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"An instrument of resistance": the records label inside a Cameroon prison

Jail Time Records has just released its eclectic first album, made exclusively with incarcerated artists - a selection from more than 500 songs produced by the studio. We spoke with producer and co-founder Vidou-H.

March 04 2023, 11.54am

Earlier this year in Cameroon, Jail Time Records - a non-profit record label operating from inside a jail in Cameroon - held its largest concert yet in the programme’s birthplace, the Central Prison of Douala. 

Founded in 2018 by an NGO worker and a former inmate, Jail Time Records first began as a music studio operating within the prison walls. Originally from Italy, Dione Roach was teaching art inside the Central Prison of Douala when she became inspired by an encounter with Les Meute Des Penseurs, a collective of incarcerated Cameroonian rappers. Inspired by the meeting, Dione secured funding from Italian NGO Centro Orientamento Educativo to build Jail Time Records - the first non-profit, prison-based label in Africa. Viewing music as a vessel for expression, and as a link between the criminal world and the Cameroonian community; the label grew from a fundamental belief in the rehabilitative potential of art.

The other half of the partnership is Vidou-H. Already established as a DJ and music producer throughout the ghettos of Douala, the city that surrounds the prison and set the backdrop for Vidou-H’s childhood, Vidou-H met Roach in the first winter of his prison sentence. “My friend ran up to me and said, ‘Yo man, you know there’s a white lady building a recording studio in the prison?’’’. Later that same day, Dione gave Vidou-H the key to the studio whilst she went back to Italy. “She had that 100% trust - it was fusional.” 


Douala, Cameroon. Courtesy Jail Time Records


Philosophical in nature and devotionally minded, Vidou-H spoke to me one afternoon from his apartment in Cameroon. Vidou-H, who spoke to the BBC last year about his experience of being falsely accused of murder and eventually acquitted, now works full time for Jail Time Records from Douala, running the recording studio from the outside of the prison. Although he already had a music career before he was incarcerated, he says, producing music from jail has shifted his relationship with the medium: “On the outside, we did music to have fun, to get famous - music was all about success. But here, the pure magic is in paying attention to the lyrics, and I never had that experience when outside. Now I’m really experimenting with music as an instrument to know someone, an instrument of resistance.”

Varied in both genre and theme, the diversity of music on the label is testimony to the different histories of the artists, with both the production and the lyrics suggesting insights into an inmate’s story. On their first album Jail Time, Vol.1, the genres range from Fefe-blues to gospel, hip-hop to African drill, each track offering a lyrical escape beyond confinement. On the closing song of the album, the  a-capella voice of the singer, Moussingui,  repeats the lyric ‘Like A Motherless Child’; an ode to a traditional slave song. His voice sits hauntingly on the track, its closing position suggesting the statement carries a weight the other artists find relatable. 

“Moussingui was an ex-armed robber, he suffered from a lack of affection from his family and was a teenager when he left his family and went on the streets,” says Vidou-H. “Knowing a bit about his story, we decided to record that song in the studio acapella. I mixed it and it felt like a natural close to the album, because all these street dudes are motherless child’s, that’s the reality. You left home, you live on the street, the streets are your mother. They’re all suffering with the same thing.”

Vidou-H. Credit: Dione Roach, Jail Time Records


Loss is a recurring  theme throughout the album, with Vidou-H’s own track ‘Kweni’ addressing his family’s anguish in the wake of his father’s passing. Coining the genre Fefeblues, an ode to his father’s local dialect, Vidou-H says  the process of making this song allowed him to articulate his grief. Composed through a freestyle rather than written, Vidou-H’s process mimics the mourning process; an ebb through different emotions before the  ultimate outpour. “That day I was really thinking about my dad, so, the mood was melancholic,” he recalls. “Sometimes you can be with people, and then they leave, and it’s like boom - the melancholy can spread all over your space. So, I remember that day was a bit like that. When the last person left, I just felt it hit me - and I had the beat and melody in front of me, and I could hear the voice of my mother singing ‘Oh Kweni-oh’ - So I just pressed record and started singing.”

Douala, a city of almost six million, is the commercial capital of Cameroon, boasting a thriving industry, a major port and Central Africa’s largest airport. However, it’s also home to poverty and deprivation: the city’s ghettos are regularly subjected to police raids, afflicted by drug addiction and are hampered by a glorification of crime that normalises incarceration. “Going back to the ghettos, going back to the street, going back to your old life, it’s all you know,” says Vidou-H.  “Most of these people grew up in prison; they are just going in and out all the time. I saw people that did 4 sentences back-to-back.” This cyclical loop is aided by the stigma attached to any currently or formerly incarcerated person in Douala. “Once someone knows you went to jail, you’re marginalised,” he adds. “So, what are you going to do? You’re going to return to your old demons. You think, yeah, I don’t belong in this world, my world is the ghetto”.

When Vidou-H refers to the programme as an instrument of resistance, it is this sense of entrapment and eternal marginalisation that he is speaking to. Whilst the programme offers a sense of immediate escape from the prisoners confined existence, it goes further in carving a different image of the future; an image of one’s potential beyond their crimes. “We did this programme to make people more aware - it’s all about education. In Western countries you’re already wealthy, you’re not struggling to eat. The general perception is not interested in helping ex-prisoners, they’re just trying to get by.”’ This independence is something that feels distinct to Vidou-H’s character, a self-reliance that perhaps arises from a continual lack of support by formal institutions.

Courtesy Jail Time Records


Just before our interview, Jail Time Records had its first big break, with one song - Ça Va Aller - going viral, rapidly getting picked up and plugged by influencers across the continent. Translating to “It’s going to be alright”, this affirmation acts as a philosophy throughout the  Prison, says Vidou-H. “Prison is a place of proud people. In the criminal world they don’t complain a lot, only if they need to get a bit of money, you know what I mean? These are people who have experienced the maximum and minimum of pain, so in day-to-day, they sit somewhere in between. They don’t victimise themselves at all, they really are conscious of the crimes they’ve done. The Ça Va Aller mentality is it’s all good… Be strong, it’s difficult, but it’s all good.”

To date, JTR have produced over 500 songs, released their first album, and built an additional studio outside of the prison to continue the critical creative support of recently released prisoners. As Ça Va Aller is circulated nationwide this sudden influx of publicity, and the potential it holds, aligns with the sentiment Jail Time Records has at its core - “Through this instrument of art, we are changing the perception of the prisoner and the ex-prisoner. If someone becomes famous, then that’s something to aspire to. People won’t think of prison as the end of a life, it offers a different path to redemption. It encourages people to do something valuable.” 

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