JT (left) and Yung Miami of City Girls photographed on Dec. 4, 2019 at Ambient + Studio in Atlanta. Styling by Law Roach. Christopher John Rogers dresses.
JT (left) and Yung Miami of City Girls photographed on Dec. 4, 2019 at Ambient + Studio in Atlanta. Styling by Law Roach. Christopher John Rogers dresses.
Photographed by Donté Maurice

City Girls Open Up About JT's Jail Time -- And Why They're Ready to Conquer 2020

After a jail stint, a new baby and more than a year apart, JT and Yung Miami are back — and, with new music, ready to prove they’re serious stars.

The Quality Control Music headquarters in Atlanta feels like a fortress — an unmarked, short gray compound with bulletproof windows, tucked between a Goodwill and a dog groomer in the uptown Buckhead neighborhood. Through the labyrinth of offices and recording studios at hip-hop’s most vital indie label flows a steady stream of rappers, videographers and executives, including Lil Yachty, whose red, beaded braids clack as he shuffles around, shopping for rare Jordans on his phone. A giant flat-screen showing nine cameras’ worth of security footage hangs above a separate TV playing sports news. And when a sparkling white Benz truck rolls into one of the frames, I know the littest ladies in rap — JT and Yung Miami of City Girls — have arrived.

Lit within reason, that is: Today is JT’s 27th birthday (the Benz was an early gift from Pierre “P” Thomas, Quality Control’s co-founder alongside Kevin “Coach K” Lee), but she’s due back at the halfway house where she’s currently living by the admittedly generous curfew of 5 a.m. The rapper born Jatavia Johnson has been out of federal prison for about seven weeks, having served 16 months for credit card fraud, but her sentence isn’t technically over until March. So for now, she’s on her best behavior, spending all her time outside the halfway house in the studio, which she has turned into a makeshift bedroom complete with embroidered “CITY GIRLS” pillows. She’s all hype energy, cracking jokes and calling everyone “baby.”

“The City Girls are not subtle — only reason I’m subtle right now is ’cause I can’t do nothing!” yelps JT as she paces around the studio, Styrofoam plate of soul food in hand, nearly knee-length hair swinging around her barely 5-foot frame. “I’m just trying to stay out of jail. But if a bitch try me…!”

Despite her newly hot-pink bob, Yung Miami’s been laying low these days, too: A week after JT’s release, she gave birth to her second child, a preternaturally adorable baby named Summer Miami whose cherubic curls and doe eyes are, her mother swears, unedited in the photos she shows me. The 26-year-old born Caresha Brownlee is at the moment trying to convince her publicist to hook Summer up with a Gerber endorsement deal. “I just can’t believe how cute this baby is!” marvels the publicist. Yung Miami bats her lashes. “Have you seen me?” she deadpans. “I don’t know what’s so unbelievable.”

For the past 16 months, Miami has served as the public face of rap’s coolest new duo: touring solo, shooting videos solo, rocking a tank top airbrushed with JT’s face in the video for Drake’s “In My Feelings,” the Billboard Hot 100-topping hit that featured vocals from the Girls and name-checked them in the hook (“JT, do you love me? Are you riding?”). Less than a year into City Girls’ career, 2018’s undisputed song of the summer made their budding career skyrocket, a blessing from the king of co-signs. There was just one hitch: Drake put out the song on June 29, the night before JT had agreed to turn herself in to the Tallahassee Federal Correctional Institution in Florida to begin her two-year sentence.

That could have capped the Girls’ career before it started. Instead, the ill-fated timing seemed to stoke interest in the duo: Who were these hyperconfident voices snapping, “Fuck that Netflix and chill, what’s your net worth?” By the end of 2018, City Girls had debuted at No. 14 on Billboard’s Emerging Artists chart and scored their first entries on both the Billboard 200 (Girl Code) and Hot 100 (the Cardi B collaboration “Twerk”). But the pair’s come-up was part of something bigger, too: a watershed moment in 2019 for new female rappers, like their contemporaries Megan Thee Stallion and Saweetie, gaining Hot 100 success.

For the first time in — well, maybe ever — it felt like there was finally space for more than one female rapper to shine. And in the case of City Girls, it was the first time a female rap act had blown up since Salt-N-Pepa three decades prior. Nothing about the Girls felt manufactured or media-trained; their songs sounded like two best friends wilding out and talking trash. “The things they come up with end up going viral because it’s hilarious and so many girls relate to it,” says Ethiopia Habtemariam, president of Motown Records, which the Girls are signed to as part of the label’s joint venture with Quality Control. “But it’s just them being their most authentic selves.”

With JT out and Miami back at work, they’re ready to reap the rewards of their perseverance — to show the world, as JT calls it, “City Girls 2.0.” Because they can’t just pick up where they left off before JT went away. In a year and a half, she experienced some of her life’s brightest and darkest moments, as Miami honed both her bars and her performance skills in real time, partially during the first two trimesters of her pregnancy. They’ve seemingly raced against the clock at every stage of their career, but they won’t have a calm adjustment period: Their long-awaited third album is due in the spring, and they’re slated to play both weekends of Coachella.

Meanwhile, the longtime best friends — inseparable since middle school, when they were stirring up trouble in Miami teen clubs — are mostly just happy to be together again. At the top of JT’s Twitter timeline is a photo of the duo in twin iced-out “CITY GIRLS” chains, her head resting on Miami’s shoulder, with the caption, “Obsessed with her. Same wins, same losses.” She can barely contain herself when Miami emerges from an impromptu studio glam session, pink hair tied back in braids. “I love when you like this! You that bitch!” JT gushes as Miami rolls her eyes, smiling. “Girl, you look so pretty — what, it’s your birthday, too?” She giggles. “I’m just kidding. It’s our birthday.”

 


 

The minute she met Miami, JT knew she wanted to be her friend. “Caresha was one of those young ‘It’ girls. I was like, ‘Yo, she lit as fuck!’ ” remembers JT, sitting cross-legged in child-size Jordans and gray sweats.

Miami was a grade younger, but already popular on Myspace. Growing up in Opa-Locka — one of the most violent areas of Miami-Dade County — her mom’s drug-dealer boyfriend afforded their family a flashy lifestyle. Her mom had grown up with local rap icons Trick Daddy and Trina, the latter of whom is Miami’s godmother; going over to Trick Daddy’s for a pool party was just a regular Saturday. But what most impressed JT was that Miami’s uncle was dating Jacki-O, a local rapper whose best-known song, 2003’s “Nookie,” was a pussy-power anthem with lines like, “Police pull me over, they don’t write no ticket/All between my legs, trying to lick it.”

Life for Miami wasn’t exactly as charmed as it appeared: In middle school, around the same time she met JT, her mom went to prison, and Miami moved in with her dad. “With my daddy, it was different; it was like moving from Beverly Hills to the fucking hood,” explains Miami softly. “I missed my mama, and I was just going through a lot trying to figure it out. I kind of felt alone.” JT’s own situation wasn’t so different. She grew up in Liberty City, the neighborhood in which 2016’s Moonlight is set, with a drug-dealer dad who had 16 kids. Her mom was never in the picture. “I was rebellious because I didn’t have my mama around — nobody could tell me what to do,” she says. “When I started hanging out with Caresha, I was pillar to post. I started running away. I didn’t like it at my daddy’s house; I didn’t like it nowhere no more.”

JT started sleeping at Miami’s grandma’s house every night after the girls hit the clubs, “sneaking out, fighting, drinking, being grown — doing stuff we had no business doing,” says Miami. JT had a little hustle selling hygiene products she would steal from drugstores, until business went south after an ill-conceived scuffle with a CVS loss-prevention staffer. “The people inside told me I was going to jail,” recalls JT. “They trying to pull my keys out the car, but you know Altima Coupes got a push start. So I tricked them. I’m like, ‘OK, OK, I’m sorry. Just let me pull in and park my car.’ Rolled my window up, skrrrrrt, pulled off.” She wasn’t caught, but her sister, who was with her, briefly went to jail.

Even in their boosting days, the Girls carried themselves like bosses. It didn’t take long to learn that no matter how much money a man had, he wasn’t to be relied on. “You gotta be careful with them dream-selling-ass men who be like, ‘Baby, when I get this, we gonna live it up; now give me $500,’ ” rants JT, recalling the “man leeches” of her past. “And these rich n—s will sell you a dream, too, so don’t you get it confused. It’s a lot of women out here getting drained.” And anyway, no man was going to hold you down like your best friend did.

When JT hit up Miami in the summer of 2017 to record a dis track about a neighborhood girl talking shit, it was mostly for want of something to do, though JT had been rapping for a while on her own time. When they got the beat from their producer friend Major Nine — a genius flip of Khia’s 2001 hit “My Neck, My Back” — the song immediately went in a different direction. “Give me the cash, fuck a wedding ring!” is the first bar on “Fuck Dat N—a,” a solid introduction to City Girls’ ethos, though back then they were billing themselves as simply “JT & Yung Miami.” It was the first time either had been in a recording studio, but their attitude was undeniable — the track steadily racked up SoundCloud plays and became a fixture on the southern Florida strip club circuit. Suddenly clubs from Tampa to Jacksonville were asking how much the duo charged for shows; they made up answers on the fly. Raw talent aside, they accidentally had become rappers.

 


 

Coach K and P cut casually imposing figures on the leather seats in Quality Control’s main studio. Coach, with his distinguished salt-and-pepper beard, is the smooth talker; P, with his reserved baritone, the self-described “motivator.” Coach built a reputation as an artist manager during the heyday of Atlanta trap, developing the careers of Gucci Mane and Young Jeezy practically from scratch. P had been running his own small label, Dirty Dolla, when Coach approached him to start their own venture. “As the industry started going to a different place, labels started getting rid of artist development; it was more about data,” says Coach. “So when me and P decided to start the label, it was about: ‘Let’s keep the old way, but coexist with today’s time.’ ”

The same year Quality Control launched, Habtemariam — an Atlanta native herself — was named president of Motown, tasked with bringing new life to one of America’s most storied cultural institutions. “Clearly, there was the history, the music, but there was also something about it being the first African American-owned label that went on to have huge pop success and change the culture of this country,” says Habtemariam. “I wanted to balance the history of it while allowing it to be a platform for new talent.” For that, she knew she had to call Coach.

A year into her tenure as president, Habtemariam brokered a joint venture between Motown and Quality Control, under which Motown and other divisions of Capitol Music Group work and distribute Quality Control signees on an artist-by-artist basis. For the first two years, Habtemariam admits, the arrangement was a bit dicey: The first artist signed under the joint venture was OG Maco, a rapper whose fame would prove fleeting. But as Quality Control signed acts from Lil Yachty and Lil Baby to Migos — the label’s marquee act whose 2017 album Culture debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 the same month the Quality Control/Motown deal was announced — and made management deals with Cardi B and Trippie Redd, Habtemariam’s gamble seemed to pay off. The homegrown outfit was breaking artists at a clip some majors couldn’t match. Coach and P’s formula was working, and their ambitions for the label expanded beyond Atlanta.

It was a friend of P’s in Miami, a waitress at a local club, who pulled out her phone and asked him, “Have you heard these girls?” around the same time “Fuck Dat N—a” was blowing up. P was on the fence, but Coach was hooked — the raunchy, boss-bitch raps reminded him of Miami’s godmother, Trina. “When Trina first came out, she had this confidence about the shit she was talking about — you’re like, ‘Who the fuck is this?!’ ” says Coach. When he played “Fuck Dat N—a” for Habtemariam, she had a different association: the freaky, uptempo party rap of the late ’80s and ’90s known as Miami bass, made famous by Luther “Uncle Luke” Campbell and 2 Live Crew, the brains behind the first album deemed legally obscene (1989’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be). It was as if, without even trying, the duo had channeled the full timeline of Miami hip-hop history into something that sounded brand new.

When Coach arranged a meeting with Miami and JT in November 2017, the Girls admit, they had to Google who he was. They had recorded only two songs, but when Coach heard their story, he was sold. “The first thing I asked them was, ‘So, where y’all from?’ ” says Coach with a laugh. “And both of them were like, ‘We from the city!’ Like, together, with attitude!” After the meeting, the girls had a serious talk. “JT was like, ‘Caresha, we can’t sign with that man and waste his time. We is not real rappers; we can’t take these people’s money!’” recalls Miami, sipping a juice box as elegantly as an adult can sip a juice box. “And I was like, ‘Bitch, yes, we can! We don’t got nothing to lose!’ ”

The day after their meeting, JT called up Coach with some information she had withheld: She had accepted a plea deal after being arrested in June 2017 for aggravated identity theft and was due for sentencing in a month. To Coach and P, it was a hurdle, but not a deal-breaker — they had worked with Migos back when the trio’s Offset was locked up, and there’s an argument that the #FreeOffset campaign helped build the group’s buzz. “But there was still two Migos, so it was still a group,” says P. “With City Girls, it was just one, but we was like, ‘[Miami] can do it.’ We had a plan, and it worked — actually, better than I thought it was gonna work.”

Coach and P recruited Drew Findling — the Atlanta-based criminal defense attorney who has represented rappers from Migos to Gucci Mane and who bills himself as the #BillionDollarLawyer — to convince the judge that JT had just signed a record deal, a shot at a new life. The judge agreed to extend her surrender date by six months, giving her time to record. During those months, say Coach and P, JT and Miami lived in the studio, recording two full-length projects — Period and Girl Code, both released in 2018 — and shooting six music videos. “It was radio runs, press, photo shoots — there wasn’t no time for an off day,” says Miami of that time. The hustle helped keep JT distracted, but occasionally she would crack. “One day, we was on a radio run, and she broke down on our way to the station,” remembers Miami. “She was just like, ‘My mind not on this. I’m thinking about turning myself in, and I gotta go answer these questions?’ Like, it’s a lot.”

With JT beginning her sentence the day after “In My Feelings” dropped, she could only witness City Girls’ subsequent explosion secondhand as singles “Act Up” and “Twerk” scaled the Hot 100 (peaking at Nos. 26 and 29, respectively). Still, the best friends talked every day through the inmate messaging service, and JT learned all of Miami’s feature verses by heart. City Girls singles hadn’t yet shown up in the Trulincs system (the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ limited computer database, which includes MP3s for purchase) by the time of her release, but according to Miami’s mom, their latest, “You Tried It,” is now available. (Federal inmates can download only the clean version of a song, however, and listening to a censored City Girls track almost defeats the purpose.) Shirts spray-painted with JT’s face popped up in every City Girls video that dropped during her sentence, which JT laughingly admits she got tired of: “You know how dead people get spray-painted on stuff? I ain’t dead!”

JT speaks of her time in prison in offhand anecdotes, like how she would regularly get yelled at for absent-mindedly calling the guards “baby.” But when I ask her directly, it’s clear she’s not quite ready to talk more deeply about it. “It was some shit I never want to experience again. When you BOP custody, you belong to them,” she says, still pacing hyperactive laps around the studio. “Not to say I don’t ever want to talk about it. But I think that I need to talk about it when I’m helping other people, not so much like ‘me, me, me.’ ” On the day of her release, Oct. 8, she immediately started writing, and “JT First Day Out” dropped the same night. “Been a real bitch way before the fed case/Yung Miami held me down, that’s a bitch ace,” she spit, sounding harder than ever.

Coach, P and Habtemariam all get overcome with emotion when they talk about Miami’s year and a half representing City Girls alone. The less-experienced rapper of the duo, it took months in the studio for her to feel confident as an artist. “Miami didn’t have a window of time to figure things out — she just had to step up to the plate,” says Habtemariam. “The ‘In My Feelings’ video, the tours: She had to carry the load. And she was still developing, learning from a performance standpoint how to do it without a partner there. I was always so proud of her for that. For new artists, period, it’s super tough. You’re in a group with your best friend, and all of a sudden you have to be the one to carry it? That’s real friendship.” Coach and P had to beg Miami to stop performing once she hit her third trimester; JT was counting on her, so she was ready to hold it down to the end.

That ride-or-die sisterhood is at the heart of what makes listening to a City Girls song so fun. And it’s part of why their music has resonated especially with young women, who tend to lose their minds at the opening stabs of “Take Yo Man” or “Act Up” when the duo performs them live. For all their bars about stealing boyfriends out of spite and racking up charges on hapless men’s credit cards, the pair say it is really about girl power. “People get it confused, like, ‘City Girls saying, “Don’t be in a relationship!” ’ ” says JT. “No. If you gonna be in a relationship, make sure he’s a provider. Don’t let him use you or drain you. I’m not saying stay ’cause he’s rich — just don’t let no man suck you dry.”

“Being a City Girl is just being a boss-ass bitch,” adds Miami. “You don’t have to feel nobody but yourself.”

“And feel that n—a’s pockets,” cackles JT.

The Quality Control bosses are pushing for a City Girls album this spring — an official cap to the past two years of drama. But the Girls don’t want to rush it, even though they’ve got more than enough songs recorded — including “You Tried It,” on which JT snarls, “I can wait in the car, I ain’t tryna meet your mama” over a primo strip-club beat. If the world’s going to see the duo together for the first time since it blew up, everything has got to be perfect. “I don’t wanna sound crazy, but I just feel like we can do more,” says JT. “I just wanna get back to … not how we was, but how we need to be.” So they’re still in the studio daily, grinding it out, Miami bringing the baby from time to time and JT crashing in her makeshift bedroom, which is currently overflowing with Louis Vuitton and Chanel bags filled with birthday gifts that would make a scene were they at the halfway house.  

As evening fades to night, before the Quality Control team starts heading home for the day, they unbox a grocery-store birthday cake to surprise JT in her studio turned bedroom (where, five minutes before, I witnessed her strip completely naked with zero shame in a room full of at least eight people). JT grins wide beneath designer sunglasses as everyone sings “Happy Birthday.” The braces she entered prison with are noticeably gone, and she conducts with her acrylic talons, the same pale pink as Miami’s, a fuzzy blue Chanel bag from Lil Baby under her arm. “Let me make a wish, let me make a wish,” she says, and waits a full 15 seconds in silence before blowing out the candles.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 11 issue of Billboard.

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