“I'm living my life / It's time to move on / 'Cause there's no guarantee tomorrow will come.” Robert, 29 years old, prisoner.
Hip-hop made inside Barlinnie, Scotland's largest prison and where Lockerbie bomber Abelbaset al-Megrahi was held.
A rather ghostly reminder of his former presence are the satellite dishes, paid for by the Libyan government so he could watch sport, which still hang in the building where he was detained.
Located in the north east of Glasgow and known as The Big Hoose and Bar-L, Barlinnie is over 140 years old. The prison is to be closed as soon as a replacement prison is built, but this date is constantly being pushed back.
On this freezing day we are visiting, capacity is running at nearly 145%, with 1,418 inmates inside, when it was designed for 987.
It was in this context that Barlinnie launched his very first hip-hop classes for prisoners. Funded by Creative Scotland, the eight-week course designed by Jill Brown, who runs Conviction Records, Scotland's first label for ex-offenders.
She explains: “The workshops are designed to give participants a voice, because many people who are in prison have never had a voice. It's really about confidence, self-esteem, dignity and self-confidence.
“But they also give people in prison something to hope for and I always say the poverty of hope is the worst form of misery.”
We were allowed behind bars to speak to some of the participants, although our visit was almost canceled. The previous night, Barlinnie made the headlines in Scottish newspapers after a prisoner managed to climb onto the roof and throw slates at guards in a one-man protest.
The next morning he is back inside and we are allowed to continue.
First, a visit to Hall B, where 279 prisoners are held in mostly double cells. Set over four levels with stone staircases and caged balconies, it's not difficult to imagine exactly what Barlinnie looked like when it opened in the 1880s.
Prisoners wear a red sweatshirt if they have been convicted or blue if they are in pre-trial detention.
On the second floor, we are taken to Bernie's cell. If Eminem was 32 and from Govan, this is what he would look like, and Bernie says he once jumped over a fence to sneak into a Slim Shady concert in Glasgow.
The small room is dominated by whitewashed brick walls, two desks and a metal bunk bed, which he shares with his “co-pilot”.
“When I arrived, I was stuck in my cell 23 hours a day,” Bernie says, shaking his head.
“People obviously want others to be punished, but we're being punished. We're in our cells. We're already living in a prison in our heads.”
Bernie is now allowed to work in kitchens and hip-hop classes provide another escape, his love of Snoop Dogg and Tupac demonstrated by small computer-printed posters of the rappers on his cell wall.
He has been in Barlinnie since Boxing Day last year: “I was looking to break into businesses to fund my addiction. Things I would never normally do. It's not me as a person, but it's is where taking hard drugs got me.”
In his early twenties, Bernie had some popularity locally as a rapper and community radio DJ. Being able to work on a new track with a real producer gave him a boost: “It keeps me going because it’s something I love doing,” he explains.
“You can do positive things with music. It helped me regain my self-confidence.”
It's time for us to head to today's workshop and, somewhat surprisingly, Bernie suddenly pulls out an acoustic guitar from under his bunk, before being escorted by guards to the Wellness Center. -be, an area of the prison that hosts rehabilitation programs.
Here, musician Becci Wallace waits to work with Bernie on her track, a rather delicate and heartfelt tribute to her daughter, christened Daddy's Girl. He strums the guitar and softly pronounces the lines:
“I remember the day you were born, the moment you came out of the womb / And there was you and me and my grandmother in the room.”
This kind of lyrical honesty is exactly what Wallace thinks the sessions can achieve: “I hope that, for some guys at least, this might be the first opportunity they have to be vulnerable in a safe space.
“And actually, the long-term benefit for them is that instead of reacting quickly and sometimes negatively in difficult situations, they will remember that they have the ability to make things right.”
And Becci has a message for those who aren't in favor of free music lessons being given to convicted felons: “If they keep making the same mistakes over and over again and come back here, then why not try something again ?”
One of the serial offenders taking part in the workshops is Robert, from Kilmarnock, aged 29 and currently serving a sentence of just under three years. He believes that hip-hop classes can bring change in his life.
For two months, he has been working with Becci on his track Time, whose lyrics share his fears about the future: “Sometimes I think it all depends on fate? / Am I going to die young like half of my friends? / I have numbed the pain, but the pain still hurts.
“It gave me something to look forward to,” he says of the workshops.
“And it's something I'm going to follow when I'm away. It came at the right time. It gave me a chance.”
And could this really help him stop reoffending?
“Yes. 100% yes,” he agrees, insisting that he is more hopeful than ever for the film's release.
The highlight of the hip-hop workshops was a small showcase, where recordings of their songs were played to an audience of other prisoners and guards.
That day, Bernie decided his track about his daughter wasn't finished, so he instead recorded some old, angrier lyrics he'd written at the last minute, laying them over a Dr. Dre-style beat .
The song, called Hate These Streets, was well received and Bernie was a very relieved man. He dreams of putting his music on YouTube as soon as it is released: “It will help me avoid trouble, to concentrate, to have more positive energy and less negative energy.
“I am changing my life for the better now and I have high hopes that everything will be okay.”
And for Robert, playing his music in front of an audience was a great moment.
“It gave me hope, man, it did. It gave me a lot of hope. This time in prison, I turned that into a positive, so it is.”
The workshops will return in 2024, but with a twist. Before we leave, organizer Jill Brown explains, “Hip-hop tends to appeal to younger people, and a lot of the guys are singer-songwriters, so we decided to offer an alternative next year.”
Yes, in 2024 hip-hop will rest and the beat of Barlinnie will be folk music.