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Used soul CDs for sale in record store
Photo by Sean Davis on iStock

One of the best features on my electronic tablet is the more than 900 songs I have stored on it.

Music is my happy place when the hostility of prison becomes overwhelming, when intense anxiety takes hold in the pit of my stomach from the tension and spontaneous violence that characterize prison. It is the soothing voice of human song that has sustained me when I can't access the reassuring voices of family and friends. It's mostly the timeless music of my youth that rescues me from the inhumanity of prison.

Culture influences music, and music influences culture. I was born in the early 1960s at the end of the baby boom generation. It was a time of landmark civil rights legislation, the Vietnam War, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., afros and dashikis.

My musical and social sensibilities were shaped by Dick Clark's “American Bandstand,” Don Cornelius, “Soul Train,” The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye and James Brown. That era was a time when social issues of the day pollinated music — a youthful resistance to the status quo.

Listening to Earth, Wind & Fire is kind of like going to church. Many of their songs present like Black Baptist sermons with a slammin' band and a kickass choir, a kind of liberation theology for a captive heart, mind and body.

The band's “See the Light” is a good example, as the message of the song stands out prominently between the taut rhythm section and lush orchestration of the horn section, while Philip Bailey sings in his one-of-a-kind falsetto.

Or what about their ruefully funky song “Evil“? “Evil runnin' through our brain / We and evil is about the same / Bad blood through our body flows / Where's the love nobody knows?”

Songs take me to the altar of myself where I find the energy of peace and forgiveness.

There are hundreds of songs that speak to me, encourage my better self and pull me back from the brink of depression and despair. Stevie Wonder’s songs speak not just to me, but the whole of humanity. Chaka Khan and Rufus are my happy place. Michael Jackson is a walk down memory lane to when I was young and thought I was the best dancer on my block.

Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald and Elton John help me understand every race and culture has something to say that I need to hear. Stephanie Mills' song “Home” from “The Wiz” has made me cry, but the tears were tears of renewal. Each listen reinforces my goals — doing the right thing so I can return to family and friends.

As I have aged, my musical palette has widened to include jazz, pop, folk country, reggae and classical stylings with a sprinkling of rap. But it is the old stuff that is food for my soul.

When I'm lost in a sea of stress and turmoil, I find rescue in the safe, psychic harbor that is music. The soulful, soothing tunes of my youth save the day.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.