I first met Rabi Cepeda in 2015. Over the past three years, Rabi and I have been able to meet, share food, and grow together. Rabi came home in the summer of 2017 and I have been able to meet with him a few times to make sure he stays connected to our work.
Rabi’s artwork can be found all over SRLP. His drawing of the Statue of Liberty saying “I can’t breathe” served as the artwork for our 2015 series on Everyday Abolition. His pieces have been donated to our annual fundraiser, Small Works for Big Change, every year, and his artwork is featured in our 2018 Prisoner Advisory Committee calendar (which you can still order here) for the month of December. When it came time to choose an artist for the re-launch of It’s War in Here, it was obvious to us that Rabi would be the perfect choice.
In November, I went to interview Rabi so that we could introduce him to our readers:
Mik: Well, let’s start out with our names and pronouns. I’m Mik and I use he/him pronouns.
Rabi: And I’m Rabi and I use he/him pronouns.
Mik: You’ve been involved with SRLP for a very long time. When did you first join the Prisoner Advisory Committee?
Rabi: In 2005. I had a friend who told me about SRLP and urged me to join.
Mik: And what brought you to PAC?
Rabi: PAC helps people who face discrimination. There is so much picking on people for being different. And I have never liked bullies. I am all for PAC, all for it. It is enough that I can contribute.
Mik: You’ve been with PAC for so long. Can you share some of the key ways you have contributed?
Rabi: Oh yeah. I mean everything. I contributed articles, artwork for fundraisers, cartoons for the newsletters. I’ve had some pen pals. I also share PAC with others. If I see someone who maybe needs to know that people are out there to support them, I let them know about PAC.
Mik: That makes such a difference. People find out about us from folks like you sharing and that’s a lot of how our community is born. Well, I want to talk about the beautiful artwork you made for It’s War in Here. I brought some copies here with me. These are not the best copies.
Rabi: [laughs] Yeah, maybe I should re-draw them rather than use these.
Mik: Yeah, I really should have brought a better copy. But, maybe not looking at these, but remembering the drawing – what inspired you? How did you come up with these pieces?
Rabi: Well, it’s a war. It is. And we need troops. There should be a draft. Ha, I just thought of that. I thought of military posters and wanted to reference the stance and the angles. I wanted folks who saw these images to know that prison isn’t hell because of other prisoners – I mean it can be – but it’s the guards. The guards are supposed to be there for you. But they let you be disrespected, abused, raped. The job is care and custody, but a lot of guards forget that and just abuse their authority. I wanted all of that to come through.
Mik: Was there a time when you realized you were an artist?
Rabi: I’ve always drawn. As a kid, I didn’t see the things I wanted so I drew my own comic books. I made a comic called Blue Evil and I got in trouble actually. I was drawing it in school. My father was an artist too. I never took any classes or went to school for it, it just has always been there. I’ve always been drawing, watching. I watch a movie, I try to draw from it. I see a person, I try to draw that person.
[At this point, Rabi shared he was excited for the next Star Wars film. I asked if he liked the character of BB-8. Rabi took a sip of his coffee and said quietly, “no.”]
Mik: You have donated art to SRLP for years. Your work has been featured in our calendars, our posters, and on our website. Many of your pieces are very political – like the one of the Statue of Liberty saying “I can’t breathe”. Was there a time when you realized that your art could also be part of the struggle for liberation?
Rabi: I’m not really a political person. But a number of years ago, I remember doing a cartoon around Elian Gonzalez and everything that was happening. Because the photos in the news just stuck with me. I couldn’t forget them. That drawing you’re talking about, the Statue of Liberty one, it was the same. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Mik: I know this year has been tough on you. There have been lots of change in your life. For anyone else coming home and facing the difficulties of reentry, what would you recommend?
Rabi: Just as you are leaving jail behind, leave those negative things behind. You don’t need people who bring you down or upset you. You don’t need to go back to the same things. Make new friends, find new places to hang out, learn new things. If everything is the same, you may find yourself in similar patterns. And we know how that ends. Challenge yourself to grow in new ways. That’s why I try to always learn new things, do new things.
Mik: Rabi, if people want to follow your art, how can they do that?
Rabi: I need to get my website up! I have had too much going on for that. But it will be up soon. In the meantime, mostly people can find my art on funding websites. I had a GoFundMe for one of my comic books, The ULA, for the “Urban League of America.” I have a website for my memoir, “A Life, Interrupted.” I’ve submitted art everywhere. Ebony, Rolling Stone, Time, Fade Away. Fade Away got back to me and I do cartoons for them now.
I wanted folks who saw these images to know that prison isn’t hell because of other prisoners – I mean it can be – but it’s the guards. The guards are supposed to be there for you. But they let you be disrespected, abused, raped.
Mik: Finally, is there anything else you want us to share on the blog? About yourself, your art, anything?
Rabi: I want to thank everyone at SRLP for their continued support.
Mik: Well, Rabi, I know we want to thank you. You have given us so much and shared so much. You have touched the lives of so many people through your art and your words.
Rabi and I shared a hug and then some key lime pie. He is still making beautiful artwork and learning a new thing every day. If you want to commission him for some art or find out more about his artwork, please email mik [at] srlp [dot] org and I can put you in touch with Rabi.