This week we will be joining ArtPlace Executive Director Jamie Bennett at SXSW for a panel talk, “Beyond Bars: Art and Incarceration,” at the SXSW Social Impact track. This panel was picked from thousands of ideas in a competitve process and will focus in part on our documentary about Damien Duncan, “Little Boy Lost,” which premiered in May 2017 at the National YoungArts Foundation. What made this project unique is that the music, which was composed by Daniel Bernard Roumain, was performed live at the screening by YoungArts alumni—some of the top young musicians in the country, most around the same age as Damien.
On average, 2 million children are sent to juvenile detention centers each year, and, on any given day, there are about 10,000 minors in adult jails and prisons. The stories we hear about them are typically about the crimes they have committed, and the goal of “Little Boy Lost” was to use a film, music and spoken word poetry to bring awareness not just to what young people face while in correctional facilities, but to the issues that cause them to end up behind bars in the first place.
Shortly after 16-year-old Damien Duncan was sent to an adult prison, to serve a three-year sentence for an armed robbery he says he didn’t commit, he was placed in solitary confinement. It was there that he started creating. He wrote screenplays, including one about a penguin who somehow ended up in Miami and made a life for himself in South Beach. And, he wrote music—about life behind bars; the violence he’d seen at home in Allapattah, FL; girls; and, his love for his mother, Fanny, who had struggled to raise him and his younger brother and sister.
“It was an escape,” says Damien, who is now 20 and back home with his family, in Allapattah. “It’s like, I know where I’m at physically, but mentally, once I start creating and writing, it takes me somewhere else.”
Damien still uses music to express what he cannot otherwise say, because the memories are sometimes too painful to put into plain words.
“I don’t really talk much,” he says. “I tell the majority of it through my songs. They’ll be about incarceration, or about certain struggles of the streets, and where I’m trying to go.”
“Little Boy Lost” gave Damien a chance to do what he’d dreamed about as he composed music in his cell—perform in front of a cheering audience. At the end of the film, he performed “Bars of Wisdom,” in which he talks about the lessons he learned from dealing drugs and robbing people as a teen, in part to help support his family, being incarcerated, and the toll all this took on his mother.
Damien’s hope is that his music will resonate with people. There are those from similar neighborhoods around the country who will hear his music and understand what it’s like to be a 12 or 13-year-old boy who feels he has to be the man of the house, because his father is absent—behind bars, or just disinterested in the hard work of being a parent. They will understand that the fastest way for that boy to earn money is to deal drugs, or to rob people, or to commit some other crime, and that because this is so commonplace, there is no fear of getting caught—in fact, doing time is just a rite of passage, a sign of manhood. But Damien is also interested in reaching people who do not know what it’s like to grow up as he did, and who might see him as no more than a criminal.
“By listening to my music, they’ll get a vision of what it’s like to be locked up, similar to as if I’d painted a picture,” he says. “But I hope for people who have never experienced this kind of things that they can start looking in versus out. So, they can see inside me rather than just the outside.”
Damien is currently still on probation, and works in the stock room at a jet ski and boat company. He is also creating more music, and mentors young men from high crime areas in Miami.
“I would like to be seen as a humble warrior,” Damien says, “like, the scars are on me, but my mind is built. I would like to be seen as somebody that is bettering they self, that is going for what they believe in.”