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Student-led arts festival gives voice to system-impacted individuals

Founder of the Ben Free Project, fourth-year English student and Benjamin Frandsen poses for a portrait in front of a yellow backdrop. Frandsen’s nonprofit will host the inaugural Unchained Voices Restorative Festival in Ackerman Union on Monday. (Courtesy of Benjamin Frandsen)

“Unchained Voices Restorative Justice Festival”

Ben Free Project and UCLA's Laboratory for Race & Popular Culture

Ackerman Union

March 4

2 to 9 p.m.

By Chloe Colligan

March 3, 2024 5:32 p.m.

This post was updated March 3 at 7:25 p.m.

A student-led multimodal arts festival is breaking the chains of injustice.

The inaugural Unchained Voices Restorative Justice Festival will be held in Ackerman Union on Monday. The event will be hosted in part by the Ben Free Project, a nonprofit founded by fourth-year English student Benjamin Frandsen, which aims to support system-impacted individuals. As a result, Frandsen said the festival will facilitate conversations about restorative justice. By spreading awareness through various artistic expressions such as film, music and spoken word poetry, Frandsen said he hopes the event will sustain interest and engage diverse audiences. Randall Horton, a mentor of Frandsen’s who will be performing at the event, said musical expression can facilitate self-transformation by serving as an outlet.

“Music has a way of centering the voices of the most oppressed,” said Horton, a writer and professor at the University of New Haven. “When you look at any movement within music, there’s always that undercurrent of the lives and narratives of those who live underneath literature and life. That subdivision, it often goes invisible, but music has a way of breaking through that and becoming a sole universal thing.”

[Related: Second Take: ‘Now And Then’ by The Beatles raises ethical questions of AI in music]

To promote his mission, Frandsen said the festival will feature the works from a creative writing contest hosted by Barz Behind Bars, a program with the goal of increasing prison literacy rates. He said these pieces, which will be read by Horton, feel meaningful to him, as he learned the power of writing during his time in prison. Frandsen said a new partnership with PEN America will be announced at the event.

“The idea is people inside will be able to get their voices and fears and questions heard outside,” Frandsen said. “I know from experience that if you just feel like your thoughts are being heard – even if somebody tells you no – but they hear you out, it makes you feel like a real human.”

Horton said he is attending this event with members of Radical Reversal, a band and organization founded to build recording studios inside of detention centers with the intention of providing a space for collaboration and self-expression through creative pursuits. As a formerly incarcerated individual, Horton said he leaned on writing throughout his time in prison and has further witnessed the power that artistic expression can have after working with others following his release. In a youth detention center in Birmingham, Alabama, he saw how kids with drastically different backgrounds were able to come together in these sacred musical spaces, Horton said.

Hoping to increase education about the carceral state, Horton said he is excited to extend this mission to UCLA’s campus. Such education is especially important for facilitating a more open and understanding future generation of criminal justice system workers, he said. To increase campus involvement, Frandsen said the band planned to audition UCLA students, in hopes of finding a bassist and a drummer who can play alongside them at the festival. Horton said participation in this event is not exclusive to those directly affected by the system and encourages all to come, learn and support the cause.

“You don’t have to be system-impacted to get involved,” Horton said. “You just have to be a human being and care.”

[Related: Q&A: Artist, mental health advocate SkyDxddy to speak at UCLA’s Gen Z Wellness Summit]

In addition to a Radical Reversal set, the festival will feature a hip-hop performance from Pofsky, an artist and co-founder of UNDRGRND Magazine. The latter segment will also include performances from other artists, such as R&B singer Hana Tabbara, a fourth-year sociology student. The festival provides up-and-coming artists with a larger platform to share their music and broadens students’ perspectives, Pofksy said.

Ultimately, Frandsen said he hopes the event will facilitate a safe space for bringing unheard voices to the epicenter of conversation. Music can be an especially powerful tool for doing this, he said, carrying important messages in an entertaining and emotionally evocative way. Frandsen said he hopes that like the melodic lyrics performed, this cause will get stuck in student’s heads, opening them up to a mission worth fighting for.

“Songs are so much more powerful because they stick,” Frandsen said. “Since your guard was not up because you were just listening to a song, they manage to infiltrate your defenses and you manage – through a melodic osmosis – to absorb the message.”


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Chloe Colligan
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