Taking the stage at Pomona College’s Lyman Concert Hall, pianist Albert Marquès plugged his cell phone into the sound system. With a banner reading “Justice for Keith LaMar” and a nearly life-sized photo of LaMar to the left of the stage, Marquès spoke into his phone, “Hi Keith, can you hear me?”
Responding from death row at an Ohio prison, the performance’s spoken word poet, LaMar, responded he could. A hush fell over the crowd before it burst into uproarious applause.
On Oct. 7, Pomona hosted the final performance of the West Coast tour of Freedom First, a jazz album co-written by Marqués and LaMar featuring LaMar’s spoken word poetry. The band consisted of Zack O’Farrill on drums, Kazemde George on tenor saxophone and Yosmel Montejo on bass guitar. The music was accompanied by speeches advocating for LaMar’s release and prison abolition more generally.
According to the Justice for Keith LaMar campaign website, LaMar was wrongfully convicted after the 1993 Lucasville Prison Uprising and has served 30 years on death row. He has since dedicated much of his life to criminal justice reform advocacy, including writing an autobiography titled “Condemned.”
The concert was co-sponsored by the Pomona Student Union (PSU) and the 5C Prison Abolition Coalition, PSU’s first event in a series of talks and performances to celebrate its 20th anniversary.
The night’s program included live performances of “Freedom First” tracks punctuated by speeches from Ken Wright, LaMar’s best friend since the age of 15, Amy Gordiejew, the manager of the Justice for Keith LaMar campaign, Marquès and LaMar himself.
Wright commended audience members for their commitment to LaMar’s campaign.
“In universities across the country, young people are getting involved with this and becoming informed and they’re taking steps towards righting the wrong,” Wright said. “It’s incredible and I want you to give yourselves a round of applause. Keith has a heart for young people. So I know he would be smiling tremendously right now just to see what has happened and all the work that has gone in.”
Scripps College politics professor Mar Golub, who serves as the faculty advisor for the 5C Prison Abolition Collective, urged audience members to consider the conditions Keith faced as he called in from prison.
“Seeing the things that he has been able to do after 30 years of incarceration and in a small cell in solitary confinement — to be able to collaborate with people around the world to be able to touch the hearts and minds of young people like to come out and become involved — is a testament to his heart, his openness.”
“If we leave at the end of the night filled with nothing but gratitude and respect for Keith’s particular genius, I worry that we might have missed the most important part of the show,” Golub said. “Keith’s performance is not only about what he can do or what this group can do, but also it forces us to think about the circumstances in which the performance is made.”
Following the performance, Leila Riker PZ ’25, a member of the 5C Prison Abolition Coalition, shared her personal connection to LaMar. Riker first met LaMar when he started a book club at her high school in New York City.
“The fact that someone who was locked up on death row and being denied all opportunities to interact with the world had [still] somehow broken through in his teaching made me start to think critically about prisons for the first time,” Riker said.
PSU president Dave Ruiz PO ’24 encouraged students to continue conversations sparked by the performance.
“Keith’s life, his writings and his music call each and every one of us to consider what justice truly means in a society that loves to talk about it, but that seems to have such a hard time defining and practicing it,” Ruiz said.
Clare Reimers-Hejnal SC ’26, who attended the show, was moved by the audience’s reactions to the performance.
“Abolition is about creation and there was a lot of joy here,” Reimers-Hejnal said.
Kaliyah Keita PO ’24, a member of 5C Prison Abolition, tied LaMar’s work to a larger prison abolition movement.
“Essentially what we were hoping to accomplish … [was] breathing life into Keith’s story and into who he is, and … contributing to him having the platform to be able to share his art and his music and his writing, in addition to the abolitionist messaging that exists in that story,” Keita said.
The night’s performance concluded with a rendition of “Acknowledgement,” an adaptation of a John Coltrane track from the album “Freedom First.” Audience members joined the musicians in chanting “a love supreme,” the iconic refrain of the Coltrane track.
Wright spoke about LaMar’s ability to cultivate love and compassion, a theme punctuated by this chant.
“Seeing the things that he has been able to do after 30 years of incarceration and in a small cell in solitary confinement [and] to be able to collaborate with people around the world to be able to touch the hearts and minds of young people … is a testament to his heart, his openness,” Wright said. “His desire to have a give-first approach in that period has resulted in him receiving love, care, compassion and concern in return.”