All through 2019, Jatavia “JT” Johnson tracked the rise of her duo, City Girls, by watching the size of the jewelry worn by her musical partner, Caresha “Yung Miami” Brownlee, in their frequent video calls. “Things were getting bigger,” she says with a giggle.
JT spent most of last year in a Tallahassee, Florida prison, serving out a sentence for credit-card fraud that began the day after City Girls’ feature spot on Drake’s smash “In My Feelings” introduced them to the world, in 2018. Hearing from Yung Miami, who handled all of the duo’s performances and promotional work on her own during JT’s time behind bars, was a lifeline.
The challenges didn’t end with JT’s release from prison in October. First she moved into an Atlanta halfway house, where she remained under travel restrictions until her sentence reached its final end earlier this month. She jumped back into her paused career at the soonest opportunity, recording and dropping the freestyle “JT’s First Day Out” and getting to work on City Girls’ second album. Yung Miami, meanwhile, had just given birth to her second child, so she spent most of her time back in their shared hometown of Miami, flying frequently to Atlanta to record with her best friend.
While their lifelong bond was the same as ever — “All we do is laugh, joke, play,” Yung Miami says — their recording process changed significantly since they made their two full-length 2018 projects (Period, a mixtape, and Girl Code, an album).
Back then, JT recalls, everything “was really stressful for me because I was indicted.” The pair had made their debut in late 2017 with the single “Fuck Dat Nigga,” which sampled Khia’s playful, sexual “My Neck, My Back”; JT was arrested a week later on charges of using stolen credit card numbers to buy clothes and shoes. Their lives were further flipped upside down when the track caught the attention of Kevin “Coach K” Lee and Pierre “P” Thomas, the founders of Atlanta’s influential Quality Control, who signed City Girls to join Migos and Lil Baby on the label’s roster that November.
Quality Control helped arrange a postponed start date for JT’s sentence, but that mean the pair of rookie rappers had to move swiftly to take advantage of their limited time. They recorded their first two projects in a hurry during what was technically 60 days, though JT says that their lack of seriousness meant it was more like 30.
“I was battling other stuff in my mind,” she says. “I’m not saying people didn’t have sympathy, but there was no sympathy. It was do or die, for real.”
JT was able to witness some of their work paying off with the release of Period in May 2018. “In My Feelings” arrived that summer with Drake’s Scorpion, and the simultaneous start of JT’s sentence spurred a movement. The song became a breakout hit, topping the charts as Yung Miami appeared solo in the video. Later the same year, Girl Code spawned the Cardi B-assisted “Twerk” and the surprise meme hit “Act Up.”
All the while, Yung Miami held down the business, touring and promoting City Girls’ budding career and keeping them a part of the conversation even while they were down one half of the duo.“It feels like a job now. It feels normal,” she says.
The first time the duo’s fame really hit her was on a Jamaican vacation, where she found that DJs recognized her and played their music. “The City Girls is really international!” Yung Miami says. “I didn’t expect people in Jamaica to know who I am.”
The pair have a lot to live up to, and it doesn’t help that they feel like their sound has been bitten and over-saturated by other artists before they could reunite. “I’ve been sitting back and looking for our sound,” JT says. They’ve recorded a number of tracks they’re excited to release, all on theme with the rest of their discography.
“It’s still women empowerment,” Yung Miami says. “City Girls don’t take no ish from a man.”
Prior to Coachella’s postponement due to coronavirus fears, the pair had been looking forward to getting on stage to play their biggest show together in April. They were learning choreography and making sure their barely tapped performance potential was up to par with the heavyweights they were set to appear alongside. Though they will have to wait to show off everything they’ve learned, at least the pair will have a chance to revel in their time together. JT is ready to see the world, and Yung Miami is just happy to have her partner back by her side: “It’s what was missing.”