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Music Liberation Orchestra

Music Liberation Orchestra: The First Meeting

June 10, 2014


by Zenovia Campbell


Many of the men filtering into Philadelphia Detention Center’s gymnasium do not know what expect from Hannibal Lokumbe. In due time, we will learn that Chris, 18, wasn’t interested in coming, but his surrogate brother – Khalil, 33 – pushed him to attend.  The small group settles into a circle of plastic chairs, and Lokumbe introduces himself.  He tells the men, “Every second you spend in here, it’s like a year in your life … you’re cut off.”


First things first.  A song. “We always begin with a song,” Lokumbe says. He reaches down to the side of his chair, unlocks his wooden trumpet case and within seconds, the hymnal, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” flows through Lokumbe’s instrument and echoes throughout the gymnasium.


When the song is over, the men sit in silence. 


This is the meeting of the Music Liberation Orchestra at the Philadelphia Detention Center in Philadelphia, PA.  With full knowledge of the high recidivism rates in this country, Lokumbe created this program to assist in the rehabilitation of incarcerated men and women through music and journaling.  MLO’s are established in New Orleans and St. Paul, Minn., as well.


Lokumbe explains to the men what the MLO has the potential to do for them – if they are willing to follow the four principles:


1.  Renounce violence - “Nothing ever comes from violence except destruction,” Lokumbe says.

2. Acknowledge the presence of the divine

3. Keep a journal for yourselves and for your children

4. Fall in love with forgiveness


As the sun prepares to set outside, an orange glow fills the gymnasium. Lokumbe reaches into his bag and pulls out a stack of composition books and a bundle of yellow golf pencils held together by a rubber band.  Each member is to take a pencil and two notebooks. These, he tells the men, are your journals. Within these books, “you’ve got somebody you can talk to,” he says.  They are “the physical manifestation of your mind.” He advises them to never rip any pages out of their journals.


“The key to healing,” Lokumbe says, “is to reveal to yourself who you are.”


Texas is Lokumbe’s home base, so he asked Jamal Dickerson – who is an instrumental music teacher at the Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy in Camden – to lead the group when he is out of town. 


Dickerson introduces himself to the circle of men, and shares a synopsis of his life story: raised in Camden, NJ, left the city to attend Morgan State University, and came back to Camden upon graduation to give back to his community.


Dickerson, board director and founder of the Preparing Artists for College Entrance program, tells the group that his parents’ constant reminders of the consequences of hanging out on the streets kept him out of trouble. Dickerson’s father told his son that as a black man, “you always have one foot on the banana peel.” 


Dickerson asks the group:  What do you want from this experience?


The men slowly open up, one-by-one. They speak of regrets and hopes. They reflect on the past and face their now.  They boast about their children and share memories of grandmothers, mothers, wives and girlfriends.




 The scheduled one-hour session lasts for over three hours.  Willard, 49, closes the session with a song. The sun has long set, and as the men exchange contact information with Lokumbe and Dickerson, a guard with a pocket full of pens and a clipboard storms into the gym. This activity has lasted too long, she says.


Despite the disruption, many of the men are smiling with Lokumbe now.  The men exit the gym, pass through the metal detector and melt back into the prison crowd clutching their notebooks – a new tool that has the potential to lead them toward healing, a new tool to help them envision a future for themselves and their families.

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