The first thing Javier Rogers did when he was released from the Richmond city jail in October 2019 was get a coffee from Starbucks. Then he went home.
Two years earlier, Richmond police had stopped him and a friend for expired license plate tags.
“Of course they searched [the car],” he said. “Look at me.”
Rogers, 28, is from Broad Rock Boulevard in Richmond’s South Side. After the 2018 incident, police charged him with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Rogers said it wasn’t his, but took the plea deal anyway, he said. About a year into his 22-month-sentence at the Richmond city jail, Rogers met University of Richmond music professor Andy McGraw, who spends a lot of time in jail. But McGraw isn’t serving time. He helps it pass for people who are.
McGraw is an ethnomusicologist. He studies music in its social and cultural contexts. He arrived at UR in 2006, a year after he received his Ph.D. from Wesleyan University.
While visiting the class, McGraw listened as inmates showcased their poetry. Some inmates would rap their poems and some would play guitar. He decided that it would be more beneficial to help inmates produce the music they were already making. John Dooley, the jail's education director at the time, agreed.
Ethnomusicology, McGraw said, is traditionally focused on music outside the western art tradition. But that’s not necessarily the case anymore. Nowadays, McGraw spends a few hours each week on the Richmond jail’s sixth floor, helping inmates record and produce their own music.
“The voices of people in the nation’s jails and prisons don’t typically enter the archive,” McGraw said.
At UR this spring, McGraw is teaching a course on the anthropology of music. Students in the course will help archive the music of the Richmond jail by transcribing lyrics and developing metadata of the music, he said.
It’s important for people to hear the expressions of people undergoing mass incarceration, McGraw said.
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Archives hold the evidence a society uses to shape its future. If that evidence is highly selective and partial, then the society doesn't have enough to work with. And its laws will reflect that partiality, McGraw said.
First-year student McKenna Dunbar worked on the archive in McGraw’s soundscapes class during this past fall semester. McGraw gave the class access to a digital folder that contained hundreds of tracks recorded and produced by inmates at the jail, she said. The majority of the songs were hip-hop and rap, but there were country and gospel and spoken word as well. Each student chose a track to transcribe and analyze, she said.
Each student in McGraw's Anthropology of Music course this spring will transcribe at least three of the 800 some tracks that still need to be archived, McGraw said.
McGraw feels strongly that the people who created the music should have full rights and decide an institution’s role with the archive. It was a challenge to find an institution that would take the archive and not demand that all the rights to it be turned over to them, he said.
At a conference in November, however, McGraw fell into a conversation with people from the Library of Congress. They don’t own anything, he said.
Founded in 1928 by the Library of Congress’ music division, the American Folklife Center archive has one of the largest collections of ethnographic and historical documentation. It includes music recorded in American jails and prisons, notably the Lomax recordings from the Spring Street Penitentiary in downtown Richmond during the 1930s. The archive UR students are developing this semester will reside in the American Folklife Center as well.
“The idea is that we’ll keep archiving this as long as folks are making it,” McGraw said. “I hope that continues far into the future.”
Later this year, McGraw will be starting another studio program at Deep Meadow Correctional, a prison in State Farm, Virginia. Tracks from Deep Meadow will be added to the archive, he said.
It was in the old Richmond jail that McGraw began his studio work with inmates. But the space there wasn’t a studio at all. It had been known as the Sanctuary, a large room with one microphone in a crowded corner, he said. In recordings from the Sanctuary, you can hear the community of the space. If people liked what was happening on the microphone, you can hear the steady rhythm of snapping fingers and tapping feet build in the background of the track.
The sound quality of those tracks is terrible, McGraw said, but hearing the community of the space is powerful.
In 2014, a new jail opened in Richmond’s East End, the Richmond City Justice Center. The new building is a significant upgrade from the old facility, which opened in the 1960s and over the years came to hold as many as 1,500 inmates, nearly double its intended capacity.
Only four people can fit in the new studio at a time, which is good for sound quality, McGraw said. But he noted that some inmates expressed nostalgia for the Sanctuary.
The studio is stocked with equipment from UR's music department. It’s enough to do what most of the guys want to do, which is to create a beat and get their rap on it, McGraw said.
One of McGraw’s roles in the studio is helping inmates get the beat that’s in their head into the computer. They know what they want, they just can't find the words or aren’t familiar with the software or instruments, he said.
Inmates with extended sentences and good behavior, like Rogers, become the important members of the studio, Rogers said. Indeed, Rogers made hundreds of beats while incarcerated. Some of them were for him, some were for other inmates, a few were for a deputy.
When you have a deputy on the mic and an inmate producing the beat, McGraw said, the hierarchy disappears.
Earlier this fall, McGraw and two other UR professors, Andrea Simpson and Monti Datta, wrote a grant to explore the effectiveness of reentry programs, McGraw said. Using money from the grant, McGraw set up a studio at UR Downtown, UR’s satellite campus on East Broad Street.
The UR Downtown studio is a space for former inmates to continue their work.
So far, only a few people are using the UR Downtown studio regularly. Rogers is the most active among them, which is no surprise, McGraw said.
In the studio, McGraw isn’t a producer. He doesn’t make beats. He handles the technical aspects, like getting a good mic level or teaching someone the production software. He said a lot of time is spent figuring things out together, and there are moments when people get frustrated. They work for hours on a beat and it just isn’t quite right.
“But then it happens, and we all feel it together,” he said.
Contact features writer William Roberts at email@example.com.
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