by Keith LaMar
“It always seems impossible until it is done.” – Nelson Mandela
This may sound like the craziest thing you’ve ever heard – especially when you discover from where I am writing this. I am a death row prisoner, and this has been the most amazing year of my life! I say this without exaggeration.
For the past 27 years, I have been in solitary confinement, one of the most soul-murdering experiences you could ever imagine. In terms of its enormity, being here has been the equivalent of being thrown into the middle of the ocean. I’m talking cruel and unusual punishment, where death by drowning is fully expected. Somehow, against tremendous odds, I have stayed afloat. Let me tell you how.
In the first place, I never stopped believing in my right to exist, and never lost the ability to see the goodness in people. Under this system, where those in power rule by keeping people divided, I’ve always been able to see the lie and keep my eyes open for help. And help came.
In 1995, the year I was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death, I was caught up in feeling angry about the injustice of my ordeal, and a good friend of mine – Snoop was his name – introduced me to John Coltrane. He slid “A Love Supreme” under my cell door one day and told me to “follow the notes.”
I’ve been following the notes ever since. Jazz music became a big part of my life and played an even bigger part in helping me hold on to myself. I made it a point to learn as much as I possibly could about John Coltrane, about his struggles and pains, and how he overcame the worst of it, and ultimately set out to do something righteous with his life. His seminal work, “A Love Supreme,” provided a blueprint: acknowledgement, resolution, pursuance, psalm.
The first thing I had to acknowledge was the fact that life isn’t fair, which released me from the time-consuming drama of feeling sorry for myself. I started reading history books and learned the tragic past of my people, which taught me that my situation was in fact a continuation of a centuries-long saga containing brutalities on top of brutalities.
I also learned from my reading that my ancestors resolved to fight the injustices that they were born into, and that, by extension, I had an obligation to do the same, which I’ve done. From the very beginning, I have stayed in pursuit, trying to prevail on the courts to do the right thing.
They haven’t. Still, even as I have suffered defeat after defeat, I have not abandoned my faith in a higher power, which guides and informs my every move. Because of this, I have received blessings on top of blessings.
In the beginning of the year, when the shelter in place directives were initially announced, I did an interview with Mother Jones sharing some of the lessons I’ve learned in my over two-decade stint in solitary confinement, and the interview went viral. The wife of famed jazz musician Brian Jackson, long-time collaborator of Gil Scott-Heron, read it and shared it with her husband, who, out of a desire to help me elevate the profile of my case, started a podcast called Pieces of a Man, on which I’ve been a frequent co-host; together, we’ve explored the connections between race, music and injustice in America. If you’d like to listen to our conversations, go to my website: www.keithlamar.org/podcasts. They are there for you.
This past year, I’ve had the honor of meeting and becoming friends with a group of awesome musicians out of New York called Musicians United! We together have put on two amazing Freedom First concerts over the summer and fall, sharing my love of jazz and the details surrounding my wrongful conviction.
In addition, people from across the country and around the world recently came out to participate in a 5K run, walk and bike event to mark the three-year countdown to my execution date, and I was deeply humbled by the love. None of this was supposed to be possible, but, even as the pandemic raged and racial and political unrest threatened to undo the glue that holds society together, we brought joy, love and awareness to so many people. If you’d like to see and hear these joyous occasions, go to www.keithlamar.org/events. They are there for you.
This country glorifies the individual and the solitary journey, but as the African proverb says: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
These things exist as proof of what love and solidarity can do. For a long time, I labored under the illusion that my freedom could only come from speaking truth to power. But power, as Noam Chomsky so eloquently noted, already knows the truth.
The people who run this system do so with the full awareness that it’s broken, and they have no intention of fixing it. Be that as it may, we have the ultimate say in what becomes of us. All we have to do is stand up for each other, forsake our individual aims and understand that love is truly the only freedom.
“With brotherhood,” said John Coltrane, “there would be no war … there would be no poverty.” I amen his clarity. With brotherhood, there would be no mass incarceration, homelessness, racism, economic inequality … capital punishment!
Only when we come together can we truly change things for the better. This country glorifies the individual and the solitary journey, but as the African proverb says: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
I need to go far – all the way to the Supreme Court. For that, I need your help. If you are reading this, you now have my website, www.keithlamar.org. Come join the movement. In less than three years, the state of Ohio intends to strap me down to a gurney and pump poison through my veins. However, inasmuch as my life is not for them to take, I intend to stop them. Again, I need your help.
When I first started this journey, I was told over and over not to expect anything from the system, and nothing is what I’ve received. But now I’m speaking out; now I’m stepping out on the water, hoping that my faith in the power of people will withstand the weight of my situation.
In the opening line of his masterpiece, “Psalm,” John Coltrane begins by saying through the notes on his horn: “I will do all I can to be worthy of thee, O Lord,” and I’m here to say that I feel the same thing: A Love Supreme!
Send our brother some love and light: Keith LaMar, 317-117, P.O. Box 1436, Youngstown OH 44501.