I asked Thao Nguyen point blank, ‘Why is Valerie Bolden sentenced to life without parole?’ I didn’t expect that she’d give the reason, but wanted to ask partly out of curiosity, and also as an exercise in asking difficult questions. But her answer tapped into the type of person she is; one that promised herself as a sociology major that she would use her music to draw attention to things she considers important.
The San Francisco-based artist’s new album, We the Common, is out on Ribbon Music. It’s the follow-up to her band Thao and The Get Down Stay Down’s 2009 release, Know Better Learn Faster on Kill Rock Stars.
She doesn’t give me details of the woman’s sentence or why she will spend the rest of her days behind bars. It’s out of respect for Valerie–who is the inspiration for her new song "We The Common (for Valerie Bolden)"–for sisterhood, and for basic recognition of humanity. She tells me about the trust between them. It’s almost like an unspoken rule she’s adhering to. Such a disclosure would be an unacceptable betrayal.
Her press release talks about how since the band's last album, Thao has volunteered “extensively” with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. I’m skeptical that this could be a media ploy, but intrigued nonetheless. A large component of her appeal is that she seems so down to Earth. Not that I’m an expert sleuth in reading people’s intent, but our phone conversation leaves me with the impression that she’s completely genuine and heartfelt in both her music and in the activities she makes time for when she’s not touring or recording.
The album’s title track [for Valerie Bolden] has a line that resonates with me, “All they wanted was a villain, villain/and all they had was me.” I wonder which line stands out to her, to see if we pick the same one, so I ask. At first she can’t even remember, but then recalls a heart wrenching line about Valerie being reminded of her daughter. There’s enough detachment for me over the phone to not really process that this is emotional, but on a re-listen, it’s hard not to be affected, and easy to fall apart.
“The most striking thing for me in a lot of these cases is that it could easily be one of us. It’s a matter of lack of resources,” she explains, calling these instances a “distinctive failure of the system.”
She argues the state’s Three Strikes law is devastating, given the fact that domestic violence in relationships is a reality and that some of these incarcerated women are the victims of decades of abuse. “People inside think they’ve been forgotten by society at large, and have the idea that they’re outside of mind.”
It’s no wonder she turns to music as a profession. She said she’d get too attached with a job in social justice to be able to even focus. It doesn’t seem fair. It probably isn’t. But treating another human being with dignity sounds about as fair as can be, and something Thao remains committed to. “Humanity is remarkable,” she says.
Thao plays at the Great American Music Hall for Noise Pop 2013, with Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside, Kasey Johansing. Saturday, March 2. 8 pm. All Ages $17, $19 day of show.