“Go to prison to visit someone, to offer your service,” she said. “Whatever talents you have, you can teach a class or spend time with people in prison.”

To applause, Davis said: “Students, institutions like this encourage you to be elitists. Break down those hierarchies.” She said anyone who works with people in prisons should be prepared to learn from them as much as they intend to teach them.

Nas suggested visiting prisoners with a business plan and having others who are skilled in business speak to them, so they can become “financially literate” and prepare for productive lives once they get out. “This is America, it’s about getting some bread.”

But Davis said another hurdle is that “people who get out of prison are still in prison,” because they have to check a box on job applications and college applications if they have been convicted of a felony.

Hip-hop and prison

Peterson is the founder of Hip Hop Scholars, which is dedicated to researching the cultural and educational potential of hip-hop, urban and youth cultures.

Peterson said many people say hip-hop is at least partially responsible for glorifying the behavior that gets people into prison and of prison itself.

To great applause, Nas mentioned a song on his first album called “One Love,” which he said is about jail. “That song is just reality, it’s not about glorifying.”

He noted there were jails long before there was rap music. “Rap was born through what the system was doing to the people.”

He said rap also tells people what’s really going on the streets in different parts of the country.

He acknowledged rappers do sometimes “get caught up in the lifestyle, but we’re honest.”

Nas advised the audience: “You guys have got to be smart. You’ve got common sense. You can’t be duped. You can’t go to jail. You don’t need a gun. You don’t need to ride around with no license, high. You’ve got to use your brain.”

Nas said rap once was “our little ghetto secret” but now is on some radio stations all day.

“I make some of these records where I use crazy words,” he said, but added they shouldn’t be played on the radio all the time.

He suggested some rap songs are not appropriate for children, adding: “We’ve got to tell our kids what to listen to and what not to listen to. We’ve got to be better parents, straight up.”

“I love rap music,” said Nas. “When I think of rap music, I don’t think of derogatory words, violence – that’s a big section of rap music.

“In my car, I listen to Public Enemy. I have a four-year-old son and he listens to Public Enemy. He doesn’t know about all the other stuff that’s going on there. I keep it from him because he’s four years old and he has four-year-old things to do. I protect him.”

Davis admitted she is a fan of jazz. “I’m not as much a lover of rap as Nas is.” She said she does listen to it, but often as an academic, because it’s not the music she grew up with.

Davis shares her story

“It seems I’ve been addressing issues of imprisonment and the prison industrial complex practically all of my life,” said Davis

She said her first involvement was a result of working to free political prisoners in the 1960s, including those who were members of the Black Panther Party. The audience drowned her out with applause when she began mentioning their names: “Huey Newton, Bobby Seales….”

She said she soon learned about the political and racist function of prisons. “People were in prison simply because of racism.”

“I was a young assistant professor, politically active,” she said. “I got hired to teach at UCLA. I got fired before I was able to teach my first class because I was a member of the Communist Party.” `

She said when she saw a photo of three prisoners, called the Soledad Brothers, draped in chains “it became apparent to me that I had to get involved in that case. I was defending my right to teach. But it occurred to me that all I had to lose was a job. They stood to lose their lives because they were charged with capital offenses.”

Davis was jailed for 18 months on several charges, including murder, for her alleged involvement in the courtroom escape attempt by the Soledad Brothers. She eventually was acquitted.