It might sound far-fetched, but this is what Bring Down the Walls, a month-long project by led New York arts nonprofit Creative Time, aims to do. One part social justice workshop, one part dance club, and one part concept album, the initiative takes a hard look at criminal justice issues through the lens of house music.

Phil Collins has made listening into an art form. Every weekend in 2014, the artist (not to be confused with the famous musician) visited a karaoke bar in Glasgow, Scotland to learn more about the community of elderly regulars there. He didn’t snap a photograph or record an interview. Only after six months did he ask to document their unique celebration of music. The result is a stunning series of vocal performances by seemingly ordinary people who shined with the microphone in their hands or shuffled their feet on the dancefloor. He mixed up these video clips with cut-out animations, music by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and found footage to create a unique portrait of the city called Tomorrow is Too Long that has been screened at institutions like the Museum of Modern Art.

For Collins’ latest project, his ambitions were even higher. Over a period of seven years, he visited Sing Sing, the notorious correctional facility on the banks of the Hudson River. He spoke with inmates at the prison to learn about their experience being incarcerated, and eventually discovered that he shared a mutual love of house music with many of them. They had even frequented the same New York dance clubs.

These conversations about music eventually evolved into a wildly ambitious project called Bring Down the Walls. Produced by Sonos Listen Better social impact grantee Creative Time, the event series transforms an old Manhattan firehouse into an activism workshop space by day and a dance club by night. The four-weekend event is topped off with a concept album—mixed and mastered with the support of Sonos sound engineers and featuring formerly incarcerated artists and performers–with the aim of raising awareness about incarceration injustices in the U.S.

Creative Time worked with Collins to produce Bring Down the Walls, which is named after the1986 album by record producer Larry Heard and musician Robert Owens. “It’s one of the greatest house records ever, it totally changed my life,” Collins told The Guardian. “It brings everything together for the whole project.” Why house music? The genre itself has roots in resistance in activism, having emerged from Chicago’s LGBTI scene and crossed borders to reach Collins’ native Manchester, imbuing in him a love and respect for the music as a vehicle to free people from the tragedy and constraints.

The event’s venue is a decommissioned Gothic firehouse that was literally sinking into the earth in the 1970s before the nonprofit DCTV rescued it from demolition. Every weekend night during the month of May, the firehouse has been converted into a dance club with DJs spinning house music; by day the firehouse will offer workshops, teach-ins, and legal services for people encountering the justice system. The location is fitting, because right next to the glitzy Soho neighborhood is an epicenter of New York’s incarceration system; Holding centers, courts, and bail bondsmen occupy a few square blocks of Chinatown, representing a pipeline into the criminal justice system.

The concept album for Breaking Down the Walls is performed by musicians and formerly incarcerated individuals and is now available in a pay-what-you-want price at Bandcamp, with proceeds going to the nonprofit Critical Resistance.

Speaking to Broadway World, vocalist Cameron Holmes explained: “Being formerly incarcerated myself, I am keenly aware of the therapeutic power of music and knew this project would be an opportunity for me to utilize my talent in a constructive way. I believe the people closest to a problem are best positioned to solve it.”

Creators include Larry Heard, Robert Owens, Empress Of, Michael Austin, Figure Skater, King Tolen, Nguzunguzu, Cinthia Candelaria, Kyp Malone, Robert Pollock, MikeQ, Ian Isiah, Amanda Cruz, Honey Dijon, Seven Davis Jr., Q Williams, Morgan Wiley, L’Rain, and Patrick Gordon. Notably, Phil Collins himself does not appear on the album, standing aside to enable the performers to shine and tell their own stories.

After learning about the project, Sonos combined with Creative Time and Phil Collins to find out how we could contribute to the vision. We stepped up to offer a speaker installation and offered the services of our Sound Experience team, led by Giles Martin. The album was first mixed by Abe Seiferth at Transmitter Park Studio in New York City, and then mastered by our team at the renowned Abbey Road Studios in London, helping to complete the seven-year journey that Phil and his partners at the Fortune Society began with Creative Time.

 


Bring Down the Walls closes out its final weekend starting tomorrow in New York City. Free passes are available here. You can also preview and buy the Bring Down the Walls album on Bandcamp below.

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