In the last verse of Dreamville Records’ video for “Under the Sun,” DaBaby tugs at his Hornets jersey and looks down at the letters across his chest. “I’m from Charlotte,” he raps as he lifts up an oversized gold pendent to show off the name of his hometown.
All three rappers in the video are from North Carolina: J. Cole, who founded the Dreamville label, grew up in Fayetteville and lives in Raleigh. Lute and DaBaby are from Charlotte. Yet these North Carolina artists, who are wearing North Carolina sports jerseys and rapping about North Carolina — “I’m Beatties Ford ’til the wheels fall,” says Lute, referring to the west Charlotte street — recorded the video in the Bronx, more than 600 miles away.
DaBaby, in particular, has introduced Charlotte to the world as a player in hip-hop culture over the past year.
The 28-year-old, whose real name is Jonathan Kirk, amassed more than one billion streams on Spotify in 2019. His second studio album, Kirk, debuted in the number one slot on the Billboard 200 last fall. In December, he was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live where he again wore a Charlotte Hornets jersey. And now on Sunday, he’s up for two Grammy Awards for “Suge,” the single he released with a video filmed in west Charlotte.
After his big 2019, DaBaby joins a small but elite group of musicians from the Charlotte area who made it, including The Avett Brothers, Anthony Hamilton, and Kelly Pickler.
In less than a year, the 2010 Vance High School graduate has gone from playing 800-capacity shows at The Underground in Charlotte to booking 15,000-plus seat arenas and high-profile festival slots at Coachella and Bonnaroo. But so far, his 2020 schedule includes no dates in his hometown.
DaBaby’s last show in Charlotte, on December 23 at Bojangles’ Coliseum, started out the way most of his shows start — with the emcee egging on the crowd and chanting, “Ba-by! Ba-by! Ba-by!”
Then “Suge” began to play, and DaBaby marched on stage wearing a white Gucci sweatshirt.
As DaBaby rolled through his set list, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers were outside the arena, shining flashlights into the rapper’s Dodge Charger after they smelled marijuana while outside providing security before the show. When the show ended around 11 p.m., officers detained DaBaby and charged him with possession of marijuana up to a half-ounce and resisting arrest, both misdemeanors. After transporting him to the sheriff’s department, the officers decided that “in lieu of arresting him,” they would issue him two uniform citations. He was released early the next morning.
“Black Excellence right here in our own city, & they hate it,” DaBaby tweeted the next day.
Ten days later, DaBaby was arrested in Miami for allegedly attacking a promoter over a performance fee and spent 48 hours in jail.
Over the past 10 years, DaBaby has had more than 20 encounters with police in North Carolina that resulted in charges or citations. (Run-ins that don’t involve a citation or arrest aren’t public record.) A majority are minor infractions like speeding or window tinting, but a couple are more serious.
If you’ve heard of any incident involving the rapper it’s probably this one: In November of 2018, DaBaby was in a Huntersville Walmart with his longtime partner, Meme, and their children, then ages 1 and 5, shopping for winter clothes, the Charlotte Observer reported at the time.
After an altercation with DaBaby, a 19-year-old man allegedly pulled a gun and was subsequently shot and killed. Did DaBaby pull the trigger? Details are murky, but DaBaby appears to confirm his involvement in a video, saying he acted in self-defense. DaBaby was found guilty of carrying a concealed weapon and, according to the county District Attorney’s Office, was not charged further, as “prosecutors could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense.”
There’s another aspect of DaBaby’s arrest record worth noting — the overlap between police citations and concert dates in North Carolina.
I went through all of DaBaby’s encounters with police that led to charges or citations over the past decade and compared them to his past concert calendar. In addition to the December 23 incident, DaBaby was also cited on the day of a performance on June 14, 2019 in Greensboro for expired registration and a window tinting violation, and on July 22, 2018 in Raleigh for possession of a stolen firearm. Both were eventually dismissed.
DaBaby’s manager, Arnold Taylor, tells me that it seems like every time the rapper has a show in his home state, police are waiting for him. “It’s really sad because we try not to be the artist that blows up and moves to California,” Taylor says. “We try to really put on for our city and stay here because I feel like that’s important. But it’s pretty bad when you’re getting pulled over and searched like random thugs.”
Taylor, 47, sits behind the desk in his Uptown office where he runs his label, South Coast Music Group. It’s not a glamorous set-up like you might picture, given he signed DaBaby — then known as Baby Jesus, his stage name until 2016 — about four years ago, before anyone knew his name.
Shag carpet covers the floor, and the walls are a yellowish-beige color. On his desk, there’s a to-go bag from Chipotle, a few framed photographs, and a bobblehead of DaBaby.
His start in music came in the ’90s when a family friend gave Taylor a job working at Shazada Records, Charlotte’s first Black-owned record store in Uptown, while he was in high school. From there, Taylor started a record pool for local DJs where he learned how to promote music. For the bulk of his career, Taylor stayed in marketing and promotions, working with artists like the late Aaliyah, Timbaland, and Yo Gotti. Then about five years ago, he decided he wanted to start his own label.
He just needed a “fearless” rapper to sign first. I think you can guess where this story is going …
“Anybody confident enough to call themselves Baby Jesus gotta be hot, you know what I mean?” Taylor says. I nod. “’Cause Charlotte is very conservative. We’re in the Bible Belt. You must be really confident to play around with that in the South.”
Before the rapper could become internationally famous, though, he needed the support of Charlotte. “Charlotte’s a hard market,” Taylor admits.
Many hurdles stand in the way for a street rapper to become a megastar, but one that’s been well-documented in Charlotte is finding a venue. In a Charlotte magazine story last year, local club owners listed a handful of reasons they don’t host many hip-hop shows. “Some genres are more conducive to violence,” Rob Nixon of The Rabbit Hole said in the story, before walking back his statement. “I don’t want to say violence. … Thuggishness,” he settled on.
Taylor also struggled to get DaBaby booked locally.
“It was tough watching us get booked everywhere but our hometown. You know? Eventually … they just had to be like, ‘You know what? Damn. We can’t hate no more.’” Taylor cracks a wide smile. A year ago, Taylor helped DaBaby get a record deal with Interscope Records (it’s a dual deal with Taylor’s label) and has watched the rapper’s career explode ever since.
“Now the city loves us. I mean, the cops don’t love us …” he sighs. “We can get into that.”
Details on DaBaby’s life before rap are limited — Taylor tells me they’re saving the specifics for a movie or something big like that one day — but if you turn to his lyrics, you’ll hear hints of why the relationship between police officers and the rapper could be strained.
“We was in the hood, sellin’ bags, shootin’ choppas,” he raps in “Baby,” a reference to dealing drugs and shooting automatic rifles. And in “BOP,” he raps, “I flew past the whip with that blunt in my mouth. Watch the swervin’, that whip had a cop in it.”
DaBaby still appears with the occasional joint on social media and in his music videos, but Taylor says he isn’t a nuisance. And Rob Tufano, CMPD’s spokesperson, tells me via email the department doesn’t “conduct background investigations for an artist’s prior marijuana use.”
“This city has the most murders (since 1993),” Taylor says, referencing 2019’s homicide total of 107, “so are you really focusing on an entertainer right now?” He claims DaBaby has been getting stopped by police coming to and from his shows for four-plus years.
“(It’s) to the point now we can’t do shows in Charlotte.”
After this most recent encounter in December, CMPD announced it was launching an internal investigation “to determine if officers followed department policies and directives.” According to Tufano, the investigation is still ongoing.
For several years, Taylor says his strategy was to avoid stirring controversy. But this time, he adds, “We just had to be a little more loud. … We didn’t get here by being conservative or being quiet.”
It’s hard to look at DaBaby’s sparkling smile (literally, his teeth are studded with diamonds) and his Charlotte jersey on SNL or attached to a YouTube video with 145 million views and not want to root for him.
He’s a Charlotte artist nominated for not one, but two Grammys. He grew up in west Charlotte and now that he’s rich and famous, he’s not running off to New York or L.A. He’s giving back; just a few hours before he was detained on December 23, he donated 200 toys to families in need.
And now he’s propelling other local rappers — like Salisbury’s Stunna 4 Vegas — to achieve success, too, through his own label called Billion Dollar Baby.
“The way we’re gonna get the city on the map is just making sure that we help each other,” Taylor says of the music community. “If one person gets on, everybody’s gonna get on.”
That’s how it worked in Atlanta at least, he adds.
As Taylor and I talk, a radio in the corner of his office tuned to 97.9 (“Power 98”) quietly plays various hip-hop hits. I can’t miss when “BOP” plays about 20 minutes into our interview, and then “Suge” around 40 minutes.
Taylor smiles. “Oh, here we go again.”
(The featured photo is of DaBaby on the stage at Saturday Night Live. Photo by Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)