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The accidental TikTok star

Sonny had spent years making music for an audience of himself when he began to understand that other people liked it too. The Chicago rapper can pinpoint a few key moments: At a party he went to in 2019, the crowd was dead, and his manager at the time commandeered the sound system to throw on some songs. When he played Sonny’s unreleased track “.Shollam,” the temperature changed in a hurry. Sonny’s funky flow shimmies over a sly, chintzy piano loop and minimalist percussion reminiscent of blog-era Cool Kids. “The whole room got up and started turning up when the song came on,” Sonny says. He remembers getting a similar response in September 2021, when he opened for Chicago pop chameleon Dreamer Isioma at Lincoln Hall. 

But nothing compared to the surprise Sonny got in April 2021. “I’m getting, like, hella notifications on my phone, talking about, ‘Your song’s blowing up on TikTok,’” he says. “But I can’t find it.” 

The song was “Kill Bill,” and Sonny couldn’t find it because it had gone viral in an unauthorized remix. It had first appeared on his project Golden Child, released in 2020 under the name HateSonny. Foreboding church bells set a chilly mood, given a serrated edge by Sonny’s growled vocals and clipped, efficient lines. 

Once friends started forwarding Sonny videos from TikTok, he noticed that they all used a version of “Kill Bill” that sounded off to him. It was a sped-up edit that smeared his vocals and distorted the bass—this “Kill Bill” sounded as jittery and disorienting as lotto balls in a raffle drum, as though it were shaking itself apart.

The huge number of people hearing Sonny’s music this way presented an unusual problem. “We hadn’t released a fast version,” says Erich Siebert, Sonny’s manager. “So there was no metadata in the sound that pointed it back to us. Nobody knew it was his song.” Classick Studios founder Chris Classick helped connect Siebert to a TikTok employee who updated the audio file on the platform. Siebert also reached out to the creator of the viral edit to get the stems, so that Sonny could release “Kill Bill (Fast)” as an official track.

“Next day, we got like a million streams on the fast version in 24 hours,” Sonny says. 

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After the metadata update and the release of the official version of “Kill Bill (Fast),” the track became a minor sensation. As early as April 2021, YouTube users were posting compilations of popular TikToks that featured it. Since the formal release of “Kill Bill (Fast)” on all major digital platforms, it’s accumulated more than ten million streams on Spotify alone. Labels came calling almost immediately when the official track dropped. “We were on the phone with A&Rs every single day for five days,” Siebert says. “And we had, like, three calls per day.”

Kill bill by Sonny ~ Cute Tiktok Compilation
A YouTube compilation of TikTok videos featuring “Kill Bill (Fast)”

“Some of them had literally called Erich and were like, ‘Yo, how would y’all feel if I gave you a 360 deal right now and y’all had six figures tomorrow?’” Sonny recalls. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know you. I don’t want to take no money from you—I don’t know what your back-end policy will be.’” Sonny turned everyone down, though he did sign a distribution deal with boutique label Fashionably Early. It helped him put out his debut under the name Sonny, a self-titled album that came out this past August. 

“I never really expected to make any money off music,” he says. “So the fact that I was able to make that a reality for myself, it’s really fulfilling for me.”

Sonny, 22, grew up in Greater Grand Crossing. In his teenage years, in the late 2010s, he spent a lot of time hanging out in and around the Loop, where he met some of his closest friends. Rapper NombreKari says he met Sonny at a pizza place near Jones College Prep. Kari basically introduced himself by asking to borrow Sonny’s phone, as Sonny remembers it—though he didn’t know at the time what Kari wanted it for. 

“He go on my phone and like and repost this song that him and some of the other guys had,” Sonny says. “He gave me my phone back, and later on I peeped and I was like, ‘Who is this little motherfucker that liked and reposted and pasted on my Soundcloud and my Twitter?’ But then I listened to it and I’m like, ‘Oh, this is hard.’” Kari and Sonny both spent time making music after school at Harold Washington Library’s YouMedia youth arts lab, where their friendship blossomed.

Kari had cofounded a collective called HL when he was 12, about four years before he met Sonny. “We call ourselves High Life, Honorable Legends, Honest Legends—got a bunch of different interpretations,” Kari says. HL started as a dance group, but several members took an interest in music in their teens. Gus Chvany and MyFriendNate became producers, and both would later collaborate with Sonny, who joined HL in high school. 

SONNY - "DRAG RACING" feat. nombreKARI (Official Music Video)
Sonny’s 2021 single “Drag Racing” features his high school friend NombreKari.

Not everyone in HL makes music. Makafui Searcy, for example, founded creative company FortuneHouse five years ago. It started as a management firm (Sonny was an early client) and has since evolved. “Our work is centered on empowering artists, creating access to creative entrepreneurial resources, and ultimately serving the long-term goal of empowering Black and Brown people in Chicago—and globally,” Searcy says. 

FortuneHouse has coproduced a youth fashion show at the MCA, hosted visual art exhibits and musical performances, and organized free community activities at Cornell Field in Kenwood. “FortuneHouse is like an engine to a lot of the values that myself and my peers hold,” Searcy says, “when it comes to what a collective future looks like for not only us as peers, family, and friends but as people who have grown up in the city that want to give back to the city.”

Searcy’s aspirations for FortuneHouse are rooted in the friendships he’s forged with Kari, Sonny, and the rest of their collective. 

“HL, more than it being founded on a collective interest in art, it was founded on brotherhood, beyond music,” Kari says. “We’ve supported each other in that way, whether I’m about to go to a party and I need a shirt to wear, if I’m spending a night over at Sonny’s house and I need some pants to wear, or if I was broke and I needed some food. That’s how we operate as a group of friends—supporting each other beyond music.”

Sonny sits in what looks like a dimly lit living room, an open notebook in his lap and his chin in his hand (which is also holding a pen).
During summer 2020, Sonny developed a new focus in his approach to music. Credit: Myles Wright via ABGallery

Sonny says he’s made more than 300 songs, and he started posting them online in the mid-2010s. He’s deleted a lot of material, though—his oldest song on Soundcloud says it’s just five years old, and only 40 remain, including the tracks on Sonny and Golden Child. He picked the name HateSonny because he thought it’d help him stand out. 

“I wanted you to be able to find me and my music, and I thought it was a bunch of Sonnys [out there], so I just threw the ‘hate’ in front of it,” he says. “I was very young, and I was going through a really depressed era. And it was really some self shit I was dealing with.”

In 2019, he and Kari spent a lot of time at MyFriendNate’s north-side home studio. They had both graduated high school by that point, and Kari noticed that the more Sonny could focus on music, the more he flourished creatively. “In high school, we didn’t have that much freedom to go to Nate’s house and make music for days on end,” Kari says. “Once we did have that freedom, that allowed him to cultivate a more distinct sound—it allowed him to find his voice.”

That period of intensive development allowed Sonny to graduate from loosies on Soundcloud to his first full-length project: after he dropped Golden Child in July 2020, he got enough positive feedback to persuade him to see music in a new light. “I was already making music for me—I didn’t get into the habit of considering other peoples’ perception of my music until after I put that project out,” Sonny says. “I did shrooms in 2020, and I had a whole 180. I was like, ‘If I like this music, somebody else that’s similar to me probably likes it. Just put it out.’”

The 2020 release Golden Child marked a turning point in Sonny’s career.

That same summer, Sonny and his friends joined the racial justice protests spreading across Chicago. Because several of them lived at home with parents at high risk from COVID-19, Sonny and a few others rented an Airbnb in Bronzeville so they could move around the city without worrying about infecting their elders—vaccines were still a long way off. “I stayed there for three months,” Searcy says. “We was cooking dinner—all of us cooking dinner for each other every night. We was all in there listening to music. They was recording music.”

Searcy began envisioning plans for a physical FortuneHouse space where he could hold events and nurture community; he’d been helping host art shows at Airbnbs, but he wanted something stable. Searcy, his mother, and longtime collaborator Ryel Williams opened FortuneHouse Art Center in June 2022 at 4410 S. Cottage Grove. Sonny provided input and support the whole way through. “His words have definitely inspired FortuneHouse’s mission and direction,” Searcy says.

Those months at the Bronzeville Airbnb in summer 2020 proved pivotal for Sonny too. “We was in there brainstorming and plotting on all the stuff that’s came to fruition since then,” he says. It’s also when he first heard the remix that he didn’t know would change his career. “I looked myself up on Soundcloud, and I saw a remix of ‘Kill Bill’—it was a fast version,” he says. “It had, like, 10,000 plays of the song. I was like, ‘This is cool.’ I didn’t really think much of it.”

Sonny’s manager also picked up on a shift in the rapper’s approach around the release of Golden Child in 2020. “He started making his transition—thinking more long-term and being more methodical,” Siebert says. “That was when he started to really find himself. He was more in touch with his identity and had a better understanding of where he wanted to go with his music.”

Sonny’s TikTok bump boosted his visibility—the success of “Kill Bill (Fast)” meant he no longer had to worry about getting lost among other artists called Sonny. He officially dropped the “Hate” from his name with the August release of Sonny, a full-length made up entirely of previously released material, including the fateful TikTok edit. “I’m like, ‘Yo, I want to rerelease these songs and package them with a project,’” he says. “So people who are unfamiliar with me, they can hear the fast version of ‘Kill Bill,’ but also hear, like, ‘This is what I’ve been working on since I was 17, up until this moment when I’m finally getting recognized for this music.’”

This summer’s Sonny consists of years of previously unreleased material.

Since Sonny came out, he’s put out a few singles. The October loosie “All I Hear” opened that month’s edition of “The Garden,” a Spotify playlist of local hip-hop and R&B curated by local indie marketing agency the Ghetto Flower. Andrew Barber of Fake Shore Drive also included the song on “The New Chicago,” Apple Music’s weekly Chicago hip-hop playlist. 

SONNY - "ALL I HEAR" (Official Music Video)
Michael del Rosario directed the video for “All I Hear.”

In August, Sonny joined TikTok, but if he has another viral success there, it seems unlikely to be his own doing. Not only did he wait more than a year to join the platform that’d given him his biggest buzz, but so far he’s posted only five videos. “I was never really, like, big on TikTok, for real,” he says. “I scroll through like everybody else do. But in terms of making TikToks, I’m like, ‘I don’t really know what to do on here.’” 

Sonny is focused on putting in the work—recording more music, making traditional music videos—and he isn’t counting on lightning striking twice. He’s got an EP in the works called All Gas No Brakes, according to Siebert, and if all goes well we’ll see it in the first quarter of 2023.

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