MAILED FROM CENTRAL PRISON was printed in large capital letters across the top of the envelope. That was the first thing I noticed when I pulled the letter out of my faculty mailbox. I read it as I stood in the green-linoleumed mailroom of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Music Department. “Dear Mr. Mark Katz,” the letter began in exceptionally neat handwriting, “I am a reformed prisoner, writer and rapper on North Carolina’s Death Row.”
Virtually no one calls Michael J. Braxton—the name on the envelope’s return address—Michael. Growing up he was always known by his middle name, Jerome, or Rome for short. His rap name is RRome Alone—the double R stands for Ruff Raleigh, the city where he was born and where he will almost certainly die. Braxton, however, prefers “Alim,” the name he took when he accepted Islam in prison. Alim Braxton has been incarcerated since 1993, when he was 19. He is now 47 years old.
“Hip Hop is my life,” Braxton wrote to me early in our correspondence. “So many memories in my life are marked and shaped by Hip Hop. I remember break dancing back in 1983. I remember the first and only concert I went to: The Fat Boys. I remember my first boom box, my first pair of suede Pumas with the fat laces, my bomber jacket, my parachute pants, my windbreakers, my Kangol [hat], my gold cap (for my tooth). I remember writing my first rap in ’86, I remember my first [rap] battle in ’88. It’s the way I talk, my slang, my posture, the way I think.” Hip hop is one of the few things that connects him to his former life on the other side of the wall. In prison, his rhymes are among the only things he feels he actually owns. “Being in prison you are stripped of all your worldly possessions. Very little belongs to you. But my rhymes are mine. When the mood strikes I want to write, it’s the greatest escape.”
Alim Braxton has no illusions about escaping his fate. “I’m not innocent” was one of the first things he said to me when I visited him in prison. Braxton acknowledges his guilt, but he also believes he is capable of redemption. For him, hip hop is part of that path. And that’s where I come in. What prompted Braxton’s letter was an article in the Raleigh News & Observer, “UNC Professor Turns to Hip-Hop to Expand Music Education, and to Change the World.” He thought I might be able to help him find a producer, someone who could add beats to the rhymes he rapped over the prison phone and turn them into songs that could be shared with the world.
At first I didn’t know how, or if, to respond. Why should I help a convicted murderer?
But I feel strongly that the freedom to express oneself through music should be a basic human right, and I was intrigued by his story and moved by his passion.
So I decided to write back. I connected him with Nick Neutronz, a producer that I had known through the Next Level hip hop diplomacy program. They have now collaborated on more than a dozen tracks, among them the fiery “Unbreakable,” “White Cop,” a head-bobbing indictment of police violence, “A Bigger Lover,” a tender ode to his mother, a white woman who raised three Black children, and “Round My Way,” a love letter to his city. With documentarian Michael Betts II serving as engineer and myself as an inexpert social media manager, the three of us have become a self-fashioned “Alim Team,” working to share Braxton’s powerful words and music. (We maintain a Facebook page here.)
Alim and I have now been corresponding for over a year. His 75 letters so far—well over two-hundred handwritten pages—have chronicled an eventful year that has included the tragic death of his sister, a cruel and unwarranted 37-day stint in isolation, his work on behalf of wrongfully convicted prisoners, the nationwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the reality of living on Death Row in the shadow of COVID-19. We have become friends along the way, and we are planning to publish a book based on his letters. Both despite and because of his history, Alim Braxton has a great deal to teach us—about rap and redemption and so much more.