When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the region to a screeching halt in March 2020, Yellow Springs-based choir director Catherine Roma was gearing up for a series of encores of the hit musical “Hamilton” with the incarcerated members of the KUJI Men’s Choir at Marion Correctional Facility, with vocal support from several women from the locally based World House Choir.
Fast forward to 2022 – as the world begins to allow increased community gatherings – some former members of the KUJI Choir, now ‘back’ from prison, will perform with the World House Choir in concerts scheduled for Saturday 14 May at 7 p.m. and Sunday, May 15, 3 p.m., at the Foundry Theater on the campus of Antioch College.
Twelve “returning” or formerly incarcerated artists, including rappers and visual artists from several prisons in the region, will join the World House Choir to present “Solidarity Dividend: Art in Action”. The event is billed as a “musical exploration and celebration of connection with each other – inside and outside prison walls and across real and imagined borders and differences”.
Inspired by “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together,” a book by Heather McGee, the program includes music from the civil rights movement, gospel tunes, hip-hop, spoken word and a tribute to Ukrainian children.
Audiences will hear the works of three returning citizens: Guy Banks, Michael Powell and Montez Mickens. Other returnees will sing in the choir and be featured soloists. The experience will include visual art created by Aimee Wissman and Kamisha Thomas. Together they founded an organization called RAG, or Returning Artists Guild, and they organized an exhibition of works by returning artists that will be displayed on both days of the concerts. A movie hour at 1 p.m. Sunday will feature short films made by Wissman and Thomas while incarcerated at the Dayton Correctional Facility.
The adage “art saves lives” is sometimes used to describe scenarios in which art becomes the catalyst through which life-changing experiences occur. In many ways, the educational and musical career of retired Wilmington College professor Catherine Roma, who conducted choirs for several Ohio prisons, is an insight into how music can inspire change through social justice work. A former member of Roma’s KUJI Men’s Chorus, Guy Banks – who goes by the name ‘Tronee Threat’ – said his experience in prison never derailed his lifelong passion for music. Amid preparations for the Solidarity Dividend concert, Roma and Banks shared their story of connection and collaboration in a joint interview.
Call it a spark, a spirit or a soul recognition, but Roma and Banks say they can’t work out why they feel a deep connection with each other, only that it’s rooted in the music and spans generations and cultures. On the surface, the archetypal elder and master teacher and student follows the standard protocol of the day between Roma and Banks. However, just below the surface, there seems to be a dynamic synergy that involves the role of teacher and student being subverted at times, with both learning from each other.
Roma, who calls Banks “Tron,” met him at Madison Correctional Facility in 2012, where he was serving a 14-year sentence. He was then transferred to Marion and was released this spring. Banks, who is from Columbus and has two daughters, Naja, 15, and Wisdom, 11, doesn’t sugarcoat the violent act he was sent to prison for. According to Banks, he was convicted of four criminal charges ranging from felony assault to firearms charges.
Banks said he had always been a musician, intuitively dabbling in the process as a child and then more seriously as a teenager entering the studio to record. In his early twenties he started a record company called Money Addict Entertainment and worked prolifically – recording hundreds of songs as part of a music career.
“I was really getting into the industry when I took my case,” he said of his crime and conviction. “Obviously [incarceration] derailed that, but when I went to prison there was still the opportunity to grow musically there.
Saying that music is part of his DNA, Banks continued to create music while in prison. His musical influences are fluid and include jazz, country music and pop.
“On my father’s side, we listen to all types of music, rock ‘n’ roll, Michael Jackson; and my mom plays Tina Turner, Sade — stuff like that,” Banks said.
Roma met Banks when he decided to join the choir she started and directed at Madison Correctional, a level one and two medium-security prison. Banks said he was encouraged by an inmate they both knew named Popcorn.
“I was sitting in the barbershop, having my hair cut, and a guy named Popcorn walked into the barbershop,” he said.
Popcorn walked up to him and said, “Hey, uh, Banks man, wanna join that choir?”
Having no choir experience, Banks initially told Popcorn, “not really”. But Popcorn pushed him to try it. The choir was meeting in the chapel a few steps from the barbershop, so Banks decided to check in.
“One thing I was already in jail for was keeping busy and staying active,” he said.
Banks described his impression of Roma when he first met her: “She was unique…I walked into that [the chapel]the energy was good, the people in there were cool/…I thought yeah, it could be something nice,” he said.
Madison’s chorus would eventually be named after a song he wrote, “Ubuntu”, a South African word whose meaning is sometimes phrased as “I am, because we are”.
At the first meeting, Roma asked the choir to “please consider writing a piece of music that speaks to the community and brings us together.” It was close to vacation, and she was going on vacation.
“Tron did an amazing play,” Roma recalled. “I saw him in January of the following year and I mean, I just knew there was something there. I loved working with him, there was kind of a spark, a kind of understanding,” she said.
Banks said the song he wrote was originally an extremely negative song with different lyrics, but the same melody.
“I’ll write a song like this, in my heart – I know I’ll never release it, but I will [of me]. … So when I was writing the song, I said, ‘Man, I have a really good melody.’ I took the melody, reversed the words and wrote ‘Ubuntu’ from that,” he said.
“I didn’t know that,” Roma said.
Separation and reunion
The partnership between Banks and Roma ended for a time when Banks decided to be transferred to another prison.
Banks described the split as “one of those, ‘if it was meant to be, it will be’.”
Roma said when Banks told him he was leaving, his response was panic.
“Tron walks up to me…and says, ‘I have to leave and go to that other prison because there really is a place where I can grow musically. … He was motivated and sure. I didn’t question it, I was just sad for myself and for the band,” she said.
However, a reunion was supposed to take place, and in 2015 Roma and Banks reconnected at the Marion Correctional Facility.
The comfort they have with each other is evident in the easy banter between them. Banks said he was preparing for a TED talk that was taking place in a section of the facility he wouldn’t normally walk through when he recognized the back of his head.
Roma: “I ended up setting up a choir at Marion’s…. I didn’t know Tron was there, or I forgot – tell the rest of the story – you saw the back of my head.
Banks: “Yeah, she used to wear that dye in her hair, and in prison, and she looks at what she looks like…
Roma: “Blue hair”.
Banks: “I walk past the window – I saw the back of his head and the dye coming down [her long hair] and I thought, “It can’t be her”, but it must be her, no one else in the world looks like her. … I walk into the room and say, ‘What’s up?’
“I think I’m going to get a ‘hey how are you, so good to see you!’ She turned around and started talking to me like we just saw each other yesterday – like plans, like work… so I’m like, ‘you know we could have been greeted or something – she s just slipped in, but that’s what I like.”
According to Roma, Popcorn – who originally recruited Banks into the Ubuntu Choir – also transferred to Marion. Banks and Popcorn recruited about 17 people to join the choir that became KUJI, named after the Kwanzaa principle of self-determination. The choir continued to do stage performances, including ‘Les Miserables’ and ‘Hamilton’, in addition to performing concert repertoire. They needed to do more “Hamilton” shows, in which Banks played the lead role — “But, COVID,” Roma said.
Banks was released from prison on March 25. Through an unlikely process of a support team that included Roma, her daughters, their grandmother, Coyla, and at least 15 letters of support from friends, colleagues and Antioch College, Banks managed to secure a early release. – something that didn’t seem possible at first.
“I had [served] 10 out of 14 years [-year sentence]. I had to serve 10 and a half years before I could even think of trying to get out early. In my paperwork it showed that I was never going to be eligible for judicial release – but we threw that idea to hell and gave it a try,” he said.
Upon his release, Banks moved to Yellow Springs. Earning certification for teaching physical fitness in prison paid off with a job at the wellness center, where he currently works as a trainer. He will enroll in college in the fall.
Information about the World House Choir and their upcoming concert, “Solidarity Dividend: Art in Action”, is available on their website at worldhousechoir.org.