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  • Carola Kolbeck

Jail Time Records: The Recording Label Born in Cameroon’s Most Notorious Prison

Life in Cameroon’s toughest prisons can be a disastrous and hopeless experience. But one woman’s revolutionary idea changed the record for hundreds of its prisoners.

When you research the notorious New Bell Prison in Douala, music and art aren’t the first things that come up. It’s known for severe overcrowding, with more than four times the number of prisoners it has the capacity for. Too many men, youngsters, and children, are held in often unsanitary and overcrowded conditions. However, in the last few years, the prison has also gained prominence for being the birthplace of the extraordinary record label Jail Time Records, founded by Italian multi-disciplinary visual artist Dione Roach and the then-incarcerated music producer Vidou H. They believed in and witnessed the healing and transformative aspects of music and art and defied the status quo for hundreds of imprisoned men in Africa. When I speak to the remarkable young Italian, she has just come back from extensive travels across Europe. She’d been to Milan, Rome, Amsterdam, and Paris, where, together with music producer Steve, she’d run workshops and attended meetings for their music collective.

It all started back in 2017, when Roach travelled as a volunteer with the Italian NGO Centro Orientamento Educativo (COE) to facilitate and run painting workshops in the New Bell Prison. I ask Dione how she experienced walking into the prison for the first time. She admits that at first, she was shocked. “The energy is really intense when you go in, and there's so many people and so much noise. And there's a lot of aggression - not that people are aggressive, but everyone wants something, money, rags, and stuff.” She admits she was somewhat prepared, as she was aware of extreme conditions in Sub-Saharan Africa, even outside of prison. “For our [Western] standards, it’s all quite crazy and irrational anyway. And there's no rehabilitative justice, and no means for it either. So the prisoners are somewhat left to their own devices. There are a few NGOs that have a couple of things going on. But on a state level, there's nothing.” She cites Steve, now the music producer for the project as an example: He was imprisoned for over 18 months whilst the authorities were investigating his case without any proof. Shockingly, he was one of the lucky ones, as, according to reports, other cases can go on for much longer, with innocent people, amongst them many children, being locked up for years without a case and trial. 

Apart from the painting workshops, Dione also organised dance and music events, and she soon noticed how many talented rappers and musicians she was surrounded by. “I spoke to one of them and he told me they were rehearsing for a concert they are organising in the prison. So I started going along to the rehearsals and the idea popped in my head that I could do an album with them”, Dione tells me. This thought developed into her eventual proposition to COE of a permanent recording studio in the prison. The NGO was supportive and contributed some funds, and because of her good relations with prison staff, the studio was quickly approved. However, there was no further support after the implementation of the studio, which meant that Dione had to find another solution to keep it running. 

“My year as a volunteer had nearly finished, and that’s when I met Steve, a music producer and sound engineer. We immediately clicked, and I gave him the keys to the studio and told him to carry on the work.” After her year in Cameroon had come to an end, Dione returned to Italy but stayed in touch with Steve. She returned after a few months, only to find that lots of music had been recorded, which prompted the idea of a permanent record label. Dione emphasises that the whole process from the recording studio to Jail Time Records as a platform and record label was very intuitive and organic. “It was like: Let’s give these guys the means to do what they love doing, what they’re really good and talented at.”

I mention that it must seem like a miracle that Jail Time Records came to life without any huge obstacles. Dione cites her great working relationship with one of the prison managers which was pivotal in enabling the building of the recording studio. “He’s passionate about music, so he understood the project immediately and was really excited about it and literally and figuratively opened all the doors to make things happen. They [the prison] let us do stuff that's unthinkable in Cameroon, for example, do video clips, have a camera inside the prison, and so on. We've had full trust, which is remarkable, considering the overall situation in the prison and with me being a Western woman.” 

Being a woman, Dione thinks, was actually an advantage. Surrounded by men, and a lot of artists with strong egos, she believes that those she worked with felt protective of her, and that the personal connection she forged with both inmates and prison staff was positive. That, in turn, paved the way for the studio and all subsequent success stories, of which there are too many to count. The immediate benefits of the studio were that antagonism and fighting between members of the recording studio soon stopped as they got stuck into creating their music and working together on common projects and rehearsals. Dione says that creative work and programmes in prison have this positive effect as inmates learn to communicate in a non-violent way and learn many useful soft skills through being creative.

To support the positive momentum outside of the New Bell Prison, Jail Time Records opened a recording studio in Douala, outside the prison, which is run by former inmates, too, giving them a purpose, responsibility, and a supportive community. That, in turn, means that the rates of re-offending have been lower, as the music has helped to transform former criminals who now have a focus and project to work on. Dione explains that life in Cameroon is tough with severe unemployment and drug consumption amongst many who are without a job. Once they leave jail, it’s even more difficult to find a job as an ex-convict. Therefore, they are in a very delicate and vulnerable position and it’s easy to slip back into old habits. There is also a stigma of having been to prison, and many of the men and children are abandoned by their families and avoided by communities, so they feel they have nowhere to go, except to those who have also been to prison before. And tendentially, many of those are involved in some kind of dodgy activity, so slipping back into a life of crime is very easy. “We’ve had some guys who’ve been to prison since they were kids and who couldn’t stay a year outside without having to go back. Because of JTR, they’ve now been out of prison for over three years and they can keep recording music without having to go back into prison to access the studio there. Their music gives them something to cling onto and it gives them hope. Otherwise, they’d feel that everything is against them.”

Although Dione isn’t in Cameroon all the time, she’s been spending a significant amount of time there, between six to eight months per year. During that time, she works in both studios, in and outside the prison every day, and additionally shoots video clips for music videos. With so many exceptional and transformational stories to tell, it’s clear that Dione created something extraordinary and special. I ask her if there are any recent proud moments, other than the ongoing effect her work has on the prisoners in the New Bell Prison. She tells me that last year in May JTR played a concert at an event at the Goethe Institute in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital city in which seven formerly incarcerated musicians took part. “They put us all up in a 4-star hotel! That was really sweet, because a couple of them had just come out of prison, and almost all of them come from working-class or very poor backgrounds, so they’ve never been in any kind of situation like that. To see them have this experience was really joyful and satisfying.”

Dione’s dedication and commitment to Jail Time Records is one of a kind and her tenacity to support those who’d otherwise have a much bleaker outlook in life, is something many can only aspire to. Her humanity, care, and determination to make positive changes in the world, coupled with her extraordinary art are proof that what the world needs is more people like her. Most importantly, she’s shown that if in doubt, art and music are always the answer.

Follow Jail Time Records on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. Check out their website and support them by donating here.


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