Sounds of the Surveilled: Realness, Place and Snitching in Richmond City Jail Rap Lyrics. Introduction and Part I

Will Roberts, University of Richmond Class of 2021, Summer 2020

Note from the Author: This article is a work in progress. A final version will be published here in December. In the meantime, I encourage comments, feedback and quarrels. You can contact me at

Table of Contents: 


Part I: How Real is This? 

Part II: Place in Richmond City Jail Rap Lyrics 

Part III: Mass Incarceration and the Informant Institution 

Part IV: Conclusion


Note on attribution and privacy: 

Regardless of jail policy, we believe that the artists themselves are the full and sole owners of their intellectual property as well as the recordings themselves. All references to specific tracks on this site are fully anonymized and excerpted, even when residents indicated on their consent and release forms that they could be named in the archive. They remain anonymized, and our examples restricted to very short excerpts, because incarcerated individuals do not have the freedom to truly give voluntary consent and because we do not own or have the right to freely distribute their compositions. All audio clips are restricted to short excerpts.

If you are the creator of one of the tracks mentioned on the site, and would like to have references removed, to be fully attributed, and/or to publish your work here in its entirety, please email


“Locked the fuck up
Richmond City Jail
Or, should I say, the Justice Center” –
No name available 

“Well, if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in this country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected — those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most! — and listen to their testimony. Ask any Mexican, Puerto Rican, any black man, any poor person — ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know, not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it. It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” 
No Name in the Street, James Baldwin, 1972 

The Richmond City Justice Center sits in the East End of Richmond, Virginia. On the sixth floor of the jail select inmates have limited access to music making equipment, including guitars, a microphone and a laptop with audio production software. Between 2013 and March 2020, over 800 tracks were written, recorded and produced by inmates in the city jail, often in collaboration with one another. Roughly 90 percent of the inmate population is men, with 87 percent of those men being Black and having, on average, a sixth-grade education.1 The majority of tracks made in the jail are rap musics created by Black men from Richmond city neighborhoods. I had the rare opportunity to listen to hundreds of these tracks and transcribe the lyrics to dozens. My goal here is to ask how we might learn about and understand mass incarceration and social control in Richmond from the expressions of Black incarcerated men. This article will explore the intersections of three themes that are prevalent in Richmond city jail rap lyrics – realness, place and snitching — in the context of social control through mass incarceration and residential segregation. I begin by discussing how I listened to and interpreted  the rap lyrics, paying close attention to the usage and meanings of concepts of realness and truth. I then contextualize these lyrics in scholarship on mandatory minimum sentencing, plea bargaining and the overuse of police informants in drug enforcement.

Part I: How Real is This?

In Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America,” Andrea Dennis and Erik Nielson ask, “how do we make sense of a music that, on one hand, gleefully distorts reality but then, on the other hand, claims to be ‘keepin’ it real.’”2 In the jail studio, people often rap about being real and staying true: “Keep it real, hundred proof, when I’m in the booth!”; “Gotta keep it true, cause n*s is switch”; one artist tagged his music with “You’re now listening to a True Story production, boy!” and often used the ad lib “True story!” to hype up other artists’ verses.

Rap artists and their supporters have long been preoccupied with authenticity, realness and truth. And as rap ascended the corporate mainstream and became a multi-billion-dollar industry, it became increasingly imperative for rappers to claim street realness. This is because, as sociologist Matthew Oware details in I Got Something To Say: Gender, Race, and Social Consciousness in Rap Music, notions of authenticity — along with other “ghettocentric” themes such as misogyny, braggadocio, violence and hypermasculinity — sell records.3 The ostensibly true-to-life depictions of Black urban street life that saturated gangsta rap styles of the ’80s and ‘90s, followed by record labels’ exploitation and commercialization of Black street life images and vernacular, created a consumption climate in which rappers were asked – demanded, really – to stick to the real gangsta persona. As Oware demonstrates, top-charting millennial rappers today infuse their musics with misogyny, braggadocio and violence, likely because industry executives are historically more likely to elevate artists who include these themes in their lyrics.4 To know that a rapper is from the suburbs and not the streets, for many listeners, matters. This meant incorporating drug dealing, hustling, gang banging, pimping and modes of street masculinity into rhymes, whether the artist actually engaged in such activity or not.

The image above is a collage of subject headings taken from 75 RCJ tracks. The larger the word, the more often that theme comes up in RCJ tracks. After transcribing a track, I generated 2-5 subject headings for the track based on the Library of Congress’ list of authorized subject headings. This will help future researchers search the RCJ archive by subject.

Africana studies professor Tricia Rose writes in The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop – And Why It Matters that the “distorted and exaggerated” use of “keepin’ it real” to claim that commercial rap musics are representative of the true Black ghetto experience “betrays the valuable history of black culture’s role as a community-affirming means of expressing a wide variety of perspectives and lived experiences.”5 Rose affirms, however, that rappers’ preoccupation with “keepin’ it real” is often a defense against critics who claim rap musics are “proof” of Black peoples’ fault for the conditions of Black inner-city neighborhoods by encouraging criminality and violence. Rose writes, “A good deal of hip hop speaks and has always spoken openly and in depth about aspects of black urban poverty, particularly the grip that street culture has on many young people.”6 This is evident in Richmond city jail rap lyrics, for many artists express the tension of being accustomed to street life – being “raised by the streets” — but wanting out: “Street life cause so much pain, I put my all in, I was the game, getting’ played, thought I was ballin’, now I’m stuck behind locked doors,” (God Help Me Now, [0:50]) or “Married to the game and I want a divorce,” (Focus Is Change, [2:10]). Similarly, men will encourage younger men stuck in the street life to get out: “To that lil n* who was thuggin’ now he locked up, get outta jail, get on your shit and leave the block, bruh, either yo girl gon ride with you or she not, bruh, put down the guns because the streets is too hot, True Story!” (True Story, [2:30]).

God Help Me Now
True Story

In 2008, Rose wrote that the American public “moved toward an easy acceptance of black ghetto existence and the belief that black people themselves are responsible for creating ghettos and for choosing to live in them.”7 Part of what I want to argue here is that rap musics, while often being strikingly open about the truths and possibilities of criminality and violence in impoverished urban settings, also contain what Rose in 1994 called “hidden transcripts” and “a theater of the powerless.”8 Much of rap’s hidden transcript details truths about Black street life that link the violence and criminality that are so glorified by listeners as “real” or “authentic” to historical contingencies of systemic oppression and subjugation. In this way, rap musics oppose public transcripts and dominant knowledge discourses that imbue oppressive institutions with power, including discourses that absolve American institutions – the criminal system, banks, schools, city planners, insurance companies – from bearing any responsibility for the violence and criminality represented in rap lyrics. It seems that many white listeners are guilty of demanding rap artists to be real, as in actually from the streets. But not tooreal. Real enough, that is, so that the listener might feel vicariously as though they are riding in a Cadillac, smoking a blunt, being gangsta, but not real enough to the point where one must also recognize and grapple with the systemic destruction and despair that are the context on which so much rap is written. As Rose wrote in 2008, “Americans seem far more interested in being entertained by compelling portraits of horrible conditions than they are in altering them.”9

The image above is a collage of keywords from 75 RCJ tracks. For each track transcribed, I chose five words from the track’s text that helped describe the themes of the track. These words also informed the subject headings for each track.]

I want to insist that it doesn’t matter whether a Richmond city jail artist’s claims (to wealth and power and guns and sex and drugs and violence and incarceration) are real. I dwell upon this because such questions, it seems, neglect to take seriously rap as art, while pressuring rap artists to make themselves more vulnerable to police surveillance. As Dennis and Nielson detail in Rap On Trial, police and prosecutors increasingly use rap lyrics to surveil, prosecute and incarcerate young men of color. Prosecutors have presented to jurors rap lyrics as evidence of an artist’s “confession” to a crime. Rap lyrics and videos have been introduced often as evidence of a defendant’s gang affiliation, or as evidence of a defendant’s “true character,” meaning their motive or knowledge to commit the crime in question.10 Prosecutors are only allowed to introduce “character” evidence if the defendant uses his own good character as a defense, or the victim’s bad character. In other cases, prosecutors argue that the lyrics contain a “true threat,” the lyrics themselves being the crime.11

When rappers in the city jail claim to be keepin’ it real, when, in the intro to a track, someone says, “This shit real, man, ya know what I mean…where we come from…Live this shit every day,” (Tell The Truth [Intro]) or “Bitch, I live what I’m rapping,” (Soldier1, [0:30]) I take it they are talking about the realness of their conditions – the job scarcity, the police presence, the schools, the banks, the jail, the landlords, the pavement, the hunger, the uncertainty — not, necessarily, the realness of the 18 Cadillacs. On the track “On My Momma,” the artist raps, “You can ask my momma, I got 18 Caddies!” (On My Momma, [1:40]). This is a good example of an artist claiming realness while making a wildly exaggerated claim. He warns us in the intro to the track that, although everything he is saying is “on my momma,” he “ain’t even fuck with her.” 

Tell the Truth

Coming back to Dennis and Nielson’s question of how we make sense of rap artists’ distortions of reality and claims to realness, it’s important to keep in mind that rappers aren’t necessarily claiming that everything they say actually happened. It helps to think about rap musics more as narrative and historical fiction rather than a witness report. It’s often a fictional testimony to real conditions in real places. Nevertheless, Michael Render, also known as “Killer Mike” from the Atlanta rap duo Run The Jewels, writes in the foreword to Rap On Trial that “aspiring rap artists need to know they are being targeted by the authorities, and they need to balance their right to free speech – and their desire to push the envelope of free speech – with the reality that police are watching.”12 Further, underpinning the introduction of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials are perceptions of rap musics that make no distinction between the private person and the persona the rapper uses, robbing rap artists, who are overwhelmingly young men of color from marginalized communities, of the legitimacy of their ability to create, imagine and critique as artists. The tendency for rap lyrics to be interpreted as a record of facts, as demonstrated in multiple cases that Dennis and Nielson examine, rests on demonstrably poor understandings of the artform. Rap employs a high degree of metaphor, persona and hyperbole, slang and ambiguity. As Dennis and Nielson argue, “While ‘keepin’ it real’ may require rappers to have knowledge of the world they describe and some connection to it, it doesn’t require them to tell true stories. Instead, it requires them to remain true to the artform.”13 Part of staying true to the artform is articulating the possibilities and vulnerabilities of living in poor urban areas. It also requires lyrics, like many artforms in general, to be cloaked in some mystery, to defy some interpretation, to make us ask, “how real is this?” As Michael Eric Dyson writes, “…hip hop artists are rarely given the credit for the kind of intellectual ingenuity it takes to create narratives that spark debates about whether what they say is true or not.”14When rap enters the courtroom, the spectacle of violence and criminality on the part of the artist is taken as real life, but the violence that envelops the lyrics and the life of the artist – often state sanctioned violence– is disregarded. Journalists Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law write in Prison By Any Other Name that, “The individual who robbed a store is cast into the ‘criminal’ box while the generational poverty goes unchallenged.”15 This form of jurisprudence is aimed solely on the individual, where the defendant’s circumstances are always their own fault, and any challenge to this, such as pointing out legacies of social and economic inequalities of all sorts, is neglecting to take responsibility or making excuses.  

In line with the history of social critique in Black musics and performance, rap musics can produce “communal bases of knowledge about social conditions, communal interpretations of them and quite often serve as the cultural glue that fosters communal resistance.”16 The lyrics of Richmond city jail rap musics are very much a hidden transcript. Their lyrics document in detail how power is distributed throughout Richmond. Michael Eric Dyson writes that, “Within hip hop the elevation of the ghetto is often a metaphysical complaint against society’s failure to recognize the humanity of those who come from the ghetto.”17 Similarly, author Murray Forman, in his 1997 book The Hood Comes First,examines rap music as an “important site for the examination and critique of the distribution of power and authority in the urban context.”18 Specific references in Richmond city jail rap lyrics to urban geography — street names, blocks, public housing (projects), area codes, neighborhoods – document how power and authority are unevenly distributed throughout Richmond. The map below displays specific locations and zones of Richmond that are named in rap lyrics written by city jail artists. 

Carceral Soundscapes Map. Click the double arrows for the legend. Red bubbles reflect referrals to law enforcement at public schools (Data Source: U.S. Dept. of Education Civil Rights Office). The larger the bubble, the more referrals. Shading reflects rates of incarceration for Black families with male children (Data Source: Harvard Opportunity Atlas). Colored zones are territories referenced in RCJ tracks. Stars are specific locations referenced in RCJ tracks. Click on the map for more information. Click HERE for full interactive map.

The map cross references the locations with map layers displaying corrections infrastructure, school and school zones, demographics and income, unemployment, crime statistics and incarceration rates. I’ve considered multiple Richmond public schools as corrections infrastructure because of their high rates of “referrals to law enforcement.” For instance, Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School, which is less than a mile from the city jail, made 96 discipline referrals to Richmond police in 2015. George Wythe High School in Richmond’s southside made 105 referrals to Richmond police the same year. And multiple Richmond public elementary schools made 10 or more referrals. Schooling and education receive some attention in city jail lyrics, sometimes expressing a desire for better education for their kids: “Made motivators that stand just for children, that may infiltrate this goddamn school system, better make education a brand new mission, and the tools that they using, get a new rendition” (Motivation, [0:30]). One artist evokes the school-to-prison pipeline with the lyric: “Caught three years when I was 16, the year before that decided to drop school,” and later, “Ain’t been out 11 months, dog, since I was 15,” meaning he has been in a cycle of incarceration since high school (Timeztuf [1:40]). 


Continue Reading:

Part II: Place in Richmond City Jail Rap Lyrics 

1 McGraw, Andy. “Incarcerating the Commonwealth’s Poor” Chapter. In, “Sounding the Commonwealth: Music, Sound, and Ethics In An American Community” Page 61. Under Review. 

2 Nielson, Erik, Andrea L. Dennis, and Killer Mike. “Hip Hop: From The Margins to the Mainstream .” Chapter. In Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America, 54. New York: The New Press, 2019.

3 Oware, Matthew. “(Constructed) Authenticity.” Section in I Got Something To Say: Gender, Race, and Social Consciousness. 43-47. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. 

4 Oware, Matthew. “(Constructed) Authenticity.” Section in I Got Something To Say: Gender, Race, and Social Consciousness. 43-46. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

5 Rose, Tricia. “Just Keeping It Real.” Chapter. In, The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop, 144. Basic Civitas Books, 2008. 

6 Rose, Tricia. “Just Keeping It Real.” Chapter. In, The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop, 133-135. Basic Civitas Books, 2008. 

7 Rose, Tricia. Introduction. In, The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop, 9. Basic Civitas Books, 2008. 

8 Rose, Tricia. “Prophets of Rage: Rap Music and the Politics of Black Cultural Expression .” Essay. In Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, 99–106. Hanover: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1994.

9 Rose, Tricia. “Just Keeping It Real.” Chapter. In, The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop, 135. Basic Civitas Books, 2008.

10 Nielson, Erik, Andrea L. Dennis, and Killer Mike. “Rap Enters The Courtroom” Chapter. In Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America, 68-74. New York: The New Press, 2019.

11 Nielson, Erik, Andrea L. Dennis, and Killer Mike. “Rap Enters The Courtroom” Chapter. In Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America, 67. New York: The New Press, 2019.

12 Nielson, Erik, Andrea L. Dennis, and Killer Mike. Foreword to Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America, xi. New York: The New Press, 2019.

13 Nielson, Erik, Andrea L. Dennis, and Killer Mike. “Hip Hop: From the Margins to the Mainstream” Chapter. In Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America, 56. New York: The New Press, 2019.

14 Dyson, Michael Eric., and Meta DuEwa Jones . “How Real Is This? Prisons, IPods, Pimps, and the Search for Authentic Homes .” Essay. In Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip Hop, 14. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2007.

15 Schenwar, Maya. Law, Victoria. Introduction to Prison By Any Other Name, 10. The New Press, New York, 2020. 

16 Rose, Tricia. “Prophets of Rage: Rap Music and the Politics of Black Cultural Expression .” Essay. In Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, 100. Hanover: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1994.

17 Dyson, Michael Eric., and Meta DuEwa Jones . “How Real Is This? Prisons, IPods, Pimps, and the Search for Authentic Homes .” Essay. In Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip Hop, 13. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2007.

18 Forman, Murray. The ‘Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop, xviii. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.