People in the media love to use the term “overnight sensation” whenever anything goes viral. Sometimes, like with the Shiggy Dance, it applies. Other times, it doesn’t.
Last October, when Bay Area-born, Sacramento-raised rapper Saweetie freestyled over Khia’s early aughts hit “My Neck, My Back (Lick It),” it took five months after she originally posted what would become “ICY GRL” for the track to go viral (53 million YouTube views and counting, plus a recent feature on HBO’s Insecure). Still, outlets like the Los Angeles Times and Power 106 called her an “overnight sensation.” Unsurprisingly, the 25-year-old disputes that claim.
“I fell in love with music when I was 14,” says Saweetie, in between takes during a photoshoot at Mack Sennett Studios in Los Angeles. “So I’ve been trying to do music for the past 10 years.” She pauses, not for the camera, but to make a point. “It definitely didn’t happen overnight.”
At the root of what contributes to the careless throwing around of this term is age. When a young person—say, a 25-year-old—achieves something great, they’re often referred to as an “overnight sensation,” despite the fact that many of them have been grinding for years to find success. We forget about people like Mozart, who was said to have composed his first pieces of music at 4 years old, or actress Quvenzhané Wallis, who earned a Best Actress nomination at 9 years old. Instead, we equate youth with lack of experience or dedication to one’s craft.
Saweetie was born Diamonté Harper on July 2, 1993 to a Filipino mother and a black father. She didn’t have much of a childhood growing up. Her mom, who gave birth at 17, was essentially a child herself, so according to Saweetie, she was treated as a member of a “team” rather than a normal kid.
“I wish I could be more carefree,” she says, reflecting on her upbringing. “I grew up fast.”
It makes sense, then, that she was already working toward her dreams as a young teenager. With encouragement from her mother, Saweetie started writing poetry, but eventually pivoted to rap after hearing artists like J. Cole. She performed her first-ever rap in her Algebra II class, and her friends’ response to it is what inspired her to stick to bars.
“Music was just my way of relieving whatever emotion I was dealing with,” she says, before laughing at her younger self connecting with songs like 2Pac’s “Me Against The World.” “[It’s] so dramatic.”
Saweetie has certainly felt like it’s her against the world; in fact, according to the Los Angeles Times, she had $40 to her name when she wrote “ICY GRL”—representing a stark contrast to the braggadocious lyrics in the song. But that was the point.
“I made it to motivate myself. It was kind of like my anthem for lifting up my spirits,” she told Vibe last fall. The former Pigeons & Planes “Best New Artist of the Month (January 2018)” has motivated more than just herself; Saweetie often receives messages from young fans who say that her music helped them through tough times.
“I feel like music is, you know, made to inspire, to heal, and to cope with,” she explains. “So, I hope that when my fans, or even just people who stumble across my music, I hope they get some type of feeling from it.”
Looking through Saweetie’s Instagram, which is where she first started posting her music, it’s easy to see how fans could feel so inspired. Sure, she currently has over one million followers on the platform, and there are designer clothes and accessories galore, but if you scroll back to last year, you’ll find her “car raps”—just Saweetie, the driver’s seat, and a beat.
The humility in these early videos stands out compared to the designer clothes and “icy” looks she’s rocking today, but the transition feels less like a switch up and more like realized aspirations in real time. On “ICY GRL,” she raps, “Ask me if I’m rollin’ with some Gucci, bitch, I might be.” Today, the question no longer applies; Saweetie’s dripping in the luxury brands she’s rapped about for years and is basking in the thrill of victory. But even though certain dreams have been realized, she’s not slowing down anytime soon.
"I’m super competitive. I love to win. But when it comes to music, I feel like [my] only competition is me."
“I know where I wanna end up,” she says. “I'm ready to go, and I'm ready to learn. I'm ready to build, and I'm ready to establish my longevity.”
Saweetie is majorly driven. She’s previously been pegged as “a pretty girl with followers that’s rapping,” something she resents. Though she’s certainly interested in fashion and beauty, having starred in a Fenty Beauty Super Bowl ad earlier this year, there are other things that define the young star, like endurance and ambition—traits she likely picked up from her family. Saweetie’s grandfather, Willie Harper, played football for the San Francisco 49ers with Joe Montana in the ’80s. Her father, Johnny Harper, did the same for San Jose State. Saweetie was an athlete herself, setting records in high school for both volleyball and track.
“I’m super competitive. I love to win,” she laughs. “But when it comes to music, I feel like [my] only competition is me. I'm the only person who stands in my way, whether I finish a song or if I'm, you know, struggling. So, I see myself as my own competitor.”
That attitude is also evident in Saweetie’s feelings on the current state of hip-hop, which she says is “getting back to” a place where multiple women can be on top, rather than just one. “It’s dope to just see all these different types of women doing their thing, sharing their story, and putting out great music.” Others clearly feel the same, including Cardi B, who shouted out Saweetie, City Girls, and CupcaKKe in a tweet earlier this month.
Not only is Saweetie a player in this game, but she’s an educated one. She graduated from USC Annenburg in 2016 with a communications degree and an emphasis in business. Though it was difficult to balance her musical aspirations with the practicality of earning a degree, Saweetie says she’s grateful for what the experience gave her.
“After graduating and after gaining the invaluable skill set I now have, I love it. It teaches you responsibility, organization, and, you know, just dope people skills.”
Though she values her college education, much of the knowledge Saweetie carries with her came from outside the classroom, from the women who raised her.
“I definitely come from a line of strong women. So not only my mother [and] my grandmother, but my aunties, too. They're all about their business. They're all hustlers. And they're all about their money,” Saweetie laughs. Yet it’s clear that the philosophy has stuck with her. “My grandma always told me, ‘Baby, be about your business.’ So I think it's extremely important for me, not only as a woman, [but] as an artist, to know what I'm getting myself into. Making sure that I'm getting paid the right way and I'm managing my money correctly.”
She’s clearly carried this wisdom into her music career; a self-described “hands-on artist,” Saweetie founded her own label, Icy Records, shortly after signing to Warner Bros. in February. With it, she previously told Billboard, she hopes to “help other artists and give them the opportunity that [she] wasn’t given at a younger age.”
"I know where I wanna end up. I'm ready to build, and I'm ready to establish my longevity."
From her childhood and days as a part-time student and aspiring rapper, to being on the come up and founding her own label, there’s one common thread in Saweetie’s journey: hard work.
“I love the hard work. I love working all day. If I could, you know, charge my body up, I would be set,” she says, disproving the tired stereotype that millennials are lazy and entitled. “I have to give 110 percent. It's not sleeping for 48 hours, maybe even 72 hours. That's dedication, that's passion, and that's hard work, ’cause you wouldn't be losing sleep over something you weren't dedicated to.”
Right now, Saweetie is preparing to release her debut album. Details are vague, but she says fans can expect the still-untitled project toward the end of the year. Overall, it’s been a different process from that of creating and releasing her High Maintenance EP last spring.
“[With the EP], I was just recording a lot, and the idea came, why don't we just turn this into a mixtape? And then it became an EP. I took the best ones out of the bunch, the ones that made the most sense together, and that's how it came about,” she says. “This time around, things are a little more organized. The songs are better, the visuals will be better. It's just different, the type of work and energy.”
As Saweetie reflects on where she’s been—crashing in sketchy Craigslist rooms and rapping in her car—and where she is today, it’s clear that she couldn’t be further from an overnight sensation.
“When you have nothing, your only way to go is up. You can only build yourself,” she says. “I worked hard to get here, and there's nothing that can take that away from me.”
For episodes 2 and 3 of our 'Run The Show' series with Saweetie, stay locked to Complex. And be sure to check out Spotify's exclusive podcast with the 25-year-old phenom here.
Interview conducted by Rebecca Haithcoat.
Styling by Toni-Blaze.