The late Charlotte artist, activist, and poet T.J. Reddy wrote that “between the confines of cracked brick, a tiny sprout begins to grow.”
The painted word imagery conjured by Reddy in his 1974 poetry volume, Less Than A Score, But A Point, was written while he was behind bars serving a 20-year sentence that was commuted by former Governor Jim Hunt in 1979.
Reddy’s vision of near-impossible hope calls to mind the musical artistry, grit, determination, and ingenuity of Michael Jerome Braxton, who makes music under the name RRome Alone, and who was sentenced to die in 1996 for the death of a fellow prisoner.
On Friday, Braxton who has lived on North Carolina’s death row for nearly 30 years released his debut hip-hop single, “LIVE on Death Row,” with the independent label Nu Revolution Entertainment.
The prison work songs recorded by Alan Lomax at Mississippi’s Parchman Farm notwithstanding, “LIVE on Death Row” may be the first song ever recorded at a death row prison.
Braxton certainly thinks he’s making history.
“Unquestionably,” he told the INDY during a phone call from Central Prison’s death row. “I would like to think that it’s the first time in the history of the world that it’s ever been done.”
Nu Revolution Entertainment is also set to release Braxton’s upcoming album, Mercy on My Soul. The recording label and artist may make history a second time when Mercy on My Soul becomes the first music album ever recorded and released from death row.
The single’s release is accompanied by a 3-minute video and a documentary that runs a little over two minutes. He has signed on to work with Wordsmith, a Baltimore-based songwriter, performer, and owner of NU Revolution Entertainment.
Braxton says signing with Wordsmith’s record label “is a dream a long time in the works.”
Braxton, 48, has lived for the past 28 years on North Carolina’s death row. He first came to the public’s attention last year after the INDY reviewed Tessie Castillo’s, Crimson Letters, which chronicles the bleak and harrowing existence he and his fellow prisoners have on death row.
Braxton grew up in Raleigh. He was 13 in 1986 when he fell in love with writing raps.
He assumed the rapper handle, “AC J,” he says, “for alternating current. Jerome is my middle name. It’s been the one consistent thing in my life, on both sides of the wall.”
In the brief documentary, Braxton, the son of a white mother and Black father, said self-hatred and confusion about his racial identity led him to a life of crime.
“All I know is prison
All I know is pain”
Between 1996 when he first arrived on death row, until 2004, Braxton says he spent seven and a half years in solitary confinement. He honed his skills, rapping for his sanity to an audience of four walls.
“During that time I was writing raps to change things inside of me, and pretty much using it as a form of therapy,” he explained. “And also, I was writing it down to recite and memorize the thoughts and feelings I had.”
After decades of writing and rapping, Braxton grew frustrated. There’s no recording equipment on death row.
“I could write but I couldn’t actually be heard,” he says.
The game-changer turned out to be the telephones on death row. Up until 2016, death row prisoners could only use the phones during the winter holidays. Once he had greater access to make phone calls, Braxton realized he could use the telephone to record his raps. But after two decades on death row, he didn’t have anyone’s phone number on the outside.
In 2018, Braxton called Michael Betts II, the director of continuing education at the Duke Center for Documentary Studies.
Betts, in a statement to the INDY, said he was surprised to get a call from death row.
“You think death row is reserved for the biggest and baddest, but he was really down to earth, very approachable,” Betts said.
The a capella lyric Betts posted on SoundCloud earned RRome a following. Still, the Duke educator did not have the capacity to sync Braxton’s lyrics with music. He contacted Mark Katz, a professor of music and director of graduate studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. Katz, a distinguished professor knee-deep into hip hop, was a righteous choice for Braxton.
“We became great friends,” Braxton said.
Katz reached out to producers and connected with Nick Neutronz, a New York-based producer and DJ whose list of collaborators includes Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, and Styles P.
Braxton says the title, “LIVE on Death Row” was inspired by a book, Live from Death Row, authored in 1995 by Mumia Abu-Jamal and described by the New York Times as “perhaps the world’s best-known death row inmate” when a federal court overturned his death sentence in 2001.
The “LIVE on Death Row” video opens with a televised news broadcast format featuring animated Betts and Katz anchoring the breaking news desk with an unseen Braxton reporting events that take place in what he describes as “the shadow of death.”
The debut cut evokes the passion of Public Enemy’s Chuck D, with the unsettling imagery of sonorous Jamaican poet Linton Kwesi Johnson’s “Sonny’s Lettah,” or his landmark, Dread Beat An’ Blood album.
Braxton wonders if generations to come will try to understand what he and others have experienced while awaiting death in the land of the free that has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
“I equate it with the slave narratives and the old slave songs,” the rapper known as Rrome Alone says. “I’m using my voice for the purpose of documenting and preserving my experience.”
Braxton adds that there is an “inherent invisibility” that comes with being on death row.
“I feel like I deserve to be heard and acknowledged,” he says. “I exist.”
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