Belly Visits Rikers Island, Contemplates Self Care with Release of 'Immigrant'

Norman Wong


There’s a huge sign that greets — or more aptly, startles — you right before turning onto Hazen Street leading to Rikers Island: “Home of New York City’s Boldest” it exclaims in huge, italicized font. It’s unclear whom this proclamation is for — and why a jail needs a tagline in the first place — but it fills you immediately with uneasiness.

For many New Yorkers, Rikers is known as the “belly of the beast.” It’s for good reason. The 413.17-acre island houses the city’s notorious main jail complex, including facilities for men, women and until recently, adolescents. Rikers is cemented into pop culture; once home to incarcerated notables like rappers Lil Wayne, Tupac Shakur and DMX, Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious and the serial killer known as “Son of Sam.” It’s long been plagued with stories of inmate abuse and sexual misconduct and torture and corruption at the hands of corrections officers. Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced plans to ultimately shutter the notorious facility that houses approximately 8,000. But for now, it remains an ominous blemish -- a symbol for racism, injustice and institutional failure.

It’s after noon on a dreary, muggy October day as rapper Belly waits for the Q100 bus to take us into the beast. Later tonight, the 34-year-old (born Ahmad Balshe) will celebrate the release of his album Immigrant (XO/Roc Nation). Right now, though, he has more serious business to attend to: Belly is posting $25,000 bail to spring a woman out of Rikers. Out of respect for the privacy and safety of the inmate, her name and charges will be kept private.

Mass Bail Out Action is an effort by Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, grassroots groups and celebrities like French Montana, Sia and Chris Martin to free women and young people who cannot afford to post bail. “For me, it just doesn’t make sense that somebody could be out the same day or not have to serve a day in jail because they have better resources,” Belly, the first to post bail in-person at Rikers, tells Billboard.  “Once you take the cash out of the equation, I think more people would get a fair shake.”

The process itself is uneventful and astonishingly inefficient. Belly is first asked to fill out paperwork committing to post bail. We stand outside a decrepit glass service window and wait for someone to physically take the form. Next, we’re ushered through painfully slow security, including walk-through metal detectors and relinquishing our phones and electronics. Inside, there’s another row of ramshackle windows where the form is handed to a different official. “The computer system is down,” says an officer. We’re told to leave and come back in several hours to complete the bail transaction, which is essentially Belly handing over a cashier’s check. The inmate getting released isn’t expected to walk out until tomorrow morning. To say the system is antiquated and mired in bureaucracy is an understatement.

We head over to Taverna Kyclades, a nearby Greek restaurant, to kill time. Belly is joined by his team -- manager Manny Dion and Lola Plaku, a videographer and grassroots activists — who fill up on a spread including grilled Mediterranean octopus, calamari and lemon potatoes. The Palestinian-Canadian rapper explains that criminal justice reform hits close to home for him. His father was incarcerated on drug charges when he was 18 and a brother was in and out of the system. “It was traumatic experience. I never had an outlet to talk about it, so I used my music. It’s still on my mind, subconsciously it’s always there,” he says of his father’s stint. As one of four brothers, Belly explains how the experience tore his family apart. “My Mom took it really, really rough. No talking to her about it.” Others in the Palestinian community were not helpful. “In the community, we were shunned. My Mom’s friends were really unsupportive.”

On the surface, Belly’s professional trajectory has been blessed. The rapper signed to The Weeknd’s XO imprint and Jay-Z’s Roc Nation in 2015 and was instrumental in the former’s Beauty Behind the Madness album, including inking six songwriting credits. He’s penned for Beyonce’s Lemonade and won a Juno Award. But underneath success, he was dark. “No matter how good my career was doing, I’d still be really sad for no reason," he says. "I started having to question my smile, like, am I really smiling?” He says that he was “always kind of down” for most of his adult life. This year proved a turning point that forced him to seek help.

After allegedly being assaulted by security at Coachella, he began questioning life. “Bottling stuff up was the tip of the iceberg. I lead life believing in good karma and um, getting jumped at Coachella was crazy,” he sighs. “I don’t be bringing harm to people. If you fuck with me, obviously, I’m gonna do what I have to do to protect myself [but] if anything, I look out to help people. For something like that to happen to me, it really shook my faith and belief in the universal system.” He has since been diagnosed with PTSD and depression. He regularly sees a therapist. “A lot of people are ashamed to talk about mental illness. To me, it’s power to give people that.”

Although he says that therapy hasn’t helped him musically, a sense of self is prevailing on Immigrant. “This ain't a tan, my skin the same color as sand/ From the motherland, look down and see the world in my hands/ Government bans, I'm just here to fuck up the plans,” he raps on the title track, which features Meek Mill and M.I.A. He gives a nod to his father’s criminal life and its effect on him on “What Does It Mean?” “Mama didn't know she was living in the trap house/ Throw stones from your glass house/ Pops got life, gotta hug him through the glass now/ They said I wouldn't last, how am I still here?”

Belly looks towards his next chapter with positivity on his mind. He seeks peace, keeping his circle close-knit and avoiding the trappings of celebrity. “I’m never around that shit any more, on purpose. People just want to level up. They’ll sacrifice a relationship, a friendship, anything for that shit. I don’t live like that,” he says. “I cannot live like that.” When we part ways that afternoon, the sky has cleared, offering a brief respite to the dreariness of Rikers Island. The inmate’s attorney will be informed about her posted bail and we’re told that she should be out by the next morning. “It feels good,” he says, smiling. “It feels good.”