Issa Rae, John Legend, and more lend their voices to the stories of formerly incarcerated youth on ‘Written Off’

Arts September 18, 2021
Listen to ‘Written Off’

Lemonada and Black Bar Mitzvah’s “Written Off” is a 12-part series highlighting young writers who found and developed their talent while incarcerated. Journalist Walter Thompson-Hernández hosts the episodes and wants people to listen to these never-before-heard voices sharing obstacles, inspiration, and joys along the way.

By presenting the stories, these voices are no longer “written off” or ignored. Artists and creatives such as Issa Rae, John Legend, Keke Palmer, Jay Ellis, and more read the pieces aloud. For many of these writers, it’s the first time they’re hearing their work read by someone other than themselves. After the work is shared, the writers are interviewed about their time behind bars and how they found writing as an outlet.

On a recent episode, John Legend read Jimmy Valdez’s work, “I Am Great”:

“Everybody expects for me to be great. They expect for me to go big. On the first few minutes of screen time big. Like the parent of a grad student fresh out of grad school. Great. Great like good old Italian pasta great, or Mexican Chile relleno’s, great. Puerto Rican empanadas, great. It’s scary when people think of you being great. The thought of what if I don’t make it? Great. The theory is what holds me from being great. I am great. I was born to be great. The man and woman who made me are great. I am great. I am great.”

Jimmy finds art to be therapeutic. He originally attended a prison program called InsideOUT Writers, as recommended by his roommate. An added incentive for prisoners to attend the classes was a weekly buffet of delicious snacks. Jimmy soon learned that snacks were not the best part of the class and found himself enjoying his time in InsideOut Writers. He speaks about how grateful he was for his teacher, Ms. Susan, because she allowed him to express himself in a safe space.

Jimmy explains how his definition of “great” is now slightly different than the meaning it once held for him in his writing above. Jimmy said, “Being happy is great versus the exterior of expectations of other people and what they expect of me. So I think the inner self is great.” Now, Jimmy is focused on the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing of himself and his family. Jimmy is now a father and speaks about how his son is already picking up music. Jimmy’s wife also realizes how powerful art can be. She is receiving her master’s in family therapy and does art exercises with their son. Jimmy said he’s cognizant of how responsible parents are for their kids’ environment, and it is his job to teach his son to be focused.

Jimmy practices many disciplines. As well as writing, he models, acts, and sings Mexican Corrido music under the name El Artista. Jimmy also started writing music while locked up. Walter asks his guests many thought-provoking questions. He wonders if Jimmy reflects on his incarcerated 15-year-old self in present times. Jimmy said he does, and he lets go of the challenges he’s overcome.

Walter Thompson-Hernández is a multimedia journalist for The New York Times. He has also written The Compton Cowboys and reported for media outlets such as NPR, The Guardian, and Remezcla. By sharing works of formerly incarcerated individuals in “Written Off,” Walter hopes to inspire listeners and to facilitate conversations about the prison system.

Listen to ‘Written Off’

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