Prison rap group gives new start to former convicts

Free Convict is a rap group founded by prisoners at the Venezuelan General Penitentiary. (Submitted by Free Convict)

They had wielded weapons, they had kidnapped, they had stolen, they had used drugs, they had killed. There were many - about 10 thousand - and they were crammed into the Venezuelan General Penitentiary, a noisy, dirty and dark prison designed in the 70s to house no more than 900 prisoners. They had things in common: they came from dangerous neighbourhoods, from broken homes, knew the street and wore the scars of their own suffering on their flesh.

And they also shared a rhythm, a particular ‘tumbao’: rap.

In the deteriorated sports field of that prison, under the vigorous sun, they used to gather to rap: they improvised, assembled verses, rhymes, quick phrasing. For them, it was a way of dealing with time in a place where the hours passed slowly; a way to flow where everything seemed stuck. They enjoyed those moments so much that once, in 2013, they came up with the idea of setting up a group. It was made up of 15 of them and they called it Free Convict.

One of the members was Ray Martínez. To him, the rhythm flowed from the core. It was natural. As a teenager, he had studied percussion in a theatre near his home, in western Caracas, and since then he rapped in the street. But on the street, he found nothing good: at age 15, a friend of his gave him a gun to kill another young man who kept annoying him. Ray took the gun and went to look for him. He killed him. It was his first murder. Then others came. And car thefts. And dirty businesses. And drugs.

That's why he went to jail.

“With my BlackBerry cellphone, we recorded our rhymes inside the jail. First, we were few, but little by little people were joining us. We sent our audios as messages to our contacts on the street” Ray remembers.

They had the illusion that many would listen to what they were doing behind the bars. That perhaps, somebody would put those songs on a radio station so the group's message would go far: they were sorry to have been criminals and for having hurt people in the past.

With the help of two music producers, the group was able to build a recording studio in the jail and make an album. (Submitted by Free Convict)

That longing, however, seemed unlikely. Maybe utopian. But they kept meeting. One day in 2015 the convicts were rapping when they were heard by Pablo Castillo and Andrés Figueredo, producers who were beginning to record a documentary in jail. Hearing the voices of the Free Convicts and their ability to rhyme, Castillo and Figeroa were captivated. So much so that in the same year Castillo and Figueredo managed resources and obtained a permit from ‘pranes’ - high-calibre gang members that govern prisons - to build a music studio there.

“We build that studio ourselves. We loaded the blocks, the cement and we did it. When it was ready, we recorded our first album. It has eleven songs that we wrote within the prison and that express the concept of the group,” says Ray.

In September 2017, six of them had finished their sentences. Now free, they performed in the largest room of the BOD Cultural Center, one of the most culturally significant theatres in Caracas. Days before standing on that stage, they posted on their social networks the overwhelming declaration of principles of Free Convict: “From the darkness, we have strengthened. Although we are part of the problem, we bring solutions. It is normal for you to feel fear: between kidnappings, robberies and murders, we have sinned. But despite the shackles and dirty businesses, we know that not everyone is guilty. Although justice is blinded for convenience, we will remove the bandage so that it sees us in the eyes and knows about us. We come to stay. They locked us up and tried to silence us, but we built a union and became stronger. Prepare yourself for what is coming ... from the jail to the world. ”

"From Prison to the World", a song written by Ray, is the song the group’s soon-to-be-released first album is named for. At the end of 2018, they released the music video of that song. Today it has three nominations in the Pepsi Music Awards, the most prestigious award in the current Venezuelan music industry.

Ray Martínez was released on August 1, 2018, and now his life revolves around Free Convict.

"This is not just a musical group," he reflects. “It is rather a movement that has something to say: that crime is not good.”

Since he regained his freedom, he has been, together with his companions, repeating that message: to children in street situations, to adolescents in impoverished neighbourhoods of Caracas, to foundations that serve vulnerable communities.

The band is also working on a second album while they prepare for the launch of the first, which was recorded in jail. Now on the outside, they still remember they were convicts but music gave them freedom.