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

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

Part II: Place in Richmond City Jail Rap Lyrics

The image above helps represent the Richmond geography that is often referenced in RCJ tracks.

In city jail rap lyrics, the elevation of some places as more real than others echo Dyson’s point. So too does the insistence on place as a verification of one’s realness. In the track “REAL trill,” the artist on verse two raps, “I’m still tryna understand where these dudes came from, talking ‘bout how they been really real since day one,” (REAL trill, [1:30]). The artist asks  where “these dudes” are from in order to verify whether they are real. The name of the track, “REAL trill,” uses the city jail’s acronym for its rehabilitation program (Recovering from Everyday Addictive Lifestyles) and “trill,” a combination of the words “true” and “real.” The REAL LIFE rehabilitation program is limited to people on the jail’s 6th floor, the “recovery” floor, and allows people access to the music studio. Further, that realness is tied to place in such direct ways articulates how realness in city jail artists’ lyrics has more to do with the realness of their social inequality and marginalization than the realness of the violence, bling and power. 

REAL trill

Richmond Times-Dispatch journalist Michael Paul Williams wrote in 2017 that Richmond resembles the Twin Cities insofar as one side of Richmond, the Westend, is “ascendant” and the Eastend is “mired in decay and violence.”1The map below displays this division clearly. 

Map of African-American population density and Average Income. Click HERE for full, interactive version of the map.

Michael Paul Williams calls the two cities RVA and Richmond. One distinction between the two is the availability of food: while RVA is a “battleground” for the grocery industry, Richmond is a “veritable food desert.”2 On the city jail track “Timeztuf” the artist illustrates his own hunger and poverty: “Ain’t have milk in over two months, I’m tired of them noodles, cold spam.” Then later, “Man, there ain’t nothing on my niece’s plate.” On his fourth verse, he raps,  “Got so much shit on my plate, don’t know how to scrap this shit down… it’s hard to find food and stay around,” juxtaposing his family’s hunger with the overdue rent and bills, getting laid off and his girlfriend leaving. After a breathless four verses, the artist says in the outro, “Real shit, think about that for a minute.” 


The artist above shouts out Hull Street in the intro to “Timeztuf”, indicating that the setting for this story is likely Richmond’s Eastend. On her “Planned Destruction” story map, LaToya Gray helps us understand how Richmond became two cities. Bartholomew Holland, the city planner for many U.S. cities in the ‘30s and ‘40s, alongside the Home Owners Loan Corporation, which created Redlining maps, devalued Richmond’s Black communities and marked them eligible for “slum clearance.” These urban planning projects “laid the foundation for ‘urban renewal’ in the United States.” Sociologist Matthew Oware argues that analyses of rap lyrics are incomplete without reference to the context of deindustrialization, urban renewal and the criminalization of the working-class and the poor in the 20th century. The globalization of industrial jobs and proliferation of service-sector jobs, alongside the federal government’s tax-break incentives to get companies to move to the suburbs, created concentrated unemployment in inner cities. Oware writes, “These changes created a spatial mismatch wherein low-skilled workers in the inner-city were unable to access the new high-skilled occupations.”3

HOLC map and 2009-10 Poverty Levels. Source: University of Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab

“The mud,” “the guts,” “the trenches,” “the gutter,” – are all tropes for describing poor urban places. These tropes are regularly used in city jail rap lyrics and represent a spatial power dynamic where place stands for struggle against state-sanctioned violence and realness. These tropes might refer to public housing projects in Richmond — Creighton Court, “Southside” Court, Hillside Court — or specific blocks of Richmond — Manchester, Churchill, Highland Park. References to these places in RCJ lyrics ground the artist’s actions and identity and verify their realness. These spatial references organize the projects and impoverished areas in Richmond as battlegrounds, where power is in realness and community and often the only way to resist the state’s violence. 

On the city jail track “Testify_rough,” a woman says, “I’m a living, breathing testimony.” She is, in a sense, talking about realness. On one hand, she is talking about the realness of God, who “brought me from the bottom, where no man could bring me.” But she is also talking about the realness of the “bottom” itself, and the realness of the social and economic forces that converge on poor Black Americans and relegate them for the bottom. Many of these forces are connected to, if not directly spawned from, mass incarceration. 

Continue Reading:

Part III: Mass Incarceration and the Informant Institution 

1 Williams, Michael Paul. “We Remain two Richmonds – RVA blossomed while Richmond is being left further and further behind,” In Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 24, 2017.

2 Ibid

3 Oware, Matthew. “Urban Spaces and Bodies” Section in I Got Something To Say: Gender, Race, and Social Consciousness, 25Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.