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Cruel and Unusual Punnsihment: A Hip Hop Compilation to Abolish the Death Penalty

Walidah Imarisha
Date Published: 
January 01, 0001
    The first time I heard Cruel and Unusual Punishment was in my rental car on the dirt roads of Livingston, Texas. I was driving to protest the execution of Hasan Shakur. Hasan was pronounced dead Aug. 31, 2006 at 6:18 p.m. I rode home with Ray Ramirez, aka Rayzer from the Welfare Poets, and there were no words to express this brotha stolen from us. So I put on this CD and let others speak for me.

Cruel and Unusual Punishment encapsulated the rage, anger, burning pain and intense loss that I was feeling from these cuts around the globe rhyming, yelling, struggling. The bumping bass lines, the heavy lyrics, and the heartfelt words let me know that neither I, nor Hasan was alone at that moment, and that the struggle he gave his life for had many hands and voices to carry it forward.

The Welfare Poets, a New York-based radical band/collective, produced this compilation (with the support of Shield Magazine out of Hunter College) to raise awareness about the death penalty and as a fundraiser for Hasan and the other men on Texas’ Polunsky Unit who had formed an organizing collective: Haramia KiNassor (Kenneth Foster, Jr.), Tony Egbuna Ford and Randy Arroyo, all of whom are writers, artists, prison organizers and developers of non-for-profit organizations.

In the CD insert, the Welfare Poets wrote, “This CD is done in the memory of Hasan Shakur, Frances Newton, Shaka Sankofa, Tookie Williams, Dominique Green and everyone put to death by this demonic country and their broken system of justice.”

The artists on the CD aren’t big flashy names, but instead folks who have solidly proven themselves musically and politically. These are folks who Hasan respected, like Wise Intelligent, from Poor Righteous Teachers. Most of them have been cultural workers as well as hip-hop artists for years; they are people who walk the talk. Like Abiodune, a member of the Last Poets, whose song “The Penalty” opens the album. His booming indictment of state-sanctioned execution sets the tone for face-paced nonstop spit straight in your face hip-hop truth.

The songs, while focusing on the death penalty, don’t get preachy or pedantic. Because they come from people who know this, who live this, who work to change this every day, they come with a real rawness that does not get tired.
The songs link racism, poverty, political prisoners, prisons, and militarization to create a tapestry of both oppression and resistance. New Orleans based Truth Universal’s song, “Angola 3” breaks down the case of Black Panther political prisoners Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, while Philly-born Warclub rips a smoldering track, “This Ain’t No Game”, about Mumia Abu-Jamal and the MOVE 9.

Press play

While all of the songs move hearts, fists and asses, Jav’lin’s track, “Walk With Me (Kenneth’s Song)” for Haramia KiNassor (Kenneth Foster, Jr.,) her fiancée, is one of the tracks that touches the depth of the endless well of sorrow that lives in loved ones of all prisoners, especially those of death row prisoners. KiNassor is facing a possible execution date at this time. For more information, go to

One of the treasures of the album is a track of Hasan Shakur, performing his song/rap, “Gots to Let You Know,” recorded on a tape when he was 19 before he was incarcerated, and restored by the Welfare Poets. Hasan’s deep youthful soulful voice pours his heart out on this love song, and you see another side of his personality. Embedded in that track is the hope of a young brotha, and all the possibilities that the state extinguished Aug. 31.

The day before his execution, Hasan sent a letter out to all his supporters which read, in part, “I love what you have done for me and I love the fact that people believed into my cause and believed in me, and you know what? I love you and I believe in you. I believe you will continue to push the work I have done... Stay focused, people, keep the goal united and in sight. That’s the only way you will reach it.”

Cruel and Unusual Punishment is a testament to Hasan’s last words, and a reminder to all of us struggling for change and justice that when we get lost in the dark and feel all alone, all we have to do is press play.

Other artists include of course the Welfare Poets spitting their normal unrelenting fire, Blitz, Hasan Salaam, A-Alikes, Chosan, Ill Sonic, Son of Nun, Tru-N-Livin, InI, Mighty Lockdown, Rebel Diaz, Wordplay, JuggaBlak, LemBoogie, Trigga N.A.M., Hicoup, Block McCloud, and Bolos.

A Welfare Poets Production, 2006