Buried in some corner of YouTube is a video of Bay Area rapper Saweetie circa 2012 stanning for J. Cole outside a concert venue’s backdoor. She’s patient while her favorite rapper – the one whose mixtapes, burned for her by a friend, made her fall in love with music – greets the small group of fans clustered.
“When he gets to me, I say, ‘Can I rap for you?'” the 24-year-old remembers, sitting in the Soho House garden as Hollywood sparkles like a jewelry box below. “At the end of the video, I say, ‘I’m going to be on top with you one day.'”
If that day hasn’t yet arrived, it’s close. Last October, Saweetie released “Icy Grl,” a rise-and-grind, boss bitch anthem built on Khia’s 2002 hit “My Neck, My Back,” making Saweetie’s mission plain: “You tryna get a bag of weed? I’m tryna get a bag a week/Put it in my savings and invest in the right companies.”
In the accompanying video, which has accumulated over 35 million views, Saweetie raps in a blunt voice and no-nonsense manner in between sips of champagne and flips of her salon-straight, platinum-blond locks. Alternately wrapped in a silk robe and swaddled in a fur, she looks like she’s edging toward the top tax bracket, but she’s not ashamed to admit she was pulling a familiar play out of the rapper handbook, the fake-it-till-you-make-it “aspirational” video the Roots parodied in “What They Do.”
After all, when Saweetie recorded “Icy Grl,” she was juggling a “bunch of odd jobs,” pinballing from one sketchy Craigslist-rented room to the next – “I pushed stuff up against the door when I slept,” she says – and filming 15-second raps in her car to post on Instagram.
“I had to work a lot. I was doing YouTube videos, but I wasn’t getting a lot of love. How do I make a living off rapping when no one knows me?” she says. Plus, her looks were attracting eye-rolling and scoffing that she was just another Instagram model. “I got kind of discouraged. But hard work shuts people up.”
Hard work never scared the performer born Diamonté Harper – her stage name is a “jazzed-up” version of “Sweetie,” the pet name her grandmother gave her. She grew up in the Bay Area and Sacramento and knew she wanted “a job that made a lot of money,” and that she could harness her entrepreneurial spirit to get it. “I’ve always been a businesswoman,” she says. “I was always selling stuff to make money. Me and my cousins would sell candy after church!”
Besides, she was built to win. Her grandfather, Willie Harper, played football for the San Francisco 49ers with Joe Montana, and her father, Johnny Harper, was on the team at San Jose State. “I’m really good at football,” Saweetie says as a matter of fact, but her grandmother nipped her burning desire to play. She set high school records in volleyball and track instead, even getting scouted by a few colleges in the Midwest for the former. She eventually got her way with football, too, playing quarterback for a powder puff league at San Diego State.
Her mother, Trinidad Valentin, was a video vixen with starring roles in L.L. Cool J and R. Kelly clips. And Zaytoven, the pioneering Bay Area-born producer who launched his career with Gucci Mane, provided another ever-present musical link – he played piano at the church her grandparents pastored. She casually refers to him as her cousin.
Still, she was determined to carve out a career on the strength of her own talent, not her connections. “People were telling me to reach out, but I’m so prideful,” she says. “I wanted to put my work in and then work with him.”
Being born in 1993 meant “Death Row and Bad Boy were played a lot in my house,” she says. She flipped through the CD folders her parents stuffed with R&B titles from the Delfonics and Isley Brothers to Tevin Campbell and Blackstreet, but she didn’t fall in love with music until she heard J. Cole. Since she was a kid, her mother had encouraged her poetry, but Cole inspired her to try and rap. She wrote to “A Milli,” and when she performed it for her friends in Algebra II class, her “homeboys loved it,” she says. “That moment gave me the confidence to go for it.”
Again taking a cue from Cole, she studied communications first at San Diego State and then finished her business and communications degree at USC. Still determined to make bank, she interviewed with hospital billing departments, but every job offer felt wrong.
“I finally decided to give music my all. If it didn’t work out and I had to move home, fine. I had to give it 100% first,” she says.
Car raps became her calling card – scroll long enough on her IG and you’ll find them – and she’d gain five to 10,000 followers with each clip. Still, she was piecing together a hustle until she met her now-manager, industry stalwart Max Gousse, last fall.
“She’s it,” Gousse, who produced and A&R’ed Beyonce’s B’Day, says, pointing at Saweetie.
And if High Maintenance, her debut EP, released in March, doesn’t quite cement her “it” status, it certainly points her in the direction. She mostly retains the cool-headed flow she demonstrates on “Icy Grl” and drops plenty of lethal one-liners. A recently released “Bae Mix” to “Icy Grl,” featuring fellow Bay artist Kelani and nods to a come-up in a male-dominated music industry: “I could’ve got here quicker if I let the devils sway me.”
“I encountered producers who wanted to hang out after we worked,” she says, “and when I refused, they wouldn’t let me come back and work again. … I would’ve have way more opportunities if I had succumbed. But it never felt right. I always felt like I was going to be successful, and I didn’t want to compromise my morals. I’m glad I didn’t take any shortcuts.”
In that vein, she launched her own label, Icy, in November. “I wanna be a smart artist and know what going’s going on with billing, contracts, paperwork,” she says. “It can be a lot. But I’m thankful to be a part of the era where we can be the captains of our own ships.”