Over a pensive rhythm, Zealot reflects on his incarceration and the way in which some prisoners are afforded second chances for their mistakes and others like him are seemingly denied forgiveness.
“America the Merciful” came out of a four-day recording session with Die Jim Crow producers Fury Young and dr. Israel at the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility.
Die Jim Crow is the first nonprofit record label for current and formerly incarcerated musicians, and on Juneteenth, the label released their first album, “Assata Troi” by BL Shirelle, which receivedquite a bitof positivepress.
The session at Colorado Territorial was initially for a Die Jim Crow concept album, but it evolved into a forthcoming project entirely written by incarcerated individuals with contributions from all ages, races, ethnicities, religions, and musical backgrounds.
Like Grammy.com described it, “As a hybrid of musical genre and perspective, it is the collective story of universal struggle and search for meaning amid the personal recollections of its contributors.”
Zealot, or Dane Newton, was convicted of “aggravated robbery” and sentenced to 36 years in prison. He has been incarcerated since 2007, and as Die Jim Crow’s Bandcamp recalls “America the Merciful” was recorded in April 2018 over a short window—two hours out of the “90,000 that Zealot had spent incarcerated during his ten plus years thus far.”
“I don’t wanna feel lost today. I don’t wanna die chasing the wind,” Zealot sings after wondering if his actions are “unforgetful” and if his crimes are “beyond forgiveness.”
In a second verse, Zealot says he “can fall no further” and “lose nothing more.”
Zealot came up with the lyrics during the winter. He felt depressed and dug deep and suppressed any fear he had confronting certain personal things on his mind.
With one sheet of paper, he wrote the song, and when it was finished, he put it away for two summers before he finally had the opportunity to record it for Die Jim Crow.
According to Zealot, this is a contemplation of “how redemption might work” in his life moving forward and how people view prisoners like him in a particular way, even though he wants to do better. It deals with that harsh emotion of “no matter how hard you try” it will never be good enough.
“I was sentenced to 24 and 12 consecutive [years] for aggravated robbery and [I was] thinking about some of the guys I’ve met while I’ve been in prison that have less time than that for murder,” Zealot shared. “So you want to extend a level of mercy and forgiveness to someone who murdered someone, and I’m in here for an aggravated robbery.”
“You take the very best years of my life— it’s like how do you reconcile that concept on a personal level with your own life and your own actions?”
Zealot wanted a “rap part” in between the “first hook and verse two.” But it was not until nearly a year later that Die Jim Crow met Uno, an “introverted young rapper” at the Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institution, a high security state prison in Columbia, South Carolina.
Uno was sentenced to life without parole when she was 19 years-old. The rap she laid down complements what Zealot wrote by offering an assessment on the world beyond the prison walls.
“I’m looking at the world nowadays, how it’s so unjust,” Uno raps. “Sitting on my bunk in a haze. Look for words to sum it up. Money is the root of everything. Some people cannot make it enough. Society is blind in every way. Guess it’s time to come and get up.”
A bass line supports Zealot, especially on the second verse as he is given time to vocally improvise a little. The instruments are sparsely arranged in a manner that never overpowers their reflection.
Uno’s indignation paired with the intensely personal lyrics from Zealot create a contrast. Outside of prison there is a world that seems upside down, where lawlessness and immorality permeates. So why is it Uno, who has to be behind bars until she dies, or why is it Zealot, who must be in prison until after the prime of his life?
Apparently, both prisons have restrictions so Zealot and Uno have only listened to the track through a telephone. But hopefully someday they will be able hear the dynamic created over six minutes of two incarcerated individuals dealing with whether society will ever see them as human beings and forgive.
Listen to “America The Merciful” by Zealot featuring Uno: