On Loren Reed’s “Emo Prison Bars”

Hanif Abdurraqib
3 min readJan 28, 2021

If you are a person who has ever been incarcerated, or if you are a person who communicates with incarcerated folks by phone with any kind of regularity, you are likely familiar with the voice that hovers over the start of these interactions, reminding you that the call is being recorded. The first time I spent some days locked up, I made one phone call, invited into the interaction by the electronic voice reminding me of the additional layer of surveillance atop the presence of hovering guards, atop the promise of a strict time limit that, when it ended, would be the last moment I heard the voice of a loved one for an unspecified amount of time.

I have been kicking this thing around lately, about sampling and its limits. Mostly, about the limits of repurposing and refashioning language (and sounds and images and so on) that might otherwise be weapons, or at least that might otherwise upend the comforts of the person doing the repurposing.

Loren Reed’s “Emo Prison Bars” is an achievement in this type of refashioning, a mere five seconds in. A listener hears the familiar (to some) message this call is now being recorded, and then after a brief breath, Reed enters with his opening like I want to make music that’s abhorrent. This makes it seem, to me, like he is eagerly joining language already in progress, but it is also feels like a shift of the lens. So much of incarceration’s machinery relies on (among a great many other things) dehumanization by consistent refusals and reminders, and the insistence that both of these things be absorbed in relative silence, or with relative calm. The rhyme scheme in the entire first act of the song finds Reed stitching together rhymes that all connect back to the word “recorded” (i.e. “I wanna buy a used hearse / put a sound system in it and floor it”) which feels, to me, like a useful manipulation of an oppressive reminder. And an expression of awareness, an acknowledgement of this part of connecting with the outside from the inside (and vice versa) that might seem, to some, like a mundane step in the process. When this call is now being recorded arrives again, it is chopped up, almost serving as a chorus, or a bridge from one act to the next.

I’ve always been less of a listener who scrolls through a song mumbling get to the point under my breath, and more of a listener who asks what terrain can be explored in the least amount of language possible, something that is a requirement in some of the communications I have with folks who are incarcerated who might want to read me a poem they’re working on, or kick a few bars they’ve scrawled down. There’s always an awareness of the time limit that is built into the interaction and therefore is built into the art and the expression of it. (This, of course, is another function of incarceration’s refusals and reminders.)

Loren Reed raps for maybe a minute total on “Emo Prison Bars” and moves smoothly and with care through a range of topics, but also a range of moods. The song is somber, clever, angry, visual, and sometimes funny, at least in a way I felt entirely close to (“If you’re like me, you won’t buy this song / you’ll download it in a torrent”)

This song, despite its brevity (or perhaps because of it,) sparks a real feeling of generosity. A song that is rooted, first and foremost, as a journey through how a person’s mind works. I’m thankful I got to spend time with this song, and I hope you will not only keep track of Loren’s case and full life, but also hope to hear more of his music, as I do.

Read more about Loren Reed and his case HERE.

Donate to Tucson Anti-Repression Crew HERE.