Beats, Rhymes & Justice: Hip Hop on Rikers Island

BBC World Service

MC and producer Ryan Burvick takes us behind bars on Rikers Island, New York’s largest and troubled Jail. He leads a music production programme there called Beats, Rhymes and Justice, which helps inmates write rhymes, make music and imagine their future off the island in a different light.

We’ll hear from three of its students, all aged between 18-21 and awaiting trial. Ayosay has been on Rikers for five months. He’s an experienced rapper from New York who dreams of making it in hip hop. Trigger is working on two tracks that express his desire to make a better life for his four-year-old daughter. Suave, a former student from the Beats, Rhymes and Justice programme, has recently been released after spending over two years in jail and is trying to adapt to life at home with his mother in the Bronx. We hear these student making music in Ryan’s portable studio on Rikers.

Rikers Island is located on an island in the East River, between the Bronx and Queens. Around 8,000 people are incarcerated there, across multiple complexes. Rikers’ has a long history of violence. Earlier this year Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to close the jail, with the council calling it “a stain on our city’s great reputation.”

The Beats, Rhymes and Justice programme, organised by Columbia University’s Centre for Justice, is one of many attempts to reform the jail. Ryan and the team from Columbia University use hip hop to take the inmates out of their cells and their immediate surroundings, to encourage self-expression and to give them hope.


Produced by Paul Smith


Broadcast: November 2017