Show & Prove
Words: Kathy Iandoli
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

In the heart of the summer, Drake released a music video for his inescapable hit “In My Feelings,” a clip seeped in homage to various corners of Black culture with a cameo from one-half of rap’s newest and brightest duo. In the video, Caresha Brownlee, known to the world as Yung Miami of City Girls, gyrates on a balcony as she overlooks New Orleans’ Bourbon Street. She’s donning a yellow leotard with an airbrushed portrait of her groupmate Jatavia “J.T.” Johnson, who is currently serving a 21-month prison bid for identity theft. In another shot, Caresha’s draped in a denim jacket with “Free J.T.” on the back. Drake shouts out both rappers on the song’s hook—a verbal compensation for the sharply sassy vocals they lend to the track. “We was like, ‘Drake said our name! Drake said our name!’” Yung Miami recalls of their first time hearing the track. “We was buggin’ out. We did that song and was like, ‘Send that to Drake right now!’”

Miami is slumped in a cushioned chair at Manhattan’s The Time New York Hotel, remembering that moment as she thumbs through messages from J.T. via prison email service CorrLinks. She’s scheduled to video chat with her partner-in-rhyme three hours from now, yet is keeping her updated in real time about this interview. “J.T. said, ‘Make sure you tell them I’m chillin’!’” Miami relays, brushing her pin-straight flaxen tresses from her face. The incarcerated member is in the loop every step of the way. “We talk every day,” Miami adds. “It feels like she’s still here.”

It was Drake’s name-drop, in fact, that bought J.T. time to perform at the 2018 BET Awards on June 24 before she turned herself in the following day to begin her sentence. She spent those final hours focused on sustaining City Girls’ quick ascent in her absence. J.T. had dinner at hometown steakhouse Prime 112 with Miami before recording well into the morning hours, stockpiling music. “I didn’t leave the studio until around 10 a.m. and had to turn myself in at 2 p.m.!” J.T. recalls over email. It was time well spent. She says she recorded four songs while sitting with Pierre “Pee” Thomas, one of her label heads who, along with Kevin “Coach K” Lee, founded Quality Control Music, the Atlanta-based powerhouse known for discovering and breaking acts like Migos and Lil Yachty. “When I first heard the City Girls I heard something that was fresh and wasn’t in the market place,” says Coach K. “I could see they were so authentic and real. They weren’t scared to voice who they were.”

The story of City Girls starts in Miami. The two artists met as teenagers and within a short time, J.T. was sneaking into nightclubs with finesse and relaying all of the details to Yung Miami. “My mom wouldn’t let me go to the strip clubs,” Miami, now 24, says with a sigh. “But the reason why my mama wouldn’t let me go is because she was in the club at the same time.” Eventually, J.T. wanted to make the music that she heard in the clubs. She called upon her friend for assistance. “She was like, ‘Let’s do this song,’” Miami says of J.T. “I was like, ‘Girl what?’ It’s not like I was an aspiring rapper or I was really good at rapping.”

The resulting track became “Fuck Dat Nigga,” a menacing-yet-fun cut in which the girls present a laundry list of needs, starting with the line, “Give me the cash, fuck a wedding ring.” In August 2017, City Girls independently uploaded the buzz track to SoundCloud, where it quickly racked up 200,000 streams. Social media took the track viral, helping them land a deal with Quality Control just three months later (the song was bundled into the label’s Control the Streets Volume 1 compilation album, released in December). “When ‘Fuck Dat Nigga’ started getting us booked for shows, I’m like, ‘Maybe we can do this song ’til they stop booking us,” J.T. writes. “Then when QC reached out to us, I’m like ‘Oh shit, I can actually be a rapper.’ I always knew how to rap, just never seen it as being a career,” Miami adds, “I never been in the studio before until I recorded [‘Fuck Dat Nigga’].”

In just a year, Yung Miami and J.T. have made their mark by delivering no-nonsense, unfiltered hip-hop to the masses, striking chords with their badass behavior both in the streets and on wax. City Girls’ debut mixtape, Period, which caught Drake’s attention when it dropped this past May, exhibits a sexually free sound reminiscent of local legend Trina mixed with the trailblazing brazenness of Lil’ Kim. “Men take women’s kindness for weakness so we finna tell these niggas, ‘Fuck them, we want our money. We demand it,’” Miami explains. “The music is kinda like, ‘We ain’t takin’ no ish from no man.’”

Back in her hotel room, Yung Miami is curled up on her bed while awaiting J.T.’s video call. If all goes well, she’ll schedule future calls during City Girls concerts so J.T. can be a part of the action while she’s away. “I always tell [J.T.], ‘It’s a minor setback for a major comeback,’” Miami says. “We both is all for each other. She’s all for me, I’m all for her.” While J.T. is anticipating an early release, she’s taking this all in from behind bars. She’ll come home far more famous than when she left—fans have been plastering the hashtag #FreeJT all over social media, awaiting City Girls’ reunion. “It’s kinda unbelievable because you don’t see much behind these walls,” J.T. admits. “I don’t have Instagram or much here, so I have to go off what people tell me and I still don’t believe it. I can’t wait to come home to see and feel the love.”

Esdras Thelusma

Check out more from XXL’s Fall 2018 issue including Meek Mill's letter to his younger self, Show & Prove with Gunna, our interview with Juice Wrld and more.

See Photos of Meek Mill for XXL Magazine's Fall 2018 Cover Story