This article appears in VICE Magazine's 2019 Profiles Issue. This edition looks to the future by zeroing in on the underrecognized writers, scientists, musicians, critics, and more that will shape our world next year. They are "the Other 2020" to watch. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.
Diamonté Harper, better known as Saweetie, had been working since 5 a.m. when I spoke to her on a Friday afternoon in October. She said she was tired—the young rapper had been traveling nonstop for weeks—but for Saweetie, hard work is nothing new.
She was born and raised in the Bay Area and then moved to LA, where she first garnered social media fame in 2017 for her car raps: short, candid clips of her casually rapping over a hip-hop instrumental in the driver’s seat. If you go back far enough on her Instagram, you can still find them. She posted these videos often, showing off her smooth style and lyricism with intricately written verses and a playful flow.
The single “ICY GRL,” Saweetie’s introduction to the mainstream, was born from one of these clips. Now, two years later, that music video boasts more than 86 million views on YouTube. In that time, the half-Black, half-Filipina rapper released two EPs, performed another hit single, “My Type,” at the 2019 BET awards, and started a romantic relationship with Migos’ rapper Quavo. Saweetie chalks up a lot of this success to her work ethic, and her dedication to keep growing regardless of what obstacles stand in her way.
Despite her rapid rise to fame in the past year, the 26-year-old remains humble and is more focused than ever. And as 2019 comes to an end, Saweetie’s on the precipice of becoming a household name. For her, that’s only the beginning.
VICE: Could you tell me a bit about how you got started rapping?
Saweetie: As a little girl, I originally wanted to be a singer, but I couldn’t sing like that [ laughs], so those dreams died very fast. But I always loved expressing myself: I’ve been writing poetry since I was 14 years old. I was kind of introverted with my feelings—I’m cool to socialize; that’s another thing—but I express myself best on paper.
What inspired you to start incorporating music into your poetry?
For me, it’s like, writing poetry [with] no beat is cool. You’re able to create the beat in your head. But once I realized that hip-hop is basically poetry over a beat, that’s what got my attention. I feel like rap is just poetry in life form. And there’s different flows, different songs, different ways you can compliment a beat, so that’s what kind of drew me to hip-hop.
So it felt like a natural progression, like taking an existing rhythm and bringing it to life.
I lived in the Bay Area for a while, but I think it’s really rare to see such a big rapper of any kind—especially a woman—come out of the Bay. Has being from there influenced your work? I get that question a lot, and I don’t think I have the proper way to answer it. Bay Area people are really into being unique. We’re into being creative and coming up with our own ideas. We’re hella fly and down-to-earth. So I feel like that’s [the energy] I bring from just being from there. I reference Mac Dre in “My Type,” just taking dope lines and dope ways from the greats of the Bay. I think that’s where I grab my influence from.
I felt that too when I was out there, like no one in the Bay really cares about what’s trendy, or cool in the mainstream.
Bay natives are so artistic because we express ourselves through being creative—whether it’s dancing, painting, styling, rap, or music in general. The Bay is just such a melting pot for different creatives, period.
What inspired you to go to the University of Southern California for school then?
Well, I didn’t want to go to college [ laughs]. I went to high school in Sacramento, and there’s not much out there for entertainment. I went to San Diego State and transferred to USC ’cause I wanted to be in LA. I wanted to be by the music, to be discovered—that’s why I transferred schools.
I had so much anxiety, and I was so stressed out ’cause I really wanted to be in LA. One of my homegirls was an English major, so she’d proofread all my transfer letters and applications for me.
It’s super stressful because it’s competitive, too.
I was literally calling the admissions office maybe like three to four times a week, just asking them hella questions to make sure everything was perfect.
I feel like it really shows off your work ethic, which I know you’ve talked a lot about before.
I’m very passionate and I’m very driven when I’m interested in something. I don’t stop until I get it.
When did you decide that you wanted to do music for real?
When I was in high school, which is why I didn’t want to go to college, because rappers are always talking about dropping out and not going to school and making it with that. That’s why I thought J. Cole was so dope, because he went to school and was still dropping mixtapes. That was very inspiring.
As an Asian American, I think it’s awesome that you advocate for being half-Asian. Has that impacted your music in any way?
Sometimes at my shows my fans will bring a Filipino flag because my mom is Filipino. But I think it’s impacted my fans because I feel like there’s never really been a super poppin’ Asian female rapper. A lot of Asian girls identify with me. And I feel like it’s my job to just make them feel fly, to make them feel included, which is why I drop references here and there to let them know where I come from.
Do any facets of Filipino culture show up in your work or process?
Mostly it’s my mom—she Asian, she a tiger mom, so growing up she would always make me do stuff until it was perfect. I think that’s [where I] get [my drive], making sure everything is perfect and going over every little detail because my mom was really hard on me as a kid with homework and projects.
I want to shift a bit and talk about the “Icy” movement. “Icy Girl” came out in 2017, and it really started putting you on the map. What does being an “Icy Girl” mean?
A lot of people think that being “icy” is having all this jewelry and clothes. But if you really pay attention, my fans—my real “Icy Girls”—notice: I didn’t have any of that shit. So for me, “icy” is more so a mentality, a philosophy. I feel like an “Icy Girl” is a hustler. She’s independent and unapologetic. I say hustle because I was working three, sometimes four jobs in college. I was paying my own bills, taking care of myself.
And on top of that, she’s unapologetic. I know sometimes I get criticism for doing things that are “off brand,” but I think the dope thing about my brand is that I don’t box myself in. So I might do stuff that might shock people, but you can’t block me. I’m gonna do whatever I want. So I feel like that’s what an “Icy Girl” is—a boss-ass, independent-ass woman.
I love that part about being unapologetic, because I think that women can be so reactive to criticism because we get it so often.
Definitely. I like to show people that although I might receive a lot of criticism, when you poppin’, that’s what comes with the territory. So if you can’t handle the heat, get out the kitchen. But if you’re going to be poppin’, then you’re going to be in the kitchen.
Does the criticism ever get to you?
I’m a human. So sometimes I do take things personal and want to fight [ laughs], but I can’t argue with everybody. I feel like it’s important for me to work on my mental toughness, because at the end of the day, I choose where I send my energy.
Do you feel like you’re more heavily scrutinized because you’re a woman?
I think women in hip-hop have a history of just being scrutinized, period. If you’re doing something wrong, you’re never gonna have the benefit of the doubt. But if you’re doing something right, then it’s like, Oh how is she getting this? or How is she getting that? It’s unfortunate that women are put in that position, but I feel like hard work pays off. And longevity. And being constant—the memory of great work. When you do that, people fucking shut up. So that’s what I want to do, keep putting out great, bomb-ass content.
You’ve been collaborating with some other dope female artists, like City Girls and Jhené Aiko. Are you planning on doing more of that?
For my next project, I am. I’m very stingy with my records—I love writing to the whole beat and finishing the whole song. But I think for this EP, I’m going to collaborate more. There are some artists I have in mind.
Can you tell us anything about the new record?
We were actually planning to release an album but I feel there’s a little bit more… artist soul searching that I need to do before I release a body of work like an album.
Are you still working on finding your sound?
Finding a sound is constant. You know, as an artist, I feel like there’s two ways: There’s finding your sound when people hear something that reminds them of you, and then once you find that sound, there are other sounds you can add. I feel like I’m still in that first stage, but I’m getting close to finding what my sound is, what my purpose is, what my mission is—what I want to represent as a woman, as an artist, and just as a person.
So it’s more about coming into who you are as a person and presenting that back out as Saweetie.
Definitely. These last two EPs have taught me what I like, what I didn’t like, and one thing that I really want to focus on is purpose. Because you know, I’m known as a bomb-ass, independent woman—that’s what comes across in my music. But there’s much more to my brand than that. So I’m just figuring out what these things are, but empowering men and women through my music is what I aim to do. That’s one of the main things people take away from listening to my songs.
What do you have planned for 2020?
I feel like the foundation has been made in music. People know me as an artist, OK, great. But there’s more to me than just music. I’ve been acting; I’m on full episodes of this recurring series. I’m super excited about that, looking at a couple movies. We have my business ventures. I just did a collaboration with PrettyLittleThing for fashion. I have another coming out soon for my own beauty line.
My brand is more than music. It umbrellas so many different avenues that I’m interested in—and I think that’s what’s so cool about music and why it’s such a blessing. I’ve always been interested in these things, but music has opened the doors to allow me to do [them].
You’re right— it’s so much bigger than the music. It’s giving you the access to be able to come into your full potential.
And I think what’s so cool about my brand is that like, college girls, Asian girls, girls from the Bay, girls from Sacramento, girls who can identify with me—I just make them feel like they can do it, too. So if I’m making myself happy and inspiring other women to make them feel like they can do it too, I’m proud.