It's a little after 10 p.m. on a below-freezing February night in tiny Florence, South Carolina, a town of 38,000 not far from the coast. Just across from the municipal airport — which offers a grand total of three commercial flights per day — Club Compound is overflowing with sweaty bodies. The cavernous flea-market-turned-hip-hop-club contains more than 1,000 college-aged men and women. As strobe lights flash, illuminating the darkened room, boys in hoodies and puffer jackets look on as girls in skintight dresses pass around champagne bottles with sparklers, their glossy curls moving to the throbbing beat.
When Kodak Black comes on, dozens of onlookers scream, pushing closer to the stage and leaning over balconies to get a better view. Now on his 13th tour stop in 30 days, he's dressed in a camouflage jacket and a matching beanie that hides his trademark Bantu knots. He moves slowly at first. Three young women in low-cut, curve-hugging spandex climb onto the stage and start dancing. They clutch red Solo cups and snap selfies as he breaks into his biggest hit, "No Flockin." Standing just five feet six inches tall, Kodak is shorter than the girls in their platform heels, but he struts confidently across the stage, smiling and flashing a mouthful of gold teeth as dollar bills rain down from the ceiling. The crowd sings along from memory, drowning him out as they chant the lyrics:
I ain't getting on my knees, bae,
You bow down to me.
You go down for me,
You lay down,
And do the time for me.
The next day, a teenage fan will come forward accusing Dieuson Octave, as Kodak Black is legally known, of rape. According to the Florence County Sheriff's Office, which was notified after the fan reported the incident to the school nurse at Ridge View High School, she and a friend had traveled more than an hour from Columbia for the concert. Shortly before midnight, they ended up going back to his room at the Comfort Inn & Suites. There, the report says, he "became physically aggressive with her," pushing her into a wall and onto the couch. Though she repeatedly attempted to tell him no and push him off, "even screaming for help," the report notes, he refused.
The rapper allegedly removed her underwear and forced her to have sex with him. He bit her on the neck and right breast. Around 1:30 in the morning, she left the hotel with her friend and went home.
Atlantic Records declined to make Kodak Black available for an interview with New Times, and the conditions of his bond prevent him from commenting on the allegations against him. But on December 1, shortly after posting bond, he alluded to the case in an Instagram post: "I look forward to clearing my name in the near future."
Until details of the February 6, 2016, incident became public last month, Kodak Black was a golden boy, known for the four mixtapes he'd released by the age of 19 — as well as a meteoric rise from Golden Acres, a notorious Pompano Beach housing project, to a deal with Atlantic Records. Though he'd been charged with crimes before, including armed kidnapping and throwing a gun from the window of his black Audi during a police chase, many of his fans saw his lengthy rap sheet as evidence that his music was authentic.
But now, with the rape trial date set for February 8, Kodak Black finds himself at the heart of a debate much bigger than himself. Though the accusations have not been proven, some of his fans are asking: Is he a violent rapist emboldened by his fame and his fledgling career? Or is he the product of larger societal problems, having been raised on a steady diet of misogynistic rap lyrics? And how might the conversation look different if he were white?
Driving west from North Federal Highway through Pompano Beach, the scenery slowly changes. High-rise oceanfront condominiums are replaced by single-story faded-pastel concrete-block houses with patchy lawns and dripping air conditioners. Boat dealers and surf shops give way to stores with bars on the windows, their hand-lettered signs advertising "Cold Beer — Cigarettes — Lotto Tickets — EBT Accepted." Women in fast-food uniforms and nurses' scrubs sit slumped on benches as they endlessly await buses in the blazing heat.
This inland Florida landscape — palmetto bugs, swampy heat, chickens pecking in weedy lots — is the backdrop for Kodak Black's music. Though less than five miles from the Pompano Beach Pier, the Golden Acres Development, where he grew up, feels far from the beachfront bars and volleyball tournaments. Many of the people who live there, including Kodak, have spent their whole lives within minutes of the Atlantic Ocean but never learned to swim. South Florida's relentless sprawl means residents who can't afford cars are effectively locked out of jobs in wealthier communities that require applicants to have reliable transportation.
"Pompano, there's a good side and the bad side," says Choo Choo, a dreadlocked 29-year-old rapper who grew up in the Parkway East housing project, a little more than a mile from Kodak's childhood home. "All the way east, you got beaches and sunny skies. West, you got big houses. We sit in the middle, that urban area. It's public housing. You come up rough. You become what you're around."
The city's geographical divide is the result of decades of segregation dating to the beginning of the 20th Century, when the town's black population consisted primarily of migrant laborers from Georgia, North Florida, and the Carolinas who came to pick beans and other winter crops. The Florida East Coast Railway tracks that run parallel to North Federal Highway separated the black and white sections. When Haitian refugees began arriving during the 1970s, fleeing rampant violence and poverty back home, they found themselves in a society that was racially divided long after the end of legal segregation.
Haitians, who later became the largest immigrant group in Broward County, were repeatedly reminded that Americans had little sympathy for their plight. The U.S. Coast Guard attempted to intercept boats bound for Florida before they left the island's waters. Thousands who made it through the dragnet were incarcerated when they arrived. Those who applied for political asylum were more likely to be turned down than any other nationality.
Those who were granted asylum faced the triple stigma of being poor, black, and Kreyol-speaking while most other new immigrants to Florida spoke Spanish. The long-term effects of that prejudice persist today: In Pompano Beach, U.S. Census data shows that roughly 40 percent of Haitian immigrants live below the poverty line. They earn $15,000 less on average than their white counterparts.
"When Haitians first came to the States, they were not very well received by African-Americans, and they were not very well received by white Americans," says Deion Sainvil, a junior at Florida State University whose parents emigrated from Haiti to Pompano Beach. "Back then, 'Haitian' was an insult. If a Haitian was called a Haitian, they'd be ready to fight."
This is the world that Kodak Black, the son of Haitian immigrants, was born into June 11, 1997. His mother, Marcelene Octave, had four older children, and his father wasn't around. Money was tight, and food was often scarce. He never really got a chance to be a kid. "I was just a little boy, had to raise myself," he raps in "Heart of the Projects," the title track on his second mixtape.
Golden Acres, the Section 8 housing complex where he grew up, was built in 1947 as a camp for Pompano Beach's black farmworkers. Its tree-lined streets and cheerful mustard-yellow houses belie the fact that by the 1980s, the Sun Sentinel described it as "a haven for crack cocaine, crime, and squalor" in which drug dealers, addicts, and prostitutes had taken over vacant buildings. By 1997, when Kodak was born, the complex had been razed and rebuilt. It wasn't the sort of place where you'd have to worry about being hit by a stray bullet, but it also wasn't somewhere many of its residents managed to leave.
"Growing up in Golden Acres, you don't really see a clear path to prosperity," Sainvil says. "You probably think you're going to stay in Golden Acres."
But desperation bred creativity and talent. From this unforgiving landscape, one of South Florida's biggest homegrown stars emerged.
Dressed in a crisp white shirt and a matching sweatband pulled low on his forehead, Drake dances around the cabin as his private jet hurtles through the sky. As he spins around and shuffles from side to side in his characteristically awkward fashion, Kodak Black's "Skrt" plays in the background:
Girl, I'm done with you.
Girl, we done, it's through.
I hit that nigga for the work.
Stick and move, then I skrt skrt skrt.
After the grainy black-and-white camcorder footage is posted to Drizzy's Instagram account October 23, 2015, along with the caption "@kodakblack," it will receive nearly half a million likes and more than 30,000 comments. Skrt, it turns out, is the sound a car makes when it pulls out so fast that the tires' rubber burns — for instance, when you're fleeing the scene of a robbery.
Within a few days of the Instagram post, Kodak is on the radar of every music industry executive in the nation. It's a moment he's been waiting for since he began rapping at 6 years old.
As a kid, he told Los Angeles-based music blog Passion of the Weiss, he found his way into a local recording studio that doubled as a "trap house" where drugs were sold. He'd been inspired by Lil Boosie, a Louisiana rapper whom he considers his biggest influence. "After school, me and all my little young homeboys, we used to rap and try to show off for all the older boys," he explained to writer Torii MacAdams. "I was coming every day after school, in a trap house just rapping. I wasn't sellin' no drugs — I was just in elementary school — I was just coming to rap." The men who worked there — aspiring rappers who sold drugs to pay the bills — ended up being his role models. "How they keep themselves up, I wanted to keep up too. Whatever they mottos is, that became my motto. I looked up to them. Whatever I see them do, I did too."
In middle school, he joined a local rap group called the Brutal Yungenz. J-Black, as he called himself then, was by the far the youngest member of the squad and stood at least a foot shorter than everyone else. When he appeared in the group's music videos, it often looked as though someone's kid brother had wandered into the shoot. But as soon as he opened his mouth, it became obvious that he belonged — and that his raw talent far outstripped anyone else's.
"I already knew he was gonna blow," says Choo Choo, the Pompano Beach rapper. "He was just one of those kids that's always in the studio, always grinding. He had that ambition as a kid. It came from the streets, from the way he grew up. He grew up real fast; all of us did, because our parents don't really be around, and we got to do what we need to do to feed ourselves."
The other members of the Brutal Yungenz were clearly amused. In a YouTube video uploaded in 2009, when Kodak Black was 12 years old, they take turns asking him questions such as "What's the first rule of pimping?"
"The first rule?" he answers in a whispery voice so high-pitched it sounds almost feminine. "This is what you do: You get the girl's number and call them for a first date. Second date —"
"How many days you wait, man?" someone off-camera interrupts.
Little Kodak, his eyebrows raised in mock seriousness, wiggles around on the burgundy couch. "On the fourth day," he answers decisively. "And she'll say, 'What took you so long to call me?' And I'll say, 'I've been busy.'?" He stuffs a handful of cookies into his mouth and then declares with straight-faced confidence: "Girls love a Brutal Yungen."
By the time he turned 15, the group had drifted apart. He began posting his own music on YouTube, freestyling over songs by 2 Chainz and Wale in addition to writing his own. Then he became affiliated with another local group, the Kolyons. A sense of frustration simmers in his music from this period that peaks in "Diary of a Brutal Kid," where he recites the discouraging comments he hears from promoters and kids at his school:
And they say, "Boy, you will never be shit.
"All the songs that you make never turn into a hit.
"Don't care if you go platinum, I won't buy your shit."
A.D. Julien, the 35-year-old CEO of Oakland Park-based Dollaz and Dealz Entertainment, worked with the Kolyons. Young Kodak reached out to him, saying he wanted to become a solo artist. "I didn't really take him that seriously — he was, like, 15," Julien recalls. "But I'd take him to the studio and come back in two hours, and he'd be finished with three songs, so I knew he was hungry. After a few months, I sat down and listened to all the music he'd recorded, and I was blown away." He immediately decided to sign him.
Kodak was not only rapping about crimes but also committing them. Still in his midteens, he faced a punishable-by-life charge for carjacking. Julien drove him to his court hearings, giving him pep talks along the way. And Julien paid for a lawyer who got the charges reduced. "I was just trying to take his mind off things, telling him to keep recording," remembers the producer, who is serving a one-year sentence for possession of crack cocaine and MDMA. "I told him: 'Worst-case scenario, if this does happen, I'm gonna put out this music so that when you come out, you'll have a better situation to come home to.' The way I look at it, when you're working with an artist, it's not just business; you're part of their lives."
Once free, Octave returned to rap with new determination. In 2013, he signed up for Instagram using the name Kodak Black. ("He had a Kodak smile, like a mischievous smile," Julien explains. "He's a menace, but then he smiles and he's not that bad.") That December, he dropped his first mixtape, Project Baby. His voice had deepened into a thick Southern drawl, and the lyrics described a life of crime. "Me and my nigga running crazy home-invasion shit," he raps on "Ain't No Faking It," and there was no reason to think he was exaggerating. Still, he had a goofy, unabashedly childlike side. In photos, he'd pose with a mouthful of spaghetti or a $100 bill plastered to his forehead, his wide grin showing off a mouthful of gold teeth.
Though Pompano Beach had a large underground rap scene, Kodak Black had to hustle to get noticed outside Florida. "A lot of people in the rap world wouldn't recognize Broward, because Miami is the focal point of the industry," his producer, Dubba-AA, says. "If you know anything about urban communities, we don't have the resources to put out music. They'd print out a thousand CDs, and he'd hand them out at car shows. He'd travel to Palm Beach, Tallahassee, wherever there was a major event happening."
The next year, at the age of 17, he released his second mixtape, Heart of the Projects. By then, more than just Florida high-school kids were listening. The website Hot New Hip Hop called him the best high-school rapper in the nation. "No Flockin," which warns about the dangers of flakka, became a viral hit on YouTube. But he wasn't yet successful enough to give up on crime. His frequent trips in and out of juvenile detention centers meant he missed class, fell behind, and eventually dropped out of Blanche Ely High. He earned his GED while incarcerated.
And then, in October 2015, during what would have been his senior year, the Drake video came out. Kodak quietly signed with Atlantic Records and dropped Institution, his third mixtape in as many years. As the title suggests, it's primarily focused on his run-ins with the law. "I had to sneak a pen in my cell to write a rap," he recalls on "In Too Deep," which details his experiences as a serial burglar. "Livin' in denial, juvenile back to back./Hit your house, throw all the gold in a pillow sack."
Though plenty of rappers adopt a persona to seem "street," that's not true of Kodak Black. Just a week before he was featured on Drake's Instagram account, he was arrested on charges of robbery, battery, and kidnapping after beating up a guy identified in the police report only as "Juan." Adding to the severity of the charges, several juveniles, including one who was under the age of 13, told officers the rapper had threatened to hurt them if they didn't get into his new Audi and show them who'd broken into his house. He was released on bond and flew straight to New York for a photo shoot with XXL, which in June named him to its "Freshman Class" — an annual issue that spotlights the ten hottest up-and-coming rappers. His mother wept when she saw his picture in the magazine.
Then, while he was still out on bond in April 2016, Hallandale Beach Police officers spotted him parked outside a notorious drug house while his passenger, 18-year-old Wisdom Williams, purchased a baggie of marijuana. According to the arrest report, Kodak sped away and threw what turned out to be a loaded Glock into a dumpster before surrendering.
While awaiting trial, he released his fourth mixtape, Lil B.I.G. Pac, whose title references his intention to be as big as Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. "Kodak Black may be an unlikely savior for a hip-hop industry that has lately been preoccupied with melodic-minded Drake clones," music critic John Caramanica wrote in the New York Times in June. Pitchfork labeled Lil B.I.G. Pac one of the top 20 rap albums of the year.
After spending several months in jail, Kodak went before the court in August 2016. After hearing Atlantic Records executives' testimony about his promising music career, Judge Lisa Porter cut him an unusually generous plea deal: He'd do no prison time as long as he completed mentoring, drug abuse, and anger control programs. He would also have to perform 300 hours of community service and spend a year under house arrest. "What happens here on out is up to you," she warned him, pointing out that he could face up to 55 years in prison if arrested again.
But just hours after he was told he could go home, prosecutors discovered two other active warrants: One was for marijuana possession in St. Lucie County. The other was for criminal sexual conduct in South Carolina.
At a Thursday-night basketball game against Plantation High, Kodak Black's "Fourth Quarter" echoes off the whitewashed concrete walls of Blanche Ely High's gymnasium. Just a day earlier, the arrest warrant detailing his rape charges had been released and quickly made its way around the internet. But the teenagers who fill the orange-and-green plastic seats aren't bothered. They start to dance, some of them breaking into his signature move, the Kodak Bop.
"No one reps Kodak harder than Blanche Ely," says a short girl with glasses who's dressed in a Tigers cheerleading uniform and wearing a big white bow in her chemically straightened ponytail. She pulls up a photo on her phone from a recent day organized and named by the kids — Free Kodak Friday — where practically every student showed up wearing a T-shirt reading, "Free Kodak."
"He's the greatest rapper alive," she says, and five or six of her friends nod in agreement, throwing out a list of their favorite songs: "Skrt," "Skrilla," "Project Baby," "No Flockin."
"He doesn't rap just to say, 'I got this, I got that,' like Drake does," Tatiana, a lanky junior in an Aéropostale hoodie, Nike slides, and mismatched socks, explains. "He speaks to us. We relate to the struggle."
What, in particular, can she relate to? "You know. Living in Section 8, being on food stamps. All of that."
Blanche Ely High, originally known as Pompano Beach Negro High, was once at the center of a fierce battle over desegregation. To this day, it remains predominantly poor and black. The school is literally falling apart: The roofs leak so much that students refer to the school as "Blanche Ely Waterpark." On stormy days, the auditorium is filled with buckets collecting rainwater. Voters approved an $800 million bond referendum to fix several dilapidated schools, including Blanche Ely, in 2014; construction has yet to begin.
But the campus brims with talent. Blanche Ely is one of the top schools in the nation when it comes to alumni drafted by NFL teams. The jazz band has won countless awards. Banners celebrating the six state championships the basketball team has earned hang from the gym rafters.
Kodak Black — arguably the school's most famous former student now that Esther Rolle, who starred in sitcoms such as Good Times during the 1970s, has faded from memory — is a major source of pride. Which is why it's not entirely surprising that Blanche Ely students vigorously defend him against the rape allegations. "No way Kodak did that," Tatiana says. "She just wants money. Why else would she say that now, when he was starting to turn his life around?"
Farther away from his home turf, however, some teenagers are boycotting his music. "I just wouldn't feel comfortable listening to his music anymore," Angie, an 18-year-old in Toronto, explains via Twitter direct message. "I can't support or fund a rapist. As a woman and as someone who knows too many victims of sexual assault, his music just doesn't absolve him of the fucked-up shit he's done."
Others are ambivalent, pointing to concerns about a criminal justice system that disproportionately convicts black men and a society that has long viewed them as sexual predators. "It's like when Clarence Thomas was nominated, all these allegations came up about him being a rapist and shit," Diana François, a 17-year-old in Miami, says. Though she considers Kodak Black to be "low-key an idiot," she adds, "He's a fellow Haitian, so I feel obligated to support him."
"When it comes to a black person and the justice system, we're guilty until proven innocent," says Briana Reid, an 18-year-old Broward College student, who sees parallels to the media's treatment of Bill Cosby and Jameis Winston. "Whenever a black man starts something powerful, it seems as though the system of the United States brings him down."
Deion Sainvil, the Florida State University junior whose parents emigrated from Haiti to Pompano Beach, learned the hard way that publicly praising Kodak Black can mean being labeled a rape apologist. After he wrote a short piece in the student newspaper saying Kodak had "won 2016," an angry Twitter mob complained until the paper removed the story. In an eloquent personal essay, Sainvil apologized and explained that he didn't agree with many of Kodak's life choices but had been inspired by his success. "I see Kodak's and my life journeys as something like A Tale of Two Cities," he wrote. "We were almost given the same opportunities and the same upbringing, but we lead different lives."
Until the rape allegations became public, the phrase "Free Kodak" had been ubiquitous in high schools and on college campuses around the country. It appeared scribbled on bathroom stalls, screen-printed on T-shirts, and frosted onto birthday cakes.
But once sexual battery was added to the list of charges, saying "Free Kodak" suddenly became much more complicated. Sanjay, a 19-year-old in Sunrise who didn't want to give his last name because he'd already been harassed online for calling Kodak Black a rapist, initially said he wouldn't purchase the rapper's music anymore. "I really don't want to support him financially," he explained. "He doesn't deserve fame or support from the Broward community if it came at the cost of a woman's body."
That was December 5. But a few days later, having realized that many of the artists he listens to — including Tupac, R. Kelly, and CeeLo Green — have faced similar charges, he was no longer so sure. "I've been doing a lot of research, and I feel like it's hard to make a decision about Kodak until the court ruling comes out," he said. "He will continue to be a huge hip-hop name for our generation regardless."
Kodak Black's red BMW X4 is parked in the garage of a two-story terra-cotta-roofed house in Miramar, on a quiet street lined with palm trees and newly built McMansions. A ride-on toy BMW in an identical shade of red sits next to it. The miniature car belongs to his toddler son, King Khalid, who already has his own Instagram account with more than 30,000 followers — which shows him smacking an older boy in the head while dressed in an orange Florida Gators romper or posed on a bed while giving the camera a concerned look (caption: "I hope these motherfuckers don't cut my hair.").
K2, as Kodak calls the toddler for short, will turn 2 on March 13. At first, Kodak's producer, Dubba-AA, acknowledges, the rapper didn't think the kid was his. On the 2015 track "Rock Bottom," he took a defiant stance, rapping, "Ho, that ain't my DNA,/I already know I ain't the father."
But a few days before King Khalid's first birthday, Kodak posted a picture of the boy to his Instagram account for the first time, writing he'd had an "epiphany" after his grandfather died: "I Stopped Being In Denial And Took Dat Test Just So No One Can Be In Da Blind. Long Story Short He Came Back Mine 99.9999%."
In May 2016, he filed a paternity suit against Jammiah Broomfield, a 19-year-old woman from Pompano Beach, and Tavon Jaquan Session, a 21-year-old Coconut Creek man currently on probation for burglary charges. (Neither could be reached for comment, but the suit appears to be an attempt to gain custody.)
The family court documents are sealed, but it's clear Kodak is embracing fatherhood in his own distinctive way. An April post on his Instagram shows K2 sticking his hand up an unidentified woman's skirt and is captioned "That's My Boy."
On "Can I," from June 2016's Lil' B.I.G. Pac, he hit a more reflective note, asking:
Can I ball? Can I chill?
Can I stunt?
Would I live long enough to raise my son?
Made something out of nothin'
And nothin' what I'm from
Can your boy do something productive for once?
On December 1, Kodak Black's bond in the South Carolina sexual battery case was set at $100,000. Shortly after that, he strode out of the courthouse in loafers, a Burberry button-down, and khaki pants, looking significantly heavier but otherwise no worse for having spent most of the year in jail.
"I'm happy to finally be going home to my family and friends," he wrote in an Instagram post thanking his supporters. "I can't wait to get back to doing what I love most — working at being the illest rapper alive."
Since then, he's been lying low in a luxury gated community in Miramar. The sprawling subdivision is filled with identical Mediterranean-style houses on identical cul-de-sacs. But a group of sixth-graders from Somerset Academy knows exactly where to find him. "He's over there, in the Santorini Estates," a boy in a blue polo shirt says, pointing across the street. "He's a rapper. I got his autograph."
Reporters are less welcome. "How'd you find this house?" a heavyset man in a gray T-shirt and distressed jeans asks by way of a greeting. "He's not doing interviews right now."
In February, Kodak will return to South Carolina for trial. If convicted, he could face 30 years in prison.
But history has shown time and time again that being accused of sexual assault does little to harm male celebrities' careers. At worst, alleged rapists become the punch line of jokes (see: R. Kelly). At best, they become president of the United States (see: Donald J. Trump).
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In any case, Kodak seems eager to prove he's a changed man. "I ain't going back to my old life. I'm in the shit for real," he wrote on Twitter after his release. A week later, he released a new song, "There He Go," in which he raps, "No more home-invadin' now,/I'm on the radio."
Some in Pompano insist fame has changed him for the better. "I honestly think it's going to make him a better person," says Teejay3k, a local rapper who's known him since the days they played little-league football together. "I think now he realizes, OK, this is my time right now — I can't mess this up."
The realization that he's a father has changed him too, his producer, Dubba-AA, says. "A lot of people are saying he'll go back to jail, but he has a greater purpose now, and that purpose is his son."
It's unclear how fans will feel about the new, law-abiding Kodak Black with a home in the suburbs. (At the beginning of January, he announced on Instagram that he'd purchased a new house, with a pool and a view of a golf course.) After all, he's long been known as a man of the streets. The rapper is aware of the dilemma he'll face. "I feel like in this rap shit, you can't really try to go for too long; bitches try and get at you," he told XXL in January 2016. "Then when you try to stay at it for too long, it looks like there's an image you're trying to put on. Over here ain't no image. I'm just going to make my couple mill and fall back, fuck the fame."