It’s just past 1 a.m. and 22-year-old Cristela Rodriguez, for the first time all night, is finally getting a chance to sit down. She has a FILA sweatshirt draped over her torso, aged Vans on her feet and a tired, yet satisfied look on her face as her boys are scattered across a chicken joint near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As rapper Joseph Chilliams eyes a brownie nearby, DJ Dam Dam is sheepishly explaining why he had to patronize an Urban Outfitters to cop his Selena t-shirt.
Moments earlier, Cristela was darting across The Cat’s Cradle, making sure the lights and sound were in order and payment was in hand on the 11th stop of DJBooth Top Prospect Saba’s first tour as a headliner.
Cristela is picking at her meal as Saba bursts down the aisle of the restaurant and plops himself down in the adjacent booth. He balances his elbows on his knees and his head on his folded hands as if preparing to make an utterly important inquiry.
“Can we get internet on the van?” he asks. “I know it’s $38 a day. I’m willing to pay it. Can we do it?”
Cristela shoots an amused glance at him before running through the logistics of getting their van connected to Wi-Fi.
Saba was raised by his grandparents with the help of his biological mother, but with the blessing of his family, he’s now being groomed into a touring artist by his “rap mom,” Cristela.
As his manager, Cristela balances their budget, arranges travel, and “gets him all the information he could ever possibly need,” but Saba is most grateful for the way she protects him and his crew.
“At all costs,” he says.
Just last week at SXSW, Cristela dove into a “two to three hundred person” brawl that broke out during the Pigeons & Planes No Ceilings Showcase. She was determined to pull Dam Dam out of the melee.
“Cristela is just hella strong,” said Saba.
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When his cousin, close friend and PIVOT collaborator John Walt was murdered weeks before the start of the tour, Cristela immediately flew from her home in California to be with Saba in Chicago.
Walt’s death is not just something that happened to the group, says Cristela. “It’s happening every single day.”
Knowing the Gang’s adjustment to never seeing Walt again would not be easy, Cristela wisely arranged for the tour—initially slated to only feature Saba—to include every member of PIVOT Gang—Chilliams, Dam Dam, Squeak and MFn Melo.
Not everyone in the industry looks at Cristela with the same reverence as the young men in PIVOT Gang—and Cristela knows that’s because they’re looking at a woman. She explains how this feeling is particularly evident when men in the music business speak to her male counterpart, Saba’s co-manager Rory Webb, with more respect.
“Or when we’re in the green room, and a crew or an interviewer, or even one of [the PIVOT Gang’s] friends walks in and introduces themselves to everybody in the room, but skips me and every other girl,” Cristela said, annoyed.
Saba never imagined that he’d be managed by a woman, but he sees Cristela’s womanhood as a key asset.
“Cristela approaches things [in] a different way than the ten men on the bus would approach them,” he explains.
The pair met formally about a year and a half ago while Cristela was a junior at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Though she was studying cultural anthropology, she had been prepping for a career in the music business since she obsessed over award shows as a little girl in the Latinx farm town of Madera, California. She was interning at The Catalyst Club, where Saba rolled through for a performance without his manager at the time. Admittedly, he was lost.
Cristela offered to take the reins of his show, and Saba accepted. She helped him navigate the world of a professional performer for the night, making sure he had everything he needed—including his check at the end of his set. After she gave Saba a lengthy ride to his next show in Los Angeles the day after, he told—not asked—his manager to add Cristela to the team. Eventually, Cristela was handed the keys to Saba’s entire musical operation.
Thanks to Cristela’s leadership, and in spite of their deep loss, Saba and co. are having the time of their lives on tour. She handles the business so that there’s room for pleasure.
“We are the most wholesome rap tour,” laughs Cristela, feeling lucky about how simple Saba’s sober love of life makes her job—between shows, the squad spends their time bowling, laser tagging and indoor skydiving. These three weeks on tour represent the most time Cristela and the guys have spent together, and they’ve become deeply attached. Even sitting at different booths at a restaurant creates a mild form of separation anxiety.
“The reason why this works so well is because we’re all family,” said Saba—with Cristela at the head of the table.