What struck me upon reading Quntos KunQuest’s debut novel, This Life, set in Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, is the language. Admitting unit, or A.U. (a new inmate). Wildin’ out. Vict, or old convict. Population. Cats. Phat ass. Fresh fish. Soul-jah. It isn’t just the diction, however; it’s the rhythm. Fragmented. Staccato. It has a beat. I didn’t so much as read this book as listen to it. This Life is aural.
Lil Chris is just 19 years old when he comes to Angola, the site of a former plantation and now prison farm, and the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. He grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana. His block? “Peopled by prayers and sinners. Churches and liquor stores alternating every corner along the avenue. Scented by tree sap, treaded acorns, sprinkled pecans. Discarded liquor bottles and corner store feedbags. Baby diapers. Dog, cat, and chicken shit.”
And his life before prison? “Fist fights on the ball courts and gravel lots. Dice games in abandoned garages and under carports. Sneaking girls in his grandparents’ back door. Front yard brawls—family friends and old folks yelling for them to ‘break it up and get your tails home!’ Guns. Crack rock.”
What I was reading wasn’t so much prose as it was prose poetry. And I hadn’t even gotten to the actual hip-hop poetry, the 16-bars, the rap. Because this novel is a mashup of story and song.
It’s not long into the novel before we learn that Lil Chris writes verse. He’s a “dope lyricist,” a rapper who can “spit mad flow.” During a break at a worksite with the other inmates, Lil Chris starts “vibing with these cats,” feels the “pull of the cypher,” then tosses 16-bars of his own amidst the other rappers, beatmakers, and spectators. It’s “second nature” to him. He gets a name for himself at the prison and attracts the attention of a mature, long-term inmate named Rise.
Rise is a legendary rapper, teacher, philosopher, and the vehicle through which the larger themes of the novel are most clearly conveyed. His relationship with Lil Chris, central to the novel, is that of mentor-mentee. Rise sees Lil Chris as a “jewel” or “prodigy,” one of the “living among the walking dead,” and takes him under his wing. Together they struggle with the demands and deprivations of long-term incarceration, the “many isolated tragedies that riddle the life of the prisoner.” While Rise teaches and works on his court appeal, Lil Chris lives day-to-day, skirmishes, spends time in the cellblocks, crushes on the female corrections officers, reads, writes, and raps.
Eventually the pair must manage the ongoing social and political conflict between two rival factions in the prison, the S.O.G. and Da One, with events reaching a crescendo at a rap competition, “Lyrical Warfare,” at the climax of the novel.
Infused throughout the story is a search for life’s meaning in a depraved and broken system and the role that rap music plays in that search. As inmate and fellow rapper No Love tells Lil Chris, “It’s way bigger than rappin’, lil bro.” At Angola, rap is a way to sublimate pain; in Rise’s words, rap is “crying without shedding tears.” Rap is comfort, encouragement, education, “lifeline.” Rap is a way to “give life, in the form of idea.” As Rise says, “The tongue is a powerful tool.” It helps lift inmates above their static reality, beyond the bars. It’s transcendent.
Despite a few pages of didacticism from Rise about the history of Angola and the development of the factions, which felt a bit too on-the-nose to me, I was caught up in the poetry and power of the competition — as I read, I listened to Dr. Dre, Biggie Smalls, and Jay-Z — and I was invested in the outcome of Rise’s court appeal. I cared deeply about these characters and about the men around them, all in “stationary transition.”
KunQuest, himself a rapper, musician, visual artist, and novelist, has been an inmate at Angola since 1996. His novel asks us to listen, and poses the question, What is an incarcerated life worth? This Life, it turns out, is worth quite a lot.
By Quntos KunQuest
Published June 8, 2021