It started with the letters. Soon after the Wallens Ridge State ‘supermax’ Prison was built in the rural Appalachian community of Big Stone Gap, Virginia, letters from prisoners began arriving at a local radio station.
It was not just any radio station, but WMMT, a community radio broadcaster and centerpiece for the Appalshop – a media arts centre providing services and media arts resources for the economically beleaguered communities of the Appalachian region.
The letters were sent to hip-hop DJs Szuberla and Kirby of the popular “Holler in the Hood” show. They described racism and human rights violations in the prisons. Tensions emerged along racial and regional divides: the prison staff were made up mostly of locals – former coal miners – and many of the letters were from inmates brought to the prison from the inner cities of urban centres elsewhere.
Szuberla and Kirby responded by creating radio broadcasts that brought together hip-hop artists with mountain musicians, and they began reading prisoners letters on the air. In prisojn slang “shooting a kite” means sending a message to the outside; thus, a Thousand Kites was born.
The show is now being rebroadcast on over 100 community radio stations in the US. Prison reform advocates are using the show inside prisons and in communities to initiate discussions about prison reform.
For more information, check out Lynda Frye Burnham’s article “The 1000 Kites Summit: A Community Arts Focus Group”.