Hi, I’m Izell Robinson, Minnesota inmate number 210006, an innocent man confined within the quadrilaterals of systemic injustice, fighting to be heard and to affect positive change. Yet to accomplish success, I need you to listeners to hear me and act, so I’m only asking if I can be heard and count on you to act.
Therefore, in recognition of May being Mental Health Awareness Month, I believe it’s important to acknowledge the negative impact confinement burdens on one’s mind state. As an inmate, I’ve experienced sporadic battles with depression, emotional anxiety, and traumatic stresses that often went ignored or untreated, leaving me with elevated blood pressure and reoccurring feelings of hopelessness.
In my experience and the Minnesota prison system, mental health services is difficult for an inmate to gain access to. Just because an inmate requests to see a mental health advocate doesn’t mean they’ll see them. And if by chance they do, it can be a week or two before one is seen. And if there’s a history of suicidal ideation, that may be too late.
I know I’ve had my mental health affected by being away from my children and attempting to parent from prison, the death of family members, the social injustice and heightened killings of black men by police, the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing guidelines, and most importantly, all the injustice I’ve faced that the hands of police, judges, and the criminal justice system that have criminalized me and confined me for a crime I did not commit.
And it’s not about min- minimizing accountability for something I’ve done. Therefore, I always tell people to try existing in confinement when you know you’re innocent. How do you think you would feel? See my reality is one of pain, injustice, and anguish as I do my best to maintain my composure and intelligently advocate for my freedom and systemic change from within with all odds seemingly against me.
I wanted to share a short essay with my own personal experience with you. This is from part of my memoir called The Tupac Factor: How a Rap Artist Significantly Impacted My Life. Imagine me as this once pained and sad child feeling all alone and on my own watching life just to see horrors of death, poverty, and violence on the cusp of depression and defeat until I hear lyrics that deal with my pain:
A place to spend my quiet nights, time to unwind
So much pressure in this life of mine, I cry at timesI once contemplated suicide, and woulda tried
But when I held that 9, all I could see was my mama’s eyes
No one knows my struggle, they only see the trouble
Not knowin’ it’s hard to carry on when no one loves you
Picture me inside the misery of poverty
No man alive has ever witnessed struggles I survived
Prayin’ hard for better days, promise to hold on
Me and my dawgs ain’t have a choice but to roll on
This is “Thugz Mansion” lyrics excerpted from Tupac’s song featuring Nas. Now these lyrics from Tupac would become tied to my conscience as a motivating force. “Thugz Mansion” is a mostly raw song of a son speaking to his mother from heaven after his death. The song deals with very powerful issues of depression, contemplated suicide, pain, loneliness, poverty, and death.
However, this song has its moments of inspiration as it proves to speak to the greater message of triumph and better days. As a result, I realized that Tupac and I had a shared poverty and life of struggle in common. It is this commonality that existed within his potently raw lyrical content, which allowed his music to impact my once-killed spirit.
I can identify with Tupac’s frustrations and struggles of existing in poverty and in the world where I often feel hopeless. I’ve been that child crying and feeling unloved, just wanting to die because all the pains and tragedies in life. Ironically, my own story begins in the worst year of my life, 1996, because this year would encompass both the death of my grandma—Maddie Mae Robinson, the woman who raised me—and Tupac, the man who inspired me.
In 1996, I was 14 years old, and for the first time, I was parentless, I was hopeless and felt all alone in the cold world. I wanted to die, and I contemplated suicide for the first time in my life. I wanted to join my deceased mother and grandmother, even if that meant my own death. However, every time I placed the knife blade to my wrist, I will constantly see my grandma’s eyes and hear her sing: “The Lord won’t put more on you than you can bear.”
I wasn’t interested in hearing or thinking about God in this moment. I even blamed God for my grandma’s death. Death was my comfort because I didn’t see a way that I could go on living without my grandma, so I began to think of other ways to kill myself.
Yet something spoke to my inner spirit, compelling me to turn on the radio. It just so happens that when I turned that radio on, I heard certain words from Tupac’s song as if it were talking directly to me:
A place where death doesn’t reside, just thugs who collide
‘Cause I feel like my eyes saw too much sufferin’
I done lost my mother and I cried tears of joy
I know she smiles on her boy
Excerpts from “Thugz Mansion,” Tupac featuring Nas was being played. And they gave me a emotional introspective of survival. As I internalized the lyrics I was hearing, I didn’t have a clue how it was how I would survive, but the songs helped me to understand I could endure.
I knew that my grandma would want me to keep going on in life, doing my best to excel and be a good man in spite of her death. In fact, you could say that Tupac saved my life being that I didn’t follow through with ending it. Sadly, later that same year of 1996, Tupac would be murdered.
In spite of his death, his music lives on today, and several of his songs have inspired me to continue to push past my own issues of depression, pain, and contemplated suicide. His lyrics became the soundtrack, pushing me forward through the hard times of my life. Still, I related to Tupac beyond his music because I saw my own ambitions within his words, such as “Mama was my hero,” “Hungry for a taste of justice,” and “Only God can judge me.”
Tupac and I were similar in that we both desired that creative outlet to express our hardships and pain to the world in hopes of both closure and change. Tupac once described this creative desire as his battle cry to America. And it is that very battle cry that has resonated to impact me, such as in a song “Until The End of Time,” which he rapped:
Please, Lord, forgive me for my life of sinNow who’s to say if I was right or wrong
Meaning he did his best in life in spite of other people’s beliefs. Further, I was influenced to begin writing and performing rap music of my own, because I saw it as having a voice that would go beyond the silence of tragedy. I was inspired. Later in my adult life, I began my music career as the moniker Gnik, the word king spelled backwards and a play on the meaning of my actual name Izell, which I was told from childhood meant “king.” Much like Tupac. I wanted my lyrics to have substance and meaning that my listener can identify with and feel some positive effect or hopefulness.
And the first rap I ever recorded, “I Am Who I Am.” I paid homage to death in the first verse by referencing his name. I made this rap track available to the world by placing it on the web at www.reverbnation.com/gnik. I begin to get a lot of positive feedback, and I was booked for at least eight performances around the Twin Cities area in Minnesota.
I have been truly blessed to make one of my dreams come true to fruition by being privileged with the opportunity to record music and perform in front of people so that I can impact someone else’s life the way my life was impacted. Like Tupac, a typical lyric for me would touch on a socialeconomic issue like when I say,
Capitalist use ours ghettos to gain wealth, stack riches, treating us like a commodity
Yet where’s the passion they will apply to poverty?
See too many lives scuffed up with mental scars
But it’s the poor and oppressed that justice starves
Now who’s hungry enough to stand up for us when they tell us our strength is in numbers
Why is it that we continue stand alone knowing we don’t experience this injustice on our own?
Truth is, we all faced with the same strugglesAin’t no profit in this daily life with trouble
Cause our hoods is a reality filled with crime, on top of either dead or doing time
These are lyrical excerpts from “True Street,” a song for me, Gnik. I could never truly compare my rap music success to Tupac’s, because he is extremely influential in both life and death.
He’s one of the top selling rap artists throughout the world, and his legendary fame has garnered him in many charts and fans’ minds as the greatest rapper of all time. Additionally, outside of his music genius, Tupac was a great poet. And today, some colleges and universities have provided courses on Tupac’s lyrics and poems.
Furthermore, a teacher in elementary school asked me, “Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete, proving nature’s law is wrong It learned to walk without having feet. Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams, it learned to breathe fresh air. Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else cared.” These words were actually poem, “The Rose That Grew From Concrete” by Tupac. And that has stuck with me from my adolescent years through my adult life, because I have always seen myself as that rose fighting to survive and keep my dreams alive. My admiration for Tupac has grown out of his focus to achieve beyond the barriers of an impoverished childhood, being raised by a single mother, being scarred by the tragedies of violence and persistent patterns of injustice are to name a few.
Unfortunately, before his demise in his adult life, Tupac also spent some time in prison for a crime that he had vehemently denied committing. This reminds me of my old plight with the criminal justice system and how I similarly have intensely denied committing the crimes I’m currently accused of committing. Now I don’t have the attorney, connections, or fame that Tupac possessed, but I do possess his emotion that in jail you get perspective and it starts to feel like it’s me against the world.
Once again, thank you for listening. And I hope that I brought some meaning, you know, out of the words that I’ve expressed to you. Um, I pray that you took some value in this and you can utilize it to join others and I in the fight for police and criminal justice reform. I believe the courage of many to take a stand will make a difference, so you and I must be brave in our pursuit to be heard and demand the change we are long overdue.
I can be emailed through the JPay app or website, just insert “Minnesota” for state and 210006 for ID number, or you can mail me at the number 21006, 7600 525th Street, Rush City, Minnesota 55069. All positively supportive contact is welcome and appreciated. Thank you for listening and thanks to Prison Radio for this much-needed platform of linking prisoners with their communities and the healthy way to foster needed dialogue and support.
These commentaries are recorded by Prison Radio.