Daniel Atkinson is a teaching assistant of ethnomusicology at the University of Washington, but he prefers to refer to himself as a pimp. He cites Too $hort to prove his point.

THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP – A Penny Dreadful, playing Feb. 8-26 at Intiman Theatre
Laugh till it hurts at this outrageous camp comedy the NYTimes calls “Wickedly funny!”

"$hort defines a pimp as someone who's paid to talk," Atkinson says. "I'm paid to talk about something that I know, that most every other black person knows."

Sitting in his Fremont apartment between thousands of vinyl records and a framed newspaper from the '40s declaring "Japan Bombed," Atkinson explains that the history of African-American music is riddled with "white guilt." From the early blues recordings of the Lomax family to the modern wave of white writers and academics who "try to save the day," those before him, he believes, let their cultural agenda get in the way of the music.

"They are so distant from that kind of despair, that lifestyle, that expectation where you grow up and die young or go to penitentiary," Atkinson says. "That leaves me."

He's not the first to make such a claim. What's new here is his work to prove the claim as fact. To erase the distortion from the musical record, the 33-year-old Victorville, California, native returned to one of modern musicology's points of origin—Louisiana's Angola State Penitentiary.

In 2005, with funding and equipment from Experience Music Project, he set out to Angola to continue where musicologists John and Alan Lomax—who recorded blues legend Leadbelly inside the penitentiary—left off 70 years ago. What musical culture prevailed in the 18,000-acre prison complex today, particularly in terms of hiphop?

"What I got from the prison administration was, basically, that hiphop doesn't exist," Atkinson says with a laugh. In a way, the administration wasn't lying; they limit guest access to only "trusty" inmates, lifers 40 and up who've shown good behavior. Those are the only inmates Atkinson would meet, none younger or possibly in tune with hiphop. The difference between presentation and reality was the first of this trip's red flags.

They invited him to record performances and interviews, and at first, that's all that interested Atkinson—delivering the first African-American ethnomusicologist perspective of this isolated, preserved hunk of musical history. But what the self-described "ABM"—"angry black man"—discovered was far more compelling.

"I wasn't there to write about the continuation of the slavery plantation system, but they kinda forced me, the administration," Atkinson says. "They had their standard Christian dog-and-pony show, saying, 'We've got these darkies in check.' I have every reason to believe that they did not think that I was black until they actually saw me. They had planned this whole thing, and it totally backfired on them."

With help from recorded conversations, he describes a black-majority prison population, most of whom are in for life, who "reflected a very antebellum way of looking at Christianity and at their incarceration, very similar to slaves in the 19th century." Between countless quotes that reinforce the inmates' biblical belief in their subservience ("You hear a lot of guys refer to themselves as Job," Atkinson says), gorgeous voices and four-part harmonies leap from the tapes. Of particular note is an immaculate rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Atkinson marvels: "A version of the national anthem that fervent, that proud, comes from someone who is on the lowest end of the social strata, where they don't even exist as human beings."

He returns to Angola this month to broaden his recordings—to possibly even dig up hiphop there at last—and put his work toward completing his Ph.D at UW. It's the latest in projects that revolve around his Angola experience. In addition to giving speeches, and a summer internship with the Smithsonian that he hopes will lead to work with the institute's new African-American museum, he works with Berkeley, California, jazz saxophonist Howard Wiley on the Angola Project, a full-band jazz re-creation of the sounds Atkinson recorded.

Above all of that, of course, is his hustle, not at all as self-serving as the word implies. He hopes to develop a junior-college course "about fetish, how the system and society keep you in a certain way" that can act as a collegiate gateway for young people who share his childhood experience of poverty and inertia. And though he has other musical post-Ph.D aspirations in mind, the shadows that hang over African-American music and culture are still his chief concerns. Especially when those shadows pass over his own head.

"There are elders at Angola who will keep their head down and eyes to the sky and address me as a superior, as sir," he says. "There's something fundamentally wrong with that. I could not stomach it to see a man my father's age address me as sir." recommended