‘I’m coming back’: Viral TikTok rapper reflects on budding career while incarcerated

“Walk Down” by Richmond rapper FNF Chop has gone viral on TikTok while the artist is incarcerated. Illustration by Cecilia Ford

Ebonique Little, Spectrum Editor

Richmond rapper FNF Chop, known for his breakout single “Walk Down,” said he used to sleep at the studio to finish recording songs. Now, from his cell in the Richmond City Justice Center, he writes lyrics to his beats over the phone.

Chop, who was born Deonte Gaines, was arrested last May for parole violation. His music has gained traction during his time in jail, with the fast-tempo single amassing more than 1.6 million streams on Spotify and inspiring a dance challenge on TikTok.

“My main goal is to go home and grind as hard as I can, to keep everything going in the direction that it’s going in,” Chop said in a phone interview.

Chop began rapping in 2018 and grew increasingly dedicated to his craft. He released “Walk Down” in 2019, but said maintaining the newfound success has been difficult.

“It is confusing to be 100% honest with you,” Chop said. “It’s a whole bunch of stuff going on, trying to keep things together while staying strong and you know, make sure everything has been done right — it’s a lot.”

His team helped him release “No Exit,” a 6-song mixtape the rapper describes as “energetic and hyper.” Chop and his manager compiled songs they felt could continue the momentum until he is released, he said. 

“He literally slept in studios for nights at a time — waking up and washing up in bathrooms and going back to work. He wanted this more than all his peers.” — DJ Tootrill, FNF Chop’s official DJ

“Don’t leave — trust and believe I’m coming back,” Chop said.

In addition to feeling concerned about the progression of his career, Chop said he is also concerned for his health and safety at the Richmond City Justice Center. Since being incarcerated, he has contracted COVID-19 twice — once in October and the other time in January, he said.

“It’s just frustrating going through that experience while you in jail,” Chop said. “No laying in bed or getting up and getting some soup — it’s jail.”

COVID-19 cases at the Richmond jail spiked toward the end of August, leading to protests for the release of nonviolent offenders in efforts to reduce close contact with other inmates.

In April 2020, Gov. Ralph Northam added an amendment to the state budget that called for the early release of nonviolent inmates with less than a year on their sentence to slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

Under this program, the Virginia Department of Corrections must calculate the inmate’s release date. Eligible inmates include those with a viable home plan, good time credits, or positive behavior, no pending criminal charges, a medium-to-low risk of reoffending and no convictions of felonies or sexual violent offenses, according to the VADOC’s website.

Chop said he meets all the requirements and has been awaiting release since Northam’s program was enacted last year. VADOC was unable to provide specific inmate record information.

Due to the large number of calculations being processed in accordance with the Governor’s Early Release Program, Mr. Gaines’ [FNF Chop] Good Time Release Date has not yet been officially calculated,” Adam Dourafei, an attorney for the VADOC, stated in an email. 

Chop said the corrections department is “dragging their feet.”

“I can come home. I can be out there, but it’s all dependent on what they do,” Chop said. “The way they’ve been prolonging the situation has been making it very, very hard.”

FNF Chop. Photo courtesy of FNF Levy

Chop’s mother, Ronetta Gaines, said she prays for him and talks to him on the phone every day to keep his spirits up.

“I keep him covered in prayer, and I believe that he’s going to be safe in there,” Ronetta Gaines said in a phone interview.

She and other family members continually call the jail seeking answers, and have even petitioned directly to Congress and other groups like the NAACP to advocate for his release, she said.

Ronetta Gaines attended a video shoot in March at Franklin Military Academy for “Walk Down,” featuring scenes of VCU’s campus and Richmonders dancing to the song, despite Chop’s inability to be there physically.

“There was all this energy,” Ronetta Gaines said. “And even though they knew they were going to be in a video, it was the cause. We were all there because we want him home.”

DJ Tootrill, Chop’s official DJ for his performances, said he is ready to continue collaborating with Chop musically. Chop’s work ethic is unmatched, Tootrill said.

“He literally slept in studios for nights at a time — waking up and washing up in bathrooms and going back to work,” Tootrill said during a phone call. “He wanted this more than all his peers.”

The pair first met around two years ago at Chop’s first paid performance. Tootrill said he and the audience were surprised by Chop’s energetic stage presence.

“Chop is the best performing artist I’ve seen come out of Richmond,” Tootrill said. “When you watch him perform, your eyes have no choice but to be engaged.”

Before Chop was incarcerated, the two were in the process of planning a tour, Tootrill said. Now, he looks forward to Chop’s release and return to the stage.

“He just has a sound and a energy that I haven’t seen in the city,” Tootrill said.

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