21-year-old Terrell Davis, known to the rap game as Ralo (his moniker pays respect to his mother’s former boyfriend, a mentor and inspiration who passed away when Ralo was a kid), has changed his life considerably in the last two years. From ages 12 to 19, he was incarcerated 34 times (twice in prison). Last month, he released his third mixtape, Diary of the Streets II, which features Young Thug, Birdman, Future, Lil Uzi Vert and Shy Glizzy. Born and raised in the infamously dangerous West Atlanta neighborhood The Bluff (an acronym for “Better Leave You Fucking Fool”), Ralo now lives in a “mansion in Cascade” (an affluent black neighborhood in southwest Atlanta).
“The mayor stay out here,” Ralo tells me.
Despite entering the drug game at a young age and losing countless friends and family members to violence and prison, Ralo doesn’t think negatively of his childhood. “I didn’t know other people lived better than I did,” he tells me. “I thought everyone’s mom and dad sold dope.”
Ralo tells me that it wasn’t until middle school that he realized his upbringing veered from the norm. He would see kids come to school with new shoes, saying things like, “I need to clean my room.” Ralo didn’t know people had their own room—in the shotgun home (a narrow rectangular house with rooms arranged one behind the other) where he grew up, Ralo, his two brothers, his sister, his mom and his grandmother all slept in the living room. With Diary Of The Streets II, Ralo told The FADER: “My goal is to inspire more people to get in better situations."
It was the drug game, though, and not his success as a rapper—his music career took off when he released a song with Future (“Can’t Lie”) in the spring of 2015—that got Ralo out of The Bluff: “I was never able to produce more money in the rap game than I produced in the drug game. I made $12 million dollars in one year.” But he recently gave up dealing drugs, he tells me, “because I’d rather be broke and free than rich and in jail.”
Prior to our call, I Google him to learn that over the weekend he was caught up in an alleged gun battle with Rich Homie Quan’s crew outside a North Carolina club over claims that Rich Homie Quan stole some of his tracks. Before the call, Ralo’s manager tells me that we can talk about anything but Rich Homie Quan. Despite Ralo’s alleged efforts to stay off the streets (I believe him when he tells me he abandoned that life), he always finds himself back in the thick of it. According to HotNewHipHop, he recently had to tell his crew, “guns down on Young Thug” after their mutual jeweler, Elliott (who also introduced Ralo to Birdman), quashed the beef between them. The website also noted Ralo’s similar vocal approach to his former enemy—“a high register snarl.”
Despite Ralo’s lengthy criminal history, particularly dealing drugs, he’s never been a user.
“I’ve never smoked or drank or done any drugs in my life,” he pauses. “I don’t eat meat either.”
“So what’s your vice?” I ask.
“Music is my vice,” he said without skipping a beat.
Ralo didn’t start rapping until he was released from prison for the first time. He was listening to the radio and realized “none of the rappers were talking about this shit.” They were rapping about “moving bricks” and “killing people,” but it was clear to Ralo that they’d never been to prison because they made it seem exciting—they weren’t addressing the dark side, the hell that is a life behind bars. Ralo sought to deliver a genuine message. In prison, he became a devout Muslim. “Islam is big in prison,” he tells me, expanding that he was drawn to Muslims’ belief “that what we do on earth determines what we get afterward” (meanwhile, Christians believe that anyone who accepts Jesus goes to heaven, which doesn’t make sense to Ralo). His spirituality inspired him to rap about something meaningful.
On “Dear Your Honor,” Ralo makes a heartfelt appeal to the criminal justice system with Shy Glizzy, who shares Ralo’s high-pitched flow: “Before I take this plea / would you listen to me?” Today, he raps about whatever he’s going through personally (on the phone, he expresses anguish over his inability to trust women given that so many abandoned him while he was in prison): “music became my personal diary.”
He goes on to explain the high of being free after being locked up for so long, like the joy of driving with the windows down. “I’m just so happy to drive or swim or touch a tree,” he says. “These n*ggas in prison ain’t never gonna do something like that.”
Ralo has repeatedly watched judges send young men away for 20-30 years with no apparent remorse or understanding that this is “the worst thing you can do to a person.” On his most recent stint in prison, Ralo told me that the judge gave him gang charges despite the fact that he wasn’t in a gang.
When Ralo turned 16, he bought his own place in West Atlanta where all his friends would gather. The crew, which he called “Famerica” (his first mixtape is called “Famerican Gangster”), was actually created as gang alternative. Ralo tells me, “we just wanted to hang out together.”
Famerica is now Ralo’s label, which he hopes to expand as he gains increased success as a rapper. (Famerica is also affiliated with Future’s Freebandz crew; Future co-hosted the original Diary of the Streets with Young Scooter). He told Fierces Corner last month: “what we are trying to do is put the family back in America.” Of the tracks on Diary of the Streets II, Ralo tells me he’s most proud of "My Diary,” which chronicles losing his best friend and Famerica co-founder to what sounds like envy of Ralo’s riches and impending superstardom: “Now I got real big in this rap game and successful making money, he feels he ain’t got what I got.”
But Ralo isn’t in it for the money or the fame; he’s made enough money to be comfortable, and he seems most interested in expressing himself through his music, boosting the visibility of Famerica, and overcoming his trust issues to find a stable relationship. In terms of the future, Ralo tells me, “I really don’t care if I’m rich or broke. Just don’t put me in jail.” I think of the joy he described earlier merely from driving with the windows down.
“Whatever God got for me. Rich, broke, I just wanna be happy.”