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How Rod Wave made it from St. Petersburg to music stardom

You can call it pain music, but Rodarius Green’s rise is an inspiration to his passionate fans, as seen at his Tampa concert.
Rod Wave arrives on stage during his SoulFly tour concert at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre in Tampa on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.
Rod Wave arrives on stage during his SoulFly tour concert at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre in Tampa on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Sep. 22
Updated Sep. 22

TAMPA — Rod Wave hasn’t arrived yet, but his dressing rooms are filling up fast with friends and family an hour before the biggest concert of his life.

Ceiling fans in the walkway outside stir a swampy Florida breeze scented with cannabis smoke seeping from VIP trailers. Backup dancers in glittering jumpsuits pop in and out of doors.

Rod was 13 the first time he visited the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre to see Lil Wayne. Now, at 23, he is returning for as close to a hometown show as his SoulFly Tour gets. He’s about to play the largest audience he’s ever headlined — 10,299 announced fans.

Way before the multiple platinum albums and the Tonight Show appearances, Rod was born Rodarius Marcell Green in St. Petersburg.

His music, inspired by his experiences of heartbreak and trauma in the Sunshine City, is shaping culture on a national scale and connecting to a broad audience dealing with their own struggles.

An entourage takes shape backstage on this September night. There’s his manager, “Uncle Dee.” His tour DJ, who is his cousin. His videographer, who constantly captures the documentary-style tour footage signature to Rod’s music videos.

Rod’s engineer travels everywhere in case Rod wants to record at 4 a.m. in an Airbnb closet or an airport lounge. He’s telling the story of Rod doing the vocals for certified gold hit Brace Face with a hotel comforter over his head. He’s never seen him once write down a lyric.

An Alamo Records executive half listens while texting. He’s coordinating a meeting after the show with a 15-year-old cancer patient whose greatest wish is to meet Rod Wave.

His fans are the type to go hoarse shouting every lyric. Not just the hooks. Not just the hits. They’ll recite every word.

“We call it the choir,” says DJ Fizzumfade, real name Coby Green.

Related: St. Petersburg native Rod Wave scores No. 1 album in U.S.

Rod had wanted to perform this show at the 2,000-capacity Jannus Live in downtown St. Petersburg.

“I had to tell him,” says his booking agent, Andrew Lieber, who just walked in, “Rod, I’m sorry, you’re too big.”

St. Petersburg is in the house. Not only on the special viewing platform backstage holding four generations of extended family, including his grandmother in a dress reading “I’m his Nana.” And not only on stage, where Rod’s “brothers,” by blood or in spirit, will join him. Even Rod’s barber, the proprietor of St. Petersburg’s Chill Will Fresh Cutz on Martin Luther King Jr. Street S, is traveling with the tour.

But mostly St. Petersburg is in the seats, with the hometown fans who’ve never met him but feel they know him, and more importantly, that he knows them. Some bought outfits for this show at Graffeti, the 34th Street S clothing store where Rod shot his first music video at age 16.

This is a fragment of the human orbit around Rod, who often sings of social anxiety and a need for solitude, with a track called Popular Loner on a mixtape titled PTSD. He did not speak with the Tampa Bay Times and does not do many interviews.

Finally, a clock above the stage ticks down to zero, and he rises out of the floor to the first notes of Street Runner, a ballad of road-weary loneliness and sacrificing to achieve your dreams. Rod is here, having arrived quietly at the last minute.

A kid with no vocal training from one of the poorest and most violence-prone parts of St. Petersburg is draped in gold and diamonds. His tattooed forearms read “Hard Times.”

Fans cheer after counting down to Rod Wave’s performance during his SoulFly tour at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre in Tampa on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.
Fans cheer after counting down to Rod Wave’s performance during his SoulFly tour at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre in Tampa on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The crowd is losing it, singing “I been so zoned out, tryna figure out what’s next. So scared to fail, I’m calculatin’ my every step.”

Want to know the story? Rod asks them through the mic. Then “pay attention to the key words.”

‘Cause where I come from, they ain’t chasing a dream. Where I come from it ain’t safe to believe. Where I come from it’s a race to eighteen. They jump straight off the porch and land straight in the streets.

Thug Life

Rod’s lyrics are hard, but they aren’t about thug life. They’re about ascending from it in the area south of Central Avenue.

If what started there with structural racism and red-lined segregation in the early 20th century led to outsize desperation, crime and poverty in the late 20th, Rod’s music sounds like the millennium that followed. A generation moving forward like a wave, feeling the tidal pull of the past.

Ashley Colas, 30, in the audience for Rod Wave in Tampa.
Ashley Colas, 30, in the audience for Rod Wave in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

You can call it rap or R&B, but pain music is as accurate. It is touched by death, loneliness and the lure of dangerous money. Speak to local fans and their responses often boil down to this: His pain is our pain, his success our inspiration.

“It speaks for what a majority of people here go through, at least to some degree,” said Brandon Boyd, a St. Petersburg native who toured with Rod as DJ Nephew in 2019. Boyd was thrown when partiers at local clubs would beg for Rod’s slower, sadder songs. Now, he always has three or four of Rod’s records planned for every set.

Rod’s appeal goes beyond folks familiar with the streets. His lyrics are rarely specific. They’re more like a raw nerve anyone can graft their personal troubles onto.

Romantic heartbreak, a common Rod theme, never goes out of style. But think bigger. His own Generation Z is experiencing historic rates of depression and anxiety, or is at least more likely to admit to mental health struggles. Pain is mainstream.

And then there’s that voice, mournful and enveloping. If the external circumstances of Rod’s life, every person and situation good or bad, are the yin of his art, his voice is the yang. Both are necessary for the whole, but neither is more vital.

Music ain’t felt the same since I met Timmy and Queisha.

The Last Sad Song

Rod’s earliest recording, which still exists on Lakewood Elementary music teacher Meghan Alfaro’s computer, was a rap about bones that he wrote and performed at age 9 to help teach anatomy.

He was selected for All-State Elementary Chorus in 2009 and 2010, along with Lakewood Elementary classmates Timmy Jenkins and LaQueisha James.

They traveled beyond the city for performances — a formative experience.

Jenkins remembers Rod teaching him the lyrics to soul quartet Shai’s If I Ever Fall in Love. At lunch, they’d hold the entire cafeteria’s attention by singing.

“I could never forget those days,” Jenkins said. “We were old souls. We loved older music.”

By the end of fifth grade, both their fathers were gone. They acted out in class sometimes, Jenkins said. They lost touch after moving on to different middle schools.

Timmy Jenkins, left, LaQueisha James and Rodarius Green, now known as Rod Wave, at a chorus event in 2010.
Timmy Jenkins, left, LaQueisha James and Rodarius Green, now known as Rod Wave, at a chorus event in 2010. [ Courtesy of Meghan Alfaro ]

More than a decade later, Jenkins was depressed and stressed from the pandemic and other things in his life. He hit play on Rod’s The Last Sad Song and was shocked to hear his own name come through the speakers.

“That one line touched me like nothing else ever has,” said Jenkins, who has started writing music again. “Not because he’s a big star now and he mentioned me, but because of how much we both have been through. The same thing I couldn’t get out of my head was inside of his, too.”

‘Member pops went to prison, unc’ took me inside. Then unc’ went to prison and that s--t whooped me inside. I lost Daijha to cancer, I just got over it. I’m scared to love, so scared to get close again.

Pain

Family life for young Rod centered on an oak and palm tree-shaded stretch of modest bungalows on 13th Street S in the Cromwell Heights area. His roots in the city run deep and branch wide. His “Nana,” Deloris Green-Foster, lived in the same home on 13th with the sagging roof for more than a quarter century and founded Starlights Performing Arts troupe, a nonprofit supporting girls. In a 2018 video, Rod stands in front of her house and points north and south, saying, “I was made down there, and I was raised down there.”

His great-grandmother is Lizzie Donald, 103, and Rod is one of her dozens of descendants in the city. Her most recent birthday celebration, according to the Weekly Challenger, drew a procession of hundreds of cars.

Rod has called his earliest years “peaches and cream.” In a rare extensive interview with DJ Smallz Eyes in 2018, Rod said his father, Rodney “Fatz” Green, was making plenty of money in the streets, and rent, school clothes, Christmas, were covered.

But just before middle school, Rod’s father was sentenced to six years in state prison for gun charges and witness intimidation. Everything changed.

“Uncle Dee” Dereck Lane, a close friend of his father’s and Rod’s manager now, stepped in as the central male presence in his life. A year later, Lane went to federal prison for conspiracy to distribute 8,000 pounds of marijuana.

All my role models thugs, but when they were in prison I was raised ‘round women. I know how to treat a lady.

Your Touch

Rod’s mother, Charmaine, worked for the cable company, but it was tough. They moved around. Both of Rod’s grandmothers and his aunts were formative figures in those years.

Rod’s older half-brother had gotten him into the habit of songwriting after school. His brother was the lyricist, and Rod had the voice, but they were separated when his dad went away.

Rod also was close to Lane’s daughter, Daijha, now a prominent presence in his lyrics, where she’s described as “the only one who understood my pain.” She died from cancer at age 17, when Rod was 14.

Rema hit the window, popped the door for me and Lijah.

Cuban Links

Halfway through freshman year at Lakewood High School, Rod was breaking into cars and houses. He has said he wanted to relieve the financial pressure on his mother.

Police arrested him in 2014, when he was 15, after a break-in on 62nd Avenue S. After the arrest, police said he admitted to taking a .357 revolver from the house and using it to shoot another teen in the foot at Lake Vista Park. At the juvenile detention center, a counselor told him he had post-traumatic stress disorder.

Rod spent months in and out of jail as the case was considered, going to school with an ankle monitor when he was out. There was talk of an attempted murder charge.

Finally, the shooting charge was dropped. The victim called it an accident.

Rod has credited that experience and lessons from his father for taking him off that path. In 2018, he told the YouTube channel Koncrete that he deeply regrets his role in complicating the lives of innocent people.

Rod stayed mostly out of trouble after that, aside from a widely publicized arrest in 2016 when he was caught with a pellet gun in his backpack after a photo he’d taken with it put the school on lockdown. He received probation for the misdemeanor.

Rod got his grades up and his father, now out of prison, pushed him to play football to keep busy.

He rediscovered songwriting around 10th grade. His father got him a microphone. Rod and Lakewood classmate Elijah Simmons, a budding producer, started recording songs, but Rod was shy and uncomfortable with sharing anything publicly.

It was Simmons who gave Rod his stage name, partially inspired by something on a Gatorade bottle Rod was drinking from one day.

“People are going to ride your wave,” Simmons told him.

When their first songs finally went online, his classmates showed interest, and Rod was hooked. A video of Rod singing in a Lakewood hallway took off on Facebook. People in other states left comments. Even teachers started gathering to listen.

Rod sang constantly, even on the football field, said former teammate Erik Hill-Cainion. It became such a problem that coach Cory Moore placed a timer in the locker room to tell players to stop listening and get outside for practice.

I remember my first show, I remember who booked me.

I Remember

His first show was on a school night in August 2016 at a strip club in Clearwater called the Menage Lounge where, to his shock, the couple dozen people in the audience knew all the words. He was 17, rapping next to a stripper pole. It paid $500 and led to more gigs.

The summer before senior year, he released his first music video for the song Gambling, a track originally recorded in the back of a Lakewood High classroom. It quickly amassed tens of thousands of views.

Went to school all twelve years just to get a job selling donuts, man, that’s crazy.

The Greatest

Rod’s first mixtape, Hunger Games Vol. 1, was popular enough that people were recognizing him on the street, but music money didn’t pay the rent after graduation. He got a job at Krispy Kreme. A drive-thru customer asked, “Are you that Rod Wave guy?” He smiled and shook his head no. He quit after two weeks, and later got evicted.

Uncle Dee came home after 10 years, and helped get him back into the studio to record new songs. In early 2018, the startup Alamo Records took a chance on signing him. He dropped Hunger Games 2 and 3 and began a relentless campaign of more than 100 shows, mostly at small clubs around Florida. They started selling out.

He moved a few miles out of southern St. Petersburg for the first time in his life, mostly to avoid trouble.

We went from rags to riches, uh. Project fences, to livin’ luxury.

Rags to Riches

In 2018, he played the small stage at 94.1-FM’s annual Wildsplash concert in Clearwater. A year later, he was the first local artist to co-headline the main stage. In early 2020, Rod cracked the Billboard Hot 100 with Heart on Ice after it went crazy on TikTok.

From there, it all came fast: nationwide fame, expansive homes in Palm Harbor and the Orlando area, luxury cars for friends and family. He rented out the entire Volcano Bay water park at Universal Studios Orlando for his friends. He did NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series and Jimmy Fallon.

He had twin daughters with a woman he’s known for years, but you won’t find her name or photo anywhere. That part of his life he keeps just for him.

He has his own independent label, Hit House, a company he incorporated with his father in 2017, and signed St. Petersburg native OMN Twee.

After a 19-year-old St. Petersburg producer and Gibbs High School grad named Tre Gilliam was given a shot at collaborating on the beat for Rod’s hit Cuban Links, Rod stopped by his house and gave him $3,000 to take the next step. Gilliam went out and bought a new computer and other gear and produced the title track for Rod’s second album, Pray 4 Love, on his own, and now works with other major artists.

Rod also worked with up-and-coming St. Petersburg rapper D’Quaz Davis, or Dee Lee, on a video for the track Not a Skranger, released early this year. Davis, 20, was killed in a shooting in the city in March.

They told me to slow it down, you been speedin’. They told me to slow it down, take it easy.

Through the Wire

The 40-city tour behind SoulFly, which hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, is essentially Rod’s first major tour. A 2020 outing following his second hit album, Pray 4 Love, was canceled after a week because of COVID-19. The idle time was not always good for him.

Rod smashed a 2020 C8 Corvette into a concrete pole on Martin Luther King Jr. Street S and 62nd Avenue S in June of that year.

A month later, he released a video for Through the Wire, a reference to Kanye West’s 2004 hit recorded when West’s jaw was wired shut after a car crash. Standing next to the wrecked sports car on a St. Petersburg street, Rod sings that he was traveling over 100 mph and suffered bleeding in his brain.

Rod Wave in the video for Through the Wire, filmed in St. Petersburg.
Rod Wave in the video for Through the Wire, filmed in St. Petersburg. [ Courtesy of Alamo Records ]

With most concerts still shut down in the fall of 2020, Rod bypassed the major promoters and performed one-off shows at small and lower-tier venues. That October, he narrowly escaped serious injury when a stage collapsed in Atlanta. The promoter for that show said Rod hit him after that.

He returned to Atlanta on Sept. 6 to turn himself in on a misdemeanor battery charge stemming from that incident. He was back on stage 48 hours later for a sold-out show at that city’s Coca Cola Roxy theater.

• • •
Rod Wave on stage in Tampa.
Rod Wave on stage in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The Tampa show is over. Rod, sweat-soaked and grinning, stands in the moonlit private parking area surrounded by family, Rolls Royces and Mercedes. He’s home, but he’ll be gone tomorrow.

He poses for photos with Julius, the boy with cancer from the Children’s Dream Fund.

“Is there anything I could have done better up there tonight?” he asks the boy. “I don’t really know what to say between the songs.” Julius shakes his head no.

I’m in your city tonight. And these lights make me feel so inspired. Going higher and higher and higher. Taking me higher. Higher and higher and higher.

Street Runner