At San Francisco County Jail, a Musical Collaboration with Incarcerated Women

Naima Shalhoub records inside San Francisco County Jail.  (Brandon Roos)

At 3am inside a bar in Beirut, Naima Shalhoub rediscovered her passion for performance.

The year was 2009, and Shalhoub bought a one-way ticket to Lebanon, intent on reconnecting with her Lebanese roots and finding her purpose. She brought along a small ukulele she could use to play and sing in local cafes. During her four-month stay, late one evening, she was put on the spot.

The cover for 'Live in San Francisco.'
The cover for 'Live in San Francisco.'

“A friend of mine who owned the bar shut off the music. He calmed everyone down and said ‘Hey everyone! Naima is going to sing us a song,’” she recalls recently, by phone. “I picked up my ukulele and started singing. Everyone started clapping, and it was just this epic moment... Afterward, I almost was in tears. It was clear -- this is what I need to be doing. This is my calling. I didn’t know how it was going to happen, but I came back to the Bay with a determination to figure things out.”

She hadn’t sang regularly since high school, but she returned to the States ignited by a passion to use her vocal talents to uplift others.

Live in San Francisco County Jail, Shalhoub's debut album, is a celebration of this mission realized, with the collection of songs showing Naima successfully merging her passion for singing with her equally deep passion for social justice. The set was recorded with active participation from women she'd worked with inside SF County during a series of exchanges they dubbed the “music and freedom sessions." Shalhoub marks the release with a performance at the AU Lounge in Oakland on Dec. 1.

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Shalhoub's work with female inmates at SF County started in May 2014, when she was invited to participate in a Mother’s Day ritual and celebration. Though initially nervous, Shalhoub was surprised by how warmly she was received.

“I was moved by how the simplicity of music and sharing from a vocal and honest place was received so deeply,” she says. “Afterward, there were hugs. One woman said ‘You know Naima, I’ve been here for two years, and this is the happiest I’ve felt.’ I had not experienced that depth before.”

Roughly one year later, she integrated the depth of that exchange into her album by recording a concert in an open-cell pod. Prior to the performance, Rhodessa Jones, director of award-winning performance workshop The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women, read a poem and invocation that set a joyful, unifying mood.

Shalhoub then took the stage and openly asked the inmates in attendance to sing along, and many stood up and joined in from the first song. Media lined the walls of the cell pod, watching as Shalhoub and her band helped blur the typically defined border between performer and audience into a participatory and empowering experience.

“Given the context of where we were, they didn’t have to give anything. They have enough required of them, so the fact that they were so open was really meaningful,” she adds. “The music in that space creates a ‘we space’ rather than a divisiveness. That alone is a radical thing to experience.”

While the women who star alongside Shalhoub will not appear in person when she celebrates her album release, they'll certainly be there in spirit. During her last visit to SF County, Shalhoub asked the women to write notes, which will adorn the walls of the AU Lounge for her performance.

Since beginning work with the women in SF County, Shalhoub has expanded her efforts to other correctional facilities with hopes of one day doing a national tour of women’s jails. Visits so far include San Quentin Prison, where she performed alongside bassist Marcus Shelby for a project by Bread and Roses; Alameda County Juvenile Hall; and San Bruno Men’s Jail, where she worked this summer on behalf of Five Keys Charter School.

After watching the final cut of a documentary capturing her May concert, Shalhoub was brought to tears. Reflecting on the past 18 months of her life, she remains mindful of her journey to utilize her talent for social change.

“That simplicity of showing up and being consistent and open, just sharing what one does, can really make a difference in a small way,” she says. “A collection of those small steps can lead to something greater, and I’m seeing it slowly. I’m seeing the seeds that are planted, and it’s really changed my life and my perspective. It continues to teach me every time I go inside.”

Naima Shalhoub performs Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015 at the AU Lounge in Oakland. For more information, visit the Facebook event page. 'Live in San Francisco County Jail' will be released Dec. 1 and available for purchase and download at naimashalhoub.bandcamp.com.

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