The tributes that poured in after Wayne Kramer’s death last week came from musicians who praised the MC5 guitarist’s contributions to rock music, as well as prison reform advocates who praised his legacy of bringing music to incarcerated people.
Kramer, who died Feb. 2 at age 75 from pancreatic cancer, influenced generations of artists with his strident guitar chords on hardcore anthems like 1969’s “Kick Out the Jams.”
Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello said MC5, with an uncompromising sound that fused music with political action, “basically invented punk rock.”
Shortly after the band broke up in 1972, Kramer was arrested on drug charges and spent two years in prison. Determined to straighten out his life while maintaining his activism, Kramer co-founded Jail Guitar Doors USA, based on a British charity that provided musical instruments to inmates. Kramer’s nonprofit is named after a Clash song that references his struggles: “Let me tell you about Wayne and his cocaine business.”
Kramer recruited famous friends like Morello, Slash and Perry Farrell to perform concerts in prisons in California and his home state of Michigan, where he would leave the guitars behind.
He gradually began spending time alone with inmates, helping them create their own songs and “watching the creative lights go on in their heads,” said Jason Heath, a close friend and executive director of Jail Guitar Doors USA.
“Working with the inmates was cathartic for him because music had saved his life when he was inside,” Heath said this week.
“Creativity is the solution to the challenges we face,” Kramer told Mojo magazine in December.
His group eventually distributed thousands of instruments and created a songwriting tutoring program that expanded to centers across the country. His work was cited in research by University of San Francisco professor Larry Brewster that found that introducing the arts to incarcerated people led to fewer disciplinary actions, higher self-esteem, better emotional health, and lower recidivism rates.
“He invited people to tell their story through music, that was Wayne’s gift,” said Elida Ledesma, director of the California-based nonprofit Arts for Healing and Justice Network. “He knew everyone was worthy of respect and dignity.”
In recent years, Jail Guitar Doors USA created a partner nonprofit, the Community Arts Programming and Outreach Center. Its Hollywood headquarters includes a recording studio and teaches multimedia production to young people recently released from prison trying to start their lives over. A federally approved apprenticeship program for formerly incarcerated people offers a two-and-a-half-year curriculum for audio recording and a shorter one for film editing.
One of the young trainees, Joseph Jimenez, 24, said it never occurred to him that he could be a filmmaker after spending more than five years in youth centers and other correctional facilities. One day, he went downtown with one of the residents from his rehabilitation center.
“They gave me a camera and I started learning,” Jiménez said.
He recently filmed and produced a music video for a rap song written, performed, and recorded by him and his fellow students. He said the program had instilled in him an ambition he didn’t know he possessed.
“Now I want to have my own production company,” Jiménez said. “I want to make independent films.”
Jack Bowers, who directed the arts project at California’s Soledad Prison for 25 years, credits Kramer with helping to restore funding for cultural programs in state prisons. Amid a budget crisis in 2003, the state cut all money for the arts within the California prison system. Nine years later, a group of nonprofit organizations, including Jail Guitar Doors, began pushing for restoration. Kramer eventually testified before a joint arts committee, along with actor Tim Robbins and others.
“Wayne just gave this moving speech about how important it was to have music and art in prisons,” said Bowers, who is now a mentor at the William James Association Prison Arts Project. “Because he had been incarcerated, he understood it from the point of view of someone who was inside. His voice had tremendous weight.”
It was from that meeting that the program was reinstated, Bowers said. The state provided $1 million in 2014, and the budget for prison arts has since increased to $8 million, she said.
Heath said the next steps for the Community Arts Programming and Outreach Center is to provide on-site housing for paid trainees, where they can focus on work to avoid the temptation to repeat behaviors that got them in trouble.
“We can enroll youth while they are still incarcerated. Then when they are released they go straight to the house, where they have a place to live, and straight to the center, where they have a job,” he said. “That puts them on the right path.”
Jiménez, the young trainee, admits that as a hip-hop fan he didn’t realize that Kramer, the unassuming guy who mentored people and ran the program at the center, was a rock star.
“I Googled it and it blew me away,” Jimenez said. “He was so great and so down to earth with the work he did with us. It is a legend”.