In September, Harmony Project worked with Five Sisters Productions, a Los Angeles-based production company, to produce a documentary celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Bill Withers classic, Lean on Me.
While David Brown, Harmony’s Creative Director, taught a new arrangement of Lean on Me to participants of the Prison Arts Program at Pickaway Correctional Institute (PCI), Five Sisters Productions gathered stories from the singing participants to explore how they engage in the arts and music during incarceration. Interviews with the men and artists who work with them serve as the storyboard for the film.
Further, the documentary features Withers’ composition as the musical thread that ties together the voices, original compositions, original artwork, and personal stories of those who are part of Ohio’s incarcerated communities. Capping it off is a powerful performance from inside the prison walls of the iconic Bill Withers anthem chronicling the power of human connection amidst strife and pain.
Five Sisters Productions is a company begun by five real-life sisters with a mission to create media that is entertaining, engaging, and highlights diverse and underrepresented voices. Five Sisters’ project choices reflect their commitment to social engagement, with a focus on increasing the diversity of voices represented behind camera and onscreen. In this case, it’s the story of the growth of the incarceration system and how it has effected American society, a story told through the personal stories of incarcerated individuals and those working with them through Harmony Project.
Many people serving time “lean on” the work of artists and arts organizations to combat isolation, frustration, despair, and fear. But the documentary also takes a hard look at the increased rates of incarceration in America over the past 50 years and examine how art and music are contributing to lowered recidivism rates for those who are released.
Gabrielle Burton, one of the five sisters–the one sister who resides in central Ohio–when asked about the significance of this project, said, “I really love it here in Ohio and I love the stories that spring out of this region. Often, people can feel powerless against a problem as large as mass incarceration. The work of Harmony shows how people find a way to engage as individuals, and how we are truly stronger together — leaning on each other and allowing others to lean on us. And that engagement can have a ripple effect with a much broader impact.”
David Brown, Harmony’s Creative Director remarked, “By helping incarcerated people share their own narratives about who they are, we look to change the public discussion about justice-involved individuals, reduce recidivism, shift perceptions of those whose lives are affected by the justice system, and help people restore their lives.”
The project is being partially funded by Ohio Arts Council and the Greater Columbus Arts Council, both longtime community partners of Harmony, as well as funding through Five Sisters Productions. The resulting documentary will be released on YouTube to the general public for free at a date to be announced later.