Lyrics for Freedom First the Album

Several songs featured on Freedom First the Album include spoken word poetry written and performed by Keith LaMar (unless indicated otherwise). These lyrics are included in full below:

1. CALLING ALL SOULS/INTRODUCTION

 

When people typically think of an artist, what usually comes to mind is someone who uses their imagination to capture and convey reality as it is seen and felt. In the main, what we do (or leave undone) in the course of our everyday lives is viewed as insignificant, unless or until we are thrown into the crucible of adverse circumstances and forced to demand from Self the strength and focus necessary to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.


I write and recite these words on January the 2nd 2022, less than two years away from my proposed execution, which is scheduled to take place on November the 16th 2023. In other words, I'm standing on the brink of my existence, staring directly into that terrifying darkness that awaits us all. It's a difficult dilemma to be in, I won't lie, but the only way to face it is to make it mean something; it is in this very strict sense of the word that I consider myself an artist: someone who’s trying to make a way out of no way.


The music you are about to listen to comes out of the realm of the impossible, something that, in reality, should not have been doable. Whether or not I am successful in stopping these people from killing me, you are right now listening to my last will and testament, the embodiment of everything I've endured, learned, and conquered. 

 

Because of the courage and vision of some very remarkable people who believed when there was no reason to believe, this project has come to fruition. My friend and brother, Albert Marques  (who's accompanying me on piano right now) is foremost among these fearless souls. On paper, he and I shouldn't have anything in common. After all, we speak different languages and come from two very different worlds where there exist barriers that aren't always easy to overcome. But music is a bridge, and all we need do is open our hearts and minds to be able to comprehend the complexities that constitute our shared humanity. Ain't that right, Albert?


You see, for the past three decades I've lived out my existence in a cell on Ohio's death row, trapped in the carceral silence of solitary confinement. For the uninitiated, this means I've spent the bulk of my life (22 hours a day!) inside a cage no larger than the average closet. How have I survived without losing my mind? Music!


When I first arrived here almost thirty years ago, I was a deeply wounded and bitter person. And if it's true to say, as James Baldwin has said, that “hate, which can destroy so much, never failed to destroy the one who hated," I was surely on my way to a definite undoing.


That an innocent man could be thrown into the depths of hell is an unspeakable horror, one that stretches back to the agony and pain that attended the middle passage. Indeed, what I am going through is not unprecedented; it has been done before, a long time ago and recently. It took a fellow prisoner to point this out to me, an old man named Snoop who turned me on to the healing powers of music. It is to him that I owe my sanity. He gave me the means to sublimate my pain and the tools to reconstruct my mentality, which, in turn, allowed me to see and understand that what I'm caught up in is, in fact, the continuation of a centuries-long struggle against oppression and greed. 


John Coltrane was my introduction to improvisational music, the music most commonly known as jazz, and served as the entry point into the vast reservoir of resistance and accumulated wisdom that accompanied would-be slaves on their journey to the New Land. Put in its proper perspective, this music is the blood-drenched document of man's inhumanity to man and the overcoming of it. John Coltrane's A LOVE SUPREME should be seen in this light: as the recapitulation of the fight to hold on to one's humanity. In the face of the unspeakable, unthinkable, one must not only speak and think clearly, but one must also strive to find the fortitude to love supremely. That's the moral of the story, folks.


When heard separately, the crashing of a cymbal can be likened to the sound of a wave; the snare to that of a heartbeat; the bass line is the rising and setting of the sun; the piano is how the wind blows; and the horn is the blood-curdling scream of someone trapped inside a dream gone mad. And it’s only when these polyrhythmic sounds abound and come together that the Creator's voice can be heard: EVERYTHING IS BEAUTIFUL! 

Planted within the perilous plight that awaited my ancestors was a seed of hope, which was watered and cultivated by music. Through the lifting up of every voice came the singing, came the ringing of this glorious thing called freedom, which is love's true destiny. Indeed: Love is the only freedom. Love is the only freedom! LOVE IS THE ONLY FREEDOM!

We assert our true value when we persist, when, in spite of all and everything, we insist on the highest and best from ourselves and each other. This music is about trust and faith, about stepping out even when you can't see the stairs and believing that your foot WILL find something solid to stand on. Following your heart is the purest form of improvisation, being true to that voice that calls you forward and then doing, with dignity and grace, the thing that needs to be done. To change this system, to change the world, we must first change ourselves! That's what John Coltrane believed. It is to this that we are calling all souls. Calling all souls! CALLING ALL SOULS!

 

 

3. TELL ‘EM THE TRUTH

 

Sound engineer: Alright I’m rollin’. Let’s go.

Albert: Are you ready, Keith?

Keith: I’m ready.

 

You know whenever I think about all the struggles and strife I’ve been through in my life, 

it’s truly hard to comprehend. 

I mean, I’m sitting inside a cage on death row, yo, 

so far away from home, so far away from everything I know. 

Might as well be sitting inside the hold of a slave ship. That’s what it feels like to be here. 

 

Yet it’s hard sometimes to see how what I’m going through is connected to what my ancestors suffered and survived. 

Truth be told, I’m lucky to be alive, real talk. 

 

Sometimes when things get too heavy to carry, 

I close my eyes and drift back to a time when everything was all good, 

a time when it was fully understood that being here on this earth was the biggest blessing. 

My grandfather taught me that. 

 

You see I grew up in a neighborhood called The Village, 

a small enclave on the East side of Cleveland, 

a beautiful place, yo, 

with fruit trees and sweet things on every corner. No lie. 

 

I was surrounded by my family and friends then. 

I’m telling you, there was no end to the love we shared, 

a real community planned by people whose only plan was to live and give everything they had. 

They gave it all. 

Children of slaves who braved the worst of it, 

so we, their children and grandchildren, could make the most of it. Yeah. 

 

You know, to shield us from the pain of knowing the truth, 

they never explained what kind of society we were born into. 

They didn’t tell us about all the tricks and traps that were designed to re-enslave, 

or about the hate that could deliver us to an early grave. 

 

They wanted us to be free. 

They wanted us not to see all the ugliness around us. 

So a lot of us got caught up in the darkness, 

and lost the light that was meant to guide us through. 

 

Gotta tell the children the truth.

Tell them it’s not what they say, but what they do. 

Tell them the real about reality, 

that life isn’t meant to be fair, that it’s meant to be lived. 

 

Tell the children the truth. Yeah.

Tell ‘em the truth. 

 

 

5. UNINTENTIONAL VIGNETTES

 

Even after all we’ve just seen—

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor

and everything in between—

people still don’t want to believe it when I tell them 

I was sentenced to death for something I didn’t do.

When I tell them I’ve been in solitary confinement for 28 years, they find that hard to believe, too.

 

I can show them proof of my innocence and ten minutes later they’ll ask me,

“Keith, what did you do?”

 

In a country where black men can be killed for simply running down the street, or standing on the sidewalk, 

no one wants to believe the truth.

 

After a prison riot, I was falsely accused and charged with nine counts of aggravated murder

almost immediately after I was offered a deal: 

Plead guilty and the nine counts will be drastically reduced. 

 

Problem was, I didn’t kill anybody.

 

So when people ask what did I do

I tell them I did what any innocent person would do: 

I pled, “Not guilty.” I demanded a trial. I told the truth.

Since I didn’t do anything, I assumed I would be found not guilty,

but an all-white jury was assembled and evidence of my innocence was suppressed.

That’s how the criminal justice system works in America when you are poor and black: 

If you don’t have the capital, you get the punishment, and that’s just a simple fact.

 

It took over two decades for me to find and realign the pieces of my case.

On the way, I nearly lost my mind.

Twenty-three hours a day in a cell is hell, believe me.

John Coltrane saved my life. 

When all my hope was gone and I felt most alone in my struggle, 

it was A Love Supreme that meant to everything to me. 

It gave me the strength and motivation to continue my fight. 

 

It was my grandmother who told me that what was in the dark would come to light, 

but that in the meantime, between time, it was important to keep my heart right, 

to not allow the darkness I was moving through to conquer me. 

“The truth will come out,” she said, and she was right. 

 

The system is broken, and deep down inside a lot of us know it.  

And it’s broken because the people who run it are broken.

So the goal, if you want to be free, is to not let it break you.

 

I’ve seen a lot of people give up along the way, 

give in to what other people had to say,

but it’s important when you’re traveling this road of life to believe in yourself, no matter what.

Keep fighting. Keep moving forward. 

Never, never, never give up. 

That’s what’s up. 

Never give up. 

 

 

7. ON LIVING (Poem Written by Nazim Hikmet/Performed by Keith LaMar)

 

Living is no laughing matter                   

you must live with great seriousness                         

like a squirrel, for example   

I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,                                             

I mean living must be your whole life. 

Living is no laughing matter:                  

you must take it seriously,                     

so much so and to such a degree    

that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,                                             

your back to the wall,    

or else in a laboratory       

in your white coat and safety glasses,                        

you can die for people   

even for people whose faces you've never seen,   

even though you know living                

is the most real, the most beautiful thing. 

I mean, you must take living so seriously   

that even at seventy, for example, you'll plant olive trees    

and not for your children, either,    

but because although you fear death you don't believe it,    

because living, I mean, weighs heavier.
 

Let's say we're seriously ill, need surgery

which is to say we might not get up                                                  

from the white table. 

Even though it's impossible not to feel sad                                                            

about going a little too soon, 

we'll still laugh at the jokes being told, 

we'll look out the window to see if it's raining, 

or still wait anxiously                              

for the latest newscast

Let's say we're at the front                     

for something worth fighting for, say. 

There, in the first offensive, on that very day,          

we might fall on our face, dead. 

We'll notice with a curious anger,         

but we'll still worry ourselves to death        

about the outcome of the war, 

which could last years. 

 

Let's say we're in prison and close to fifty, 

and we have eighteen more years, say,                         

before the iron doors will open. 

We'll still live with the outside, 

with its people and animals, struggle and wind                               

I mean with the outside beyond the walls.

I mean, however and wherever we are,        

we must live as if we will never die.

 

This earth will grow cold, a star among stars                

and one of the smallest, 

a gilded mote on blue velvet                    

I mean this, our great earth. 

This earth will grow cold one day, 

not like a block of ice or a dead cloud even 

but like an empty walnut it will float along                  

in pitch-black space 

We must grieve for this now 

we have to feel this sorrow now 

for the world must be loved this much                               

if we’re going to say "I lived.”

 

 

8. BE FREE

 

This is how it all began

in confusion, pain

a spark turned to a flame

Ten people died, lost their lives

somebody had to be blamed

Even though it would never be explained how

after 22,000 pieces of evidence was collected

none of it could be connected to a crime

This is what blows the mind!

The phony uncorroborated testimony

of jailhouse informants willing to sell their souls

for the chance of an early parole

But the state had the power to indict

they had the power to incite 

an angry community out for blood

 

Let it not be misunderstood:

An eye for an eye, somebody has to die

An eye for an eye, somebody has to die!

It’s hard to cut through the cacophony of sound

so many different voices

so many people standing around

“Keep your mouth closed, Keith” I was constantly told

An all-white jury, white judge, black robe

Eighteen years without touching a soul

I went for this, went through this

sat by silently as they tortured me

They tortured me!

They TORTURED ME!

sat by silently as they tortured me

Had to open my eyes before I could see

open my mouth before I could speak

Put a pen in my hand…THIS is what they did to me!

I’m here to speak truth to power, yo

to tell you that WE have the power, yo

that we have the keys to the kingdom, yo

 

So hard to believe, but you need to know:

Until all of us are free, none of us can be

Until all of us are free, none of us can be!

Until all of us are free, NONE OF US CAN BE!

 

It took me a long time to find my way out

a long time to understand what it’s all about

Find out what any people will silently accept

and you have found out the exact amount of injustice that will be applied

We have to draw the line

do more than just survive

To live we have to be willing to give

that’s the only way that peace can be achieved 

the only way the soul can come to rest

We have to reach for the best in ourselves

So we can be free

So we can be free!

So we can BE FREE!

 

 

10. NO MAN’S LAND

 

This shit can test a man

make you doubt what you know

what you understand

and leave you stranded in a no-man's-land

 

This shit can test a man

make you doubt what you know

what you understand

and leave you stranded in a no-man's-land

 

This shit can test a man

make you doubt what you know

what you understand

and leave you stranded in a no-man's-land

 

Navigating this insanity 

takes a lot of energy

a lot of moving around

constant scrutiny

 

Whole days float by in pieces

My job:

to assemble the moments

make them mean something

 

But sometimes

the beginning is the end

and the part that goes here

appears out of sequence

forcing me to rush ahead 

or back to the beginning again

 

Naturally

things get confusing

and I end up losing 

track of time

 

You can lose your mind down here

 

This shit can test a man

make you doubt what you know

what you understand

and leave you stranded in a no-man's-land

 

This shit can test a man

make you doubt what you know

what you understand

and leave you stranded in a no-man's-land

 

Being here is like being trapped in a lucid dream

except it's a nightmare 

and I can't just close my eyes and fly away

 

To survive

to stay alive

I have to engage and wage a constant battle

And to the victor go not the spoils 

but the realization that Sisyphus is a real person 

who's been in solitary confinement for three decades! 

 

And that's not even the half of it

Indeed, the truly terrifying thing is that 

no one can hear me scream down here

My mouth opens, yes

but the voice that comes out is not my own

saying words that do not belong to my real thoughts and feelings: 

“How's it going?” 

“Thanks a lot.”

“Have a nice day.”

This, when what I really want to say is: 

“GO TO HELL!”

 

But that would be redundant, wouldn't it

given the fact that we’re already here

And it turns out that the devil does wear a blue dress sometimes 

or a blue button-down, red tie, or high heels

I mean this shit is real!

And more often than not 

they come clad in a sad uniforms

made up of different shades of gray

which serves as camouflage 

so they can play the gray areas without being detected

 

I'm saying: this shit can test a man

make you doubt what you know and understand

and leave you stranded in a no-man's-land

as in NO MAN WOULD SIT BACK AND ACCEPT THIS SHIT!

 

This shit can test a man

make you doubt what you know

what you understand

and leave you stranded in a no-man's-land

 

This shit can test a man

make you doubt what you know

what you understand

and leave you stranded in a no-man's-land

 

This shit can test a man

make you doubt what you know

what you understand

and leave you stranded in a no-man's-land

 

This shit can test a man

make you doubt what you know

what you understand

and leave you stranded in a no-man's-land

 

But what to do when your hands are tied

when your mind is tired

when everything you believe in is crashing to the ground around you

and your life is seeping out the hole in your soul 

like blood from a bullet wound?

 

 

12. AFRO BLUE + UNTITLED POEM (Poem Written by Keith LaMar/Performed by Erin Corinne)

 

Dream of a land

my soul is from

I hear a hand 

stroke on a drum

Children of slaves

Master of none

 

***

 

God is alive and

resides inside of us.

All we have to do is trust

and have faith,

stop the madness and give thanks

for the blessings that shape

our lives....

We have to look ahead instead

of always looking back to the past,

slow down instead of moving so fast,

and laugh, reach deep and have

the courage to dream

about beautiful days

and different ways

to give, with love... in peace.

 

***

 

Dream of a land

my soul is from

I hear a hand 

stroke on a drum

 

Seeds of delight

cocoa hue

Children of slaves

Land of the brave

Afro blue

 

 

15. THE DROWNED AND THE SAVED

 

You know in this country

most of us operate under the delusion

that we live in the 21st century

and that somehow 

without actually doing the work

we have overcome our history

It’s not true

Instead of hanging people from trees

we use the so-called criminal justice system to perform legalized lynchings

and take this as a sign of progress

We confuse form with substance

 

When I embarked on this journey 29 years ago

I was given the choice to either plead guilty to something I didn’t do 

or face the death penalty

I was twenty-five years old

and the thought that I would have to give up my life

represented a great burden to me

a burden that I wasn’t so sure I could bear

I didn’t understand back then that there was something more valuable 

than simply being alive

although I intuitively understood that existing was not the same thing as living

I also somehow understood that in order to live with myself

I had to be true to myself

and for this I would have to pay a hell of a price

 

After I was sentenced to death I was thrown in solitary confinement

It felt like I was thrown into the middle of the ocean

Try to imagine it:

water as far as the eye can see

and it’s just you by yourself, floating

That’s what solitary confinement is like

In situations such as this, God ceases to be an abstraction

some thing that exists apart from who you are and what you do

This is the domain of the drowned and the saved

Life is very real here

and your senses mean more to you than they ever will:

What you can see, what you can feel

what you can hold in your hands

these are the only things that matter

You begin to comprehend that, under the circumstances

a piece of driftwood can be God

I mean the smallest thing can save or change your life

and this piece of driftwood, a book, a dream, a random stranger

has not come to inquire about your particular race or religion

Instead, it has been sent to ask a more basic question:
Do you want to live?

 

And what does it mean to be alive?

What are we doing here?

If you ask Nazim Hikmet, who’s one of my favorite poets,

He would tell you that, “Living is no laughing matter”

which, to me, implies that we didn’t come here to play

to have fun

And if that be the case then I can live right here where I am

right here on death row

I needed to know that

More importantly, I needed to know that it’s possible to lose everything

and still be saved

At some point, I had to be willing to accept that the vastness I was so afraid of was God

which exists inside of me, inside of all of us

To accept this truth, I had to go within 

and teach myself how not to be afraid

And what exactly did I have to be afraid of anyway?
Death? Hell?

 

Well, as James Baldwin once famously said, 

“When one is continually surviving the worst that life can bring,

one eventually ceases to be controlled by a fear of what life can bring.”

I amen his clarity

The arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, we are told

This may very well be

but we, with our own hands and mind 

must bend it

We have to do the work

People are dying who could be saved