Guitarist Wayne Kramer says he cofounded the iconic Detroit protopunk band MC5 “right after the Earth cooled,” but it was in fact 1964, at the birth of hard rock, and the band went on to influence a genre and more worth of music. A little more than a decade later, he was caught selling cocaine and went to federal prison for two years; the Clash wrote their song “Jail Guitar Doors” about his experience.
In tribute to the Clash’s Joe Strummer, British musician Billy Bragg took the song’s name to found a nonprofit in 2007 that provided musical equipment and songwriting lessons to rehabilitate inmates in the U.K. prison system. Two years later, Kramer himself teamed up with Bragg to cofound Jail Guitar Doors USA to do the same for American inmates.
“After serving a federal prison term in the ’70s, I watched as more people like me were going to prison for longer and longer periods of time, and I got mad,” said Kramer, speaking at the SXSW Music festival in Austin on a Life Beyond Music panel, about turning creativity and career experience into positive change beyond your job. “First it was thousands, then it was tens and hundreds of thousands, now it’s 2.3 million. Brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, serving time. It just irked me, it ground my balls so bad, that I wanted to do something. I thought maybe I could play a concert for prisoners, which would help them in that moment. But I ran into Billy Bragg in the U.K. and he was providing guitars for prisoners, and I said ‘I want to take it on for this country.’ And he said ‘Good, because I was just about to task you with it.'”
Kramer emphasizes that the commitment it takes to succeed in a creative industry gives someone a great deal of power to take that determination and do good for the world. “If you want to have a career in the amusement industry, you have to really be committed to that,” says Kramer. “Most people that are mentally well balanced don’t make it; usually it’s crazy people who go too far and then they end up being recognized, what we call ‘successful.’ In my wheelhouse, dealing with prison officials and bureaucracies and the world of American punishment also requires a great deal of commitment. The job skills for me, working in prisons, dealing with wardens and corrections officers and sheriffs’ departments is a different thing than dealing with the music business. There, there’s a lot of wiggle room. You can be late for things. In the prison system, homey don’t play that–it’s a paramilitary org. Not that everything runs like clockwork, because it don’t. But to thrive in either world it takes a full measure’s commitment. You can’t survive by half-stepping.”
If you want to turn your work into positive change, but aren’t sure how to go about it, Kramer says the first step is fairly simple, but still an important hurdle to clear. “How do you feel? What matters to you? How does one militantly oppose nihilism, the sense that nothing matters? The way to militantly oppose that is to take ethical action, getting your ass up and doing something that moves in the direction of human happiness and away from human suffering. The challenge is not the prison system or Republicans, the challenge is my own cynicism and selfishness. If I’m not doing something to help someone somewhere, I’m using perfectly good air.”
In the face of what he calls “incalculable” damage being done by the U.S. prison system to millions, particularly communities of color and those of limited economic means, Kramer says “the thing that keeps me going is that people created this mess, and if people created it, people can fix it.” Jail Guitar Doors’s first approach is on the ground: “Wayne calls up a prison warden and says, ‘This is who I am, I’d like to give you some guitars,'” says Kramer. “That can take months–I’ve had them say don’t call back, but of course I called them back.”
On top of that is the political solution, which Kramer says can have surprising positive effects if you keep an open mind and stay focused on the result. “Part of my energy is going to Washington and holding our elected representatives’ feet to the fire,” says Kramer. “Being able to improvise as a musician has actually helped. I had lunch with a friend who was part of the Clinton cabinet, and we were talking about how the political right has formed a prison reform movement, based on what they claim is government overreach and not getting a bang for our buck. I said, ‘Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist started this movement.’ And he said ‘Grover is sitting right behind us.’ So he introduced us and we exchanged information, and we’ve been writing about how maybe we will work together. I think the guy is a jerk, but if he’s for prison reform and we have something in common, maybe we can work together.”
But turning your skills into doing good doesn’t necessarily mean founding your own organization–putting real work into something that matters to you, even if you’re helping a cause that already exists, is what makes the difference. If you want, for example, to put on an event to raise money for an organization, use them as a resource and then do the heavy lifting. “My experience with most nonprofits is that they’re stretched so thin that they will have a hard time organizing your event,” says Kramer. “So the more you can do yourself the more likely it will be to happen. If you want to do something, that’s what matters.”
Just as important, he says: “Don’t spend a lot. We did a benefit, had a great venue, great artists, but the first couple of years we broke even. We don’t fly people in or put people up anymore; we use local artists, get people to donate the food. Be proactive. You have to keep your eye on the mission.”