Note: An earlier version of this story originally appeared under the same headline on February 20, 2019.
In February 2019, Florida hip-hop artist YNW Melly was arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder. Police said he and another rapper, YNW Bortlen, killed two of their friends and staged the crime scene to look like a drive-by shooting. The gravely serious criminal case came as Melly, who was born Jamell Demons, was in the midst of an upward career trajectory. A month before his arrest, the 19-year-old from the small South Florida community of Gifford released We All Shine, a mixtape featuring Kanye West, and his biggest hit, the chilling 2017 single “Murder on My Mind,” had just gone gold. (It went platinum in March 2019 and was certified six times multi-platinum in January 2022.)
Now, three years later, Melly’s trial had been set to begin on March 7 but has been delayed. He has pleaded not guilty. Here’s a brief rundown of how Melly, now 22 years old, went from sharing freestyles on SoundCloud to working with Kanye West and Young Thug to being held in jail without bond, charged with the murders of his friends.
May 1, 1999
Jamell Maurice Demons is born. His mother was 14 years old when she got pregnant with him, she recalls in an official YNW Melly documentary posted online in December 2018; she was in 9th grade when she gave birth.
Demons had an early love of music. In interviews, as well as in the doc, he describes a childhood fascination with Chris Brown and Michael Jackson. He also recounts an all too precocious interest in guns, saying he found a revolver under his uncle’s couch in fourth grade and took it “everywhere,” including school.
October 19, 2015
Melly has a run-in with the law that will become a recurring part of his media coverage. According to a local Florida newspaper, the 16-year-old was charged with three counts of aggravated assault and one count of discharging a firearm in public. He allegedly fired a gun toward three other students near their high school. It was after this incident, Melly has said, when he “was locked up,” that he got the inspiration for “Murder on My Mind”: “I woke up and I had that chorus.”
March 4, 2017
“Murder on My Mind,” a piano-based hip-hop murder ballad that’s striking in its almost-diaristic intimacy, is uploaded to SoundCloud. “His body dropped down to the floor and he had teardrops in his eyes/He grabbed me by my hands and said he was afraid to die,” Melly sings. He was already posting rough freestyles to SoundCloud under his birth name when he was around 15; by 2016, he had started using his current rap name. The YNW crew (short for “Young N***a World,” he has said, unless he’s on TV or someplace where he can’t cuss—then it’s “Young New Wave”) includes his longtime friends Anthony Williams (YNW Sakchaser), Chris Thomas Jr. (YNW Juvy), and Cortlen Henry (YNW Bortlen).