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Harmonizing Justice: Keith LaMar’s Jazz Odyssey in the Fight Against Injustice

November 19, 2023

In the heart of Ohio’s death row, Condemned author and jazz poet Keith LaMar, also known as Bomani Shakur, finds himself in solitary confinement, entangled in a legal battle that has spanned three decades. 

The 54-year-old entered the public’s consciousness in the early 1990s when he was placed on death row for his alleged involvement in a prison riot, which ultimately took the lives of several inmates and one guard in a southern Ohio correction facility. He maintains his innocence, asserting he was a bystander caught in the crossfire.

Instead of succumbing to despair, he has spent years vigorously building a grassroots movement with the help of Justice For Keith LaMar (JFKL) to raise awareness while harnessing the melodic sounds of jazz to help strengthen his fortitude. 

Unbeknownst to him, that same music would propel a remarkable movement worldwide. The debut of his jazz composition, FREEDOM FIRST, is not just a collection of melodies. It is a resonant anthem echoing the core of LaMar’s battle for justice. It is also the first album in history by an artist on death row. 

The album’s significance lies in its musical prowess, recognized through international acclaim and a series of noteworthy tours, and its capacity to articulate LaMar’s perspective of the criminal justice system.

Each track harmonizes LaMar’s gutwrenching spoken word detailing the struggles of an individual with the broader issue of America’s historical injustices in its legal system against the immersive tunes of live instruments. The album serves as a cry for those who recognize the urgency of reform.

“It’s thinking of a new way to get at an old problem. That’s what is so innovative about the approach. It’s innovative. It’s the message in the music and the audience that it is reaching,” LaMar shares. 

The road to FREEDOM FIRST: music as a tool to restore justice 

The creation of FREEDOM FIRST began as an organic collaboration of talent anchored by activism and passion. Co-creator Albert Marquès, an esteemed pianist and composer, activist, and educator Wali White and Musicians United NYC, organized the music project. 

On the helms of social unrest after the George Floyd murder in 2020, LaMar’s team, in collaboration with Marquès, began ushering in the beginning of FREEDOM FIRST by performing outdoors in New York. Noticing a burgeoning interest, Marquès and LaMar would be joined by dozens of professional musicians, creatives, artists and activists, lending their voices, instruments, and resources to help drive the project’s notoriety. 

“I had to step out on faith.” LaMar shares. “Believe in other human beings who had my best interest at heart. Coming to the realization that you’re not in this by yourself.” 

Marquès’ partnership extends beyond the recording studio, with Marquès actively participating in the global tour accompanying the album, further cementing their collaborative brilliance.

“It is great to protest after the government kills an innocent Black man, but what if we protest before? What if we are proactive about it?” Marques reflects. “That is what was important to me with this project. The idea of amplifying Black voices.”

An unconventional way to address systemic racism in the criminal justice system

Examining LaMar’s journey alongside America’s historical context reveals a consistent pattern of systemic issues within the justice system. 

Throughout history, discriminatory practices and laws have shaped a landscape of unequal treatment — from slavery and Black Codes to racial profiling and sentencing disparities. These elements have contributed to a persistent problem of injustice.

LaMar’s case is a concrete example of the ongoing challenges, particularly the disproportionate impact on Black individuals. His jazz odyssey is a factual representation of the struggles inherent in America’s complicated relationship with its justice system. It is also an opportunity to objectively address historical shortcomings and work towards a more equitable future.

LaMar’s continued legacy amid recent victory 

If FREEDOM FIRST teaches anything, it spotlights the power of music to transcend boundaries and speak to the soul. This is evidenced by LaMar’s recent victory, in which OH Gov. Mike DeWine delayed his execution date, offering a potential opportunity for a new trial. This development has rekindled optimism within the movement, reinforcing the impact of collective advocacy. In honor of the recent win, LaMar and Marquès composed a new musical piece, The Journey, to express renewed energy and optimism in his fight for freedom. 

Individuals moved by LaMar’s story and the broader implications of systemic racism within the criminal justice system can visit to learn more, donate, and participate.