A poem from death row

Keith LaMar fights for the freedom to live


In 1989, Cleveland native Keith LaMar was imprisoned after fatally shooting a man in the chest during a drug deal that went south. Then, in 1993, his life changed forever when 10 people were killed in an 11-day prison uprising. When the dust cleared, the murders were pinned on LaMar, who was swiftly and summarily convicted by an all-white jury. According to advocates, the trial lacked evidence proving he was guilty, while evidence asserting his innocence was suppressed.

Lamar is scheduled to be executed by the state of Ohio on November 16, 2023, for crimes he says he didn’t commit. To bring attention to his case and the plight of others within the carceral system, he worked with artists to create a tender but defiant manifesto, “DIEGEST,” which is on display through July 9 at the Michigan State University Broad Art Museum.

“DIGEST” is a show in two parts — a series of three videos and a large, interactive sculpture that takes up most of a small room on the first floor of the museum. I watched the videos first, which contain spoken word poetry from LaMar and accompaniment from a host of experienced jazz musicians led by composer and pianist Albert Marquès. 

Sitting down to listen, I was immediately captivated by the subtle rhymes and powerful message LaMar shares. His voice is gentle but assertive. He talks about his neighborhood, his grandparents and his philosophical views on life. He says, “Life isn’t meant to be fair, it’s meant to be lived.” 

Listening to the poems and music through headphones makes for an intimate experience, but this intimacy is juxtaposed with the location of the exhibit — a hallway in the main area of the museum. I was reminded of the lack of privacy incarcerated people contend with, whether making phone calls, visiting with guests or just going about day-to-day activities.

On full view is the indomitable spirit of LaMar, his words punctuated and given context by the restrained yet thrilling free jazz compositions that accompany his poems. The videos are played side-by-side, so you can watch the musicians and view LaMar at the same time. Due to meticulous editing, it’s as if the poet is in session with the band. LaMar has said that jazz saxophonist John Coltrane’s album “A Love Supreme” helped him through some of his darkest hours.

With his shared stories of music, family and growing up, I felt I was truly in conversation with LaMar. I wanted to tell him about Bill Frisell’s song “What Do We Do?” from the album Blue Dream and how it always seems to have something new to say to me. I predict LaMar’s art will stand the test of time as not only a powerful testimony of resistance but as works of deep and singular beauty. 

The second part of the exhibition is a sculpture that makes sounds and plays videos as visitors move around it. Designed by artist Mia Pearlman, it’s a wonderful companion piece to the videos (which I suggest viewing first). Pearlman molded prison materials such as brick, barbed wire and zip-tie handcuffs to resemble an enormous, organic mass. Is it a stomach or a lump of matter stuck inside an intestinal system? The exhibition’s title comes from LaMar’s belief that the prison industrial complex is designed to break you down slowly and consume (or digest) you. 

Upon walking into the room, you feel that you’ve happened upon a unique moment in time, as if a tornado has stopped and you’re being invited to examine it from a safe distance. One part of the structure is made for a visitor to hide inside. Plastered with notes from LaMar’s trial printed on black paper, the dark hole in the center of the sculpture is nearly human-shaped. I stepped inside and found a small video of LaMar that was activated by motion. I triggered sounds and other videos as I moved around the sculpture. But when visitors leave the room, the sculpture is silent again. 

The sculptural element of “DIGEST” challenges the viewer to act. It makes a trepidatious game out of circling the artwork to see what kind of strange noises you can make. I’ll admit that even with the deeply upsetting subject matter, there was some levity in waving my arms and trying to trip the unseen motion detectors to trigger sounds. I felt free to move my body the way I wanted to, again in conversation with the work. 

In one of the videos, LaMar reads a poem by Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. He quotes, “Living must be your whole occupation. ... I mean, you must take living so seriously.” How would you live in what could be the last months of your life? Would you send a poem — a love letter to life — from death row? What would freedom mean to you after so many years in isolation? 

The Prison Policy Initiative reports that solitary confinement causes permanent and irreparable harm, citing data that demonstrates that parts of the brain have been shown to shrink when people are without meaningful human contact. Solitary confinement that lasts more than 15 days is regarded by the United Nations as torture — LaMar has been in solitary confinement for more than 20 years. If art is an expression of connection, then this exhibition underscores how technology, music and advocacy can inspire empathy in spite of incredible barriers. 

LaMar has been fighting for a full exoneration from his charges since at least 2013. He’s written a book, made a documentary and petitioned the governor of Ohio with more than 215,000 signatures, and there’s a new petition available online that hopes to add at least 50,000 more. 

There are hundreds of thousands of people behind LaMar. His story of wrongful conviction and torture within the prison industrial complex is nothing new, but the energy from his indomitable performances and the Broad’s careful curation results in something rare during our times. Dare I say it? Even whisper it? Hope. 


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