication, he already has.

Originally from Oakland, California, Te-Ping Chen is a December 2007 graduate from Brown University. She currently lives in Washington, DC.