R. City, the rap duo behind the Number One Pop song in the country, have been performing together since they were elementary school students on the island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. But brothers Theron and Timothy Thomas are suddenly finding themselves in uncharted waters.
The pair are getting ready to go onstage at the 45th annual Atlanta Pride Festival, the largest LGBT festival in the Southeast. It’s six o’clock on a Saturday evening, and the skies over Atlanta’s Piedmont Park are filled with dark, rumbling clouds. In front of a stage in one muddy corner of the park, a few dozen people — several wearing rainbow flags as capes, one sporting pink fairy wings — mill around, chatting, checking their phones.
“We’re used to performing in front of Caribbean people and thousands of black kids,” Theron later says of the performance. “Now we’re performing in front of thousands of white kids, thousands of homosexuals, that’s a different demographic. When we walk out here and start doing this are they going to say, ‘Yo this shit is wack?'”
As it turns out, no. R. City bound onstage, arms and legs flailing, and launch into “I’m That,” a raw, high-energy jam that’s musically distant from their hit “Locked Away,” a slice of Caribbean-inflected pop-rap featuring Adam Levine on the silky-smooth hook. The previously disinterested millers explode and are soon joined by hundreds more who stream from tents in other parts of the festival toward the muddy pit in front of the stage.
A few songs into the set, Theron looks out at the crowd, and nods. “I see people looking like, ‘Who the hell are these dudes?'” Timothy picks up the thread, “We think y’all know us but don’t know you know us.” And with that the pair kick off a medley of songs they’ve written for other artists — i.e., the work that has kept them well-fed for the past few years: Nicki Minaj’s “Only,” Usher’s “I Don’t Mind,” Rihanna’s “Pour It Up.” The audience screams their approval. When the clouds open and the rain begins to fall in heavy sheets just before the pair launch into “Locked Away,” no one scurries for cover.
R. City’s road to success has been longer and harder than most: two desperately poor kids from an island of 50,000 people, clinging tightly — for more than two decades — to the belief that they’re going to be international recording stars one day.
“My daddy was considered crazy,” Theron says. “He was just a real non-traditional cat. That’s why me and my brother are such strong believers in creating our own rules. Only crazy people are remembered.”
The R. City story really starts with their father, Miguel “Kiebo” Thomas. Kiebo was a die-hard hip-hop head on an island of calypso fans. He was a basketball star, a black activist and a burglar. The five years he spent in prison when Timothy and Theron were kids — and their mother’s continued devotion to him through it all — inspired “Locked Away.” He was a guy who kept duffel bags of weed in his closet but threatened to “tear the ass” out of either of his sons if he caught them smoking with their friends. He was also the group’s first manager.