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A Presbyterian musician pushes for bail reform

Jay Julio, who heads Sound Off! Music for Bail, was a recent guest on the ‘A Matter of Faith’ podcast

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Jay Julio

LOUISVILLE — As the assistant principal violist of the Opera Philadelphia orchestra, Jay Julio uses his “special power” — performing largely for upper middle class white and east Asian audiences — in ways that lift both audiences and, on occasion, people serving time behind bars.

“We are in a liminal space,” Julio said of classically trained musicians during an appearance last month on “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast,” hosted each week by Simon Doong and the Rev. Lee Catoe. Julio’s comments can be heard here beginning at the 25th minute. “We’re presenting this old, old music while ourselves being in spaces where we might not always be welcomed if we weren’t playing that kind of music.”

“The arts can be a way out for us, a pipeline away from the forces we ourselves are trying to combat, forces of violence and imprisonment,” said Julio, who also heads Sound Off! Music for Bail, a collective of musicians, activists and thinkers dedicated to raising money for abolitionist organizations and bail funds across the country. That work “allows us to comment and put things together that might not seem to have anything in common. For us, that’s classical music and the issue of the U.S. prison-industrial complex.”

Julio, who attends Broadway Presbyterian Church in New York City, says the work of abolition “is not over.”

“We have seen how forced labor and taking people from their homeland continues to be practiced in our ways of policing and in our ways of imprisoning people,” Julio said. When hand sanitizer was desperately needed early on in the pandemic, “so much of New York’s came from prison labor,” where incarcerated people were “getting paid cents every hour for this labor, which saved so many lives.”

Abolitionists “of course know that crime and harm exist,” Julio said. “But we see the answers to harm and crime are rooted in generosity, in lifting up the poor, those who have no place or a low place in society.”

When “Sound Off!” members give a concert, “we want to make sure we are talking to people who may not have heard about the issues,” Julio said. “Talking to crime victims — and I have been one — what we want to see more than anything is this never happens to other people. Crime prevention is the solution to crime … When government and organizations put money into things that prevent crime rather than react to crime after it’s happened, we are doing work that honors the victim, the poor and the dispossessed.”

The greatest challenge Sound Off! artists face “is not having the access that the systems we are fighting against have,” Julio said. Most local and state governments “radically direct” their budgets “toward funding policing and reactive solutions rather than proactive solutions,” Julio said. “For me, that reeks of inequity.”

Concerts have been offered to help provide bail funds for people who didn’t have enough money to be released in the weeks and months leading up to their court appearances. According to Julio, many end up pleading guilty in order to return to work and care for their children.

“We found rather than feeding into a system that continues to wreak havoc disproportionately on poor and Black and brown people, we decided it was important to support bail funds because it was an immediate need,” Julio said. It’s also important to “direct money to community organizations that educate people about this issue and work to end it.”

Most Sound Off! musicians are people of color, and many come from crime- or prison-impacted families, Julio said. “The people who benefit from the concerts and get paid for performances are people who have felt the impacts of the prison-industrial complex.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

“It’s a question we come back to: What is the role each of us has pushing for justice?” Doong said. He asked Julio if Sound Off! had received much pushback.

“There has been some pushback online” from “your typical trolls. That’s fine,” Julio said. “If the work wasn’t hard, we wouldn’t be doing it.”

“I became an artist because I wanted to create art,” Julio said. “It was never my intention to run into issues. The issues, of course, present themselves, and we take them as the they come.”

Julio said Sound Off! works with “a lot of community organizations that oftentimes don’t have this kind of space to speak. We have speakers at every concert. It’s usually the first chance they’ve had to speak in a concert hall.”

While Sound Off! has not “actively searched out religious partners,” many speakers and performers “find that faith directs them to us and broadly to the movement.”

“My belief,” Julio said, “says God is on the side of the oppressed, never the oppressor.”

Sound Off! Music for Bail has a Saturday evening concert in New York City and one set for Sunday evening in Philadelphia. More information is here.

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