On the evening of July 1, Gianni Lee — the Philadelphia musician, visual artist, and clothing designer — was finishing up a DJ set at the Regent Theater in L.A. when 12 police officers showed up backstage. Startled, he was told they were taking him in because he’d been accused of assaulting a man at a party some five months earlier — something that Gianni says never happened. What followed was three long, dehumanizing days in Los Angeles county jail; he was fending for himself, stuck within four walls and the confines of his own mind.
After the traumatizing experience of being stripped of his freedom for a crime he did not commit — he’s free now but the case is technically still open — Gianni was scared and entered a state of depression. When he had nowhere to turn, it was his art that provided a safe space. Gianni recreated the image of “The Scourged Back,” the infamous 1863 photograph of Gordon, an enslaved black man, that shows some of the many abuses of slavery. In Gianni’s image, presenting slave whips across his back signified the idea of the modern day slave, with the underlying tones of systemic oppression, in a 21st century veil. In conjunction with that piece, one of the first things Gianni did after getting out of jail was bring his paintbrush to a canvas. He created a powerful response to a wrongdoing: a painting that features a severed arm, eyeballs, and handcuffs in rich, raw color palettes highlighting the plight of capitalism and mass incarceration.
I recently hopped on the phone with Gianni to learn more about his story and what he’s been through. He spoke about his wrongful arrest and allegations, mass incarceration as a new form of slavery, and the art he’s creating to reinforce the importance of remaining steadfast and vigilant in the eyes of injustice.
GIANNI LEE: This whole situation started back in April. I was scheduled to speak at Pioneer Works, which is a very prestigious and respected voice in the art community, in Brooklyn. I was going to speak to a group of high school students that were studying fashion at this after-school program. I had put it on my Instagram, then the directors at Pioneer Works got a call from a guy. It was some guy I didn't know saying, "Gianni Lee is not fit to speak to kids. I fear for their safety because he assaulted me at a party." And I just felt like, Oh my God, I might bug out, someone's trying to end my career before it even starts.
I can assure you when a white man calls a gallery and tells them that a black guy with a beard assaulted him, it's gonna ruffle some feathers. He said that I was assaulting another girl and he came to her defense and I broke his hip. For some reason he really thought I did it, and he was tryna get me in jail. I didn't know what was going on. I was trying to think if I had any enemies? I couldn't think of anything. But I could see how the people at Pioneer Works were shook. They were just trying to protect their students.They still let me speak to the kids, but when I got there it was a weird energy.
Fast forward a couple of months, I go back to L.A. I'm DJing a party at the Regent on July 1 on South Main Street and everything is going smooth. I finished my set and went into the backstage area. All of a sudden everybody is looking weird, like the door lady was looking suspect. Two minutes later, like 12 cops come backstage and they call my name "Gianni" and I'm like "Yes?" and they're walking towards me but they're kinda like aggressive and I'm like "What's going on?" and they're like "Did you assault someone on February 3?" I say, "Noooo. What're y'all talking about?" At that point, I wasn't even thinking about the [Pioneer Works] situation anymore.
I'm confused, and they put me in cuffs almost immediately. And this is in front of people, so I'm embarrassed. They're like, "It was said from a guy that you assaulted him and broke his hip, XYZ. We have to bring you in because the guy has IDed you.” I'm pissed off and I don't know what to do, but I knew I didn't do this, so of course I'm gonna go talk to a detective because that's what they told me.
So I'm in the precinct and the cops are processing me. This is what it looks like to me: They're filling out paperwork, I'm not talking to any detective, I see no detective in sight. The moment I figured out I was going to jail was when they took the laces out of my shoes. I was shocked. I never thought I'd go to jail for something I didn't do. One of the officers comes back and says, "Well man, there's a report on you, we're gonna have to take you in and you're just gonna have to see a judge." And I'm like, "You didn't even tell me I was under arrest? I don't understand. You didn't even read me my rights.” So he finally reads me my rights when I was already was in the station, in holding and everything.
“I was depressed after I got out of jail. I stayed in the house, I didn’t wanna be around people, I didn’t wanna DJ any parties, I was paranoid and scared.”
Jail was a totally different, wild experience. Basically you go in there and you're a criminal already. I started asking every officer I could more about this crime I supposedly committed and what the penalty was for it. I was charged with assault with serious bodily injury, which equates to up to seven years in jail, if convicted. Since it was a felony, the bail was at $50,000. Compared to other guys in holding with me, it was a bigger offense.
They assigned me to a cell, and I'm just in jail for the next three days. You're there all day, no watch, no clock, no nothing. I don't know what's going on, I couldn't talk to my friends, I made phone calls, but the phones barely worked. Automatically it's just set up for you to fail. Every two or three hours, I'm radioing in — it's a little button you could press to speak to whatever officer was working that shift and I'm just asking questions, trying to find out as much as possible because nobody was telling me anything. I was asking for a newspaper because they’re supposed to give you a newspaper and a bible to read. You're not giving me toilet paper either, like what's going on? I had to beg. They just take their time with everything, and it's just really an uncaring way of being. They're desensitized to it, so it's dehumanizing not only to the inmates but the guards too.
While I was in jail, my roommate back home found out exactly what happened that night at the party. He sent different accounts of the evening to the detective: from the venue owner, to the promoter, to my friends, all saying that I didn't commit this crime. The accuser said that he was assaulted by the DJ at the warehouse party, but I wasn't DJing that night. He said that the DJ who assaulted him was the size of a linebacker. I'm not the size of a linebacker either. Whoever the DJ was, obviously he is black, that's how I got caught up in this mess. It’s racially driven. And the only way for me to get out and try to clear my name was for me to be bailed out.
One of my friends is a lawyer, and she bailed me out on July 4. She told me that because of the way that the system works in Los Angeles, I probably would've been in there until my court date, which was on July 24. I would've been in jail for that entire time.
When I got out, I did a bunch of research on the criminal justice system and on the prison system and of course other things like slavery and how we got to this point where this is even possible and it pissed me off. Slavery really isn't dead, it is just in the form of mass incarceration now. Once you get locked up, you get assigned a job, and you work during your time in jail. I believe the country gets paid more for a criminal than they do a student. You make more money off a felon in jail than a student in college. Ronald Reagan introduced the evil with the war on drugs, but the Clintons took it to another level with the 1994 [Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act]. Once that bill passed, money went to building more prisons and they needed more people to fill those prisons. So they made the laws tougher and they made it easier to get into jail. And I was just a part of that system.
So from this experience is where I got those the images I produced. That's where I got the idea of me with whip lashings on my back like a slave — that's just how I felt when I was in there, and that's where the painting came from as well.
I was depressed after I got out of jail. I stayed in the house, I didn't wanna be around people, I didn't wanna DJ any parties, I was paranoid and scared. I didn't know what to do. I did not want to be around people. Is this guy gonna accuse me of something else? Who knows. I just didn't want to go back to jail again. I didn't wanna go back, so I put all that fuel into painting. The one thing that I had to do was I had to make something from this. That's what I learned from being an artist during this difficult time: you have to channel your emotions and create from that. And that's how you create your best work. Anything can be your muse at any time, and this whole experience was my muse.
It gave me a bigger purpose. I feel like I'm not on this Earth just for me anymore, but rather I'm the servant of higher cause and I have to start acting like that and I gotta start painting like that and making music like that and designing clothing that way, like with a purpose. It's coming from a different place now. It’s just more clear than ever before. I was used as an example and I wanna take that example and make something good out of it.
Once you deem yourself an artist, you have that platform. All these people hit me up saying it happened to them before and they never said nothing about it because they didn't think anything would come of it. All these black people telling me they been locked up for mistaken identity before like it's nothing, but if that happened to a white person, they're gonna talk about that shit and get their lawyers to sue and use their resources to make noise about that. So when these things happen to black people, it's like we're just made to be strong, like I’mma be strong about it. Fuck it, I'm just gonna move on. But NO, people NEED to hear this. We should have the opportunity to stand on the soap box and tell our problems like everyone else. Especially if we been wronged because of the system, we gotta speak up about that.
The system is not rehabilitative at all. The system is not made for us. It's been proven scientifically with medical evidence that jail is not rehabilitative at all. I already knew about the Watts Riots and Rodney King, and that the LAPD is trained by the military. So I was aware of how they treat people of color. The flaw in the system is the 13th Amendment. And the criminalization of people of color for the purpose of using them as workers for low pay. There needs to be other systems put in place that can make people rich without it having to be at the expense of black people. Because that's what it is. The flaw in the system is capitalism. They talk about sweatshops overseas but there's sweatshops here in America: its convicted felons working in there and you don't hear about it. And some of them are innocent.