Jarad Higgins was born talented, according to his mother, Carmela Wallace.
Mothers are stereotypically biased when it comes to their children’s special abilities, but it wasn’t just Wallace’s view.
“I remember him being in kindergarten and his teacher noticed that he had a knack for music,” she said. “She recommended that I do something with that.”
Millions of music fans worldwide are no doubt glad she did.
Jarad started piano lessons when he was about 5. He picked up other instruments along the way, from hand bells to guitar to trumpet.
Then as a student at Homewood-Flossmoor High School his musical interest shifted from band to rap.
He became Juice WRLD, and his music eventually would top the charts and make him a star before his death from a drug overdose in 2019, almost a week after his 21st birthday.
His four-year professional music career started in 2015 when he began posting recordings to the music streaming service SoundCloud.
In 2017, he signed his first recording contract. He released “999,” which included his first hit, “Lucid Dreams.”
After that, his career trajectory soared.
In the next two years, his work was nominated for numerous awards. In 2019, he won Top New Artist from the Billboard Music Awards. He won Favorite Hip-Hop Male Artist posthumously in 2020 from the American Music Awards. His recording “Death Race for Love” won Best Hip-Hop Album from iHeart Music Awards.
In 2019 he joined Nicki Minaj’s world tour.
His studio recordings include “Goodbye & Good Riddance” (2018), “Death Race for Love” (2019), “Legends Never Die” (2020) and “Fighting Demons” (2021). His final studio album, “The Party Never Ends,” is expected to be released this year.
Wallace wasn’t immediately pleased with her son’s move from band to rap, but she saw that he was determined to pursue music on his own terms.
“As a mom, that was tough. I wanted him in band,” she said. “I saw he was performing at a friend’s birthday party and I saw the passion. I had to give it to him, because he just would have been unhappy. And I know we want our children to be a certain way, but they could only be who they are.”
She was disappointed that he didn’t go to college. She said he was smart and an avid reader, but after high school, his career was taking off so well that he had to pursue it.
“I think he saw something bigger for himself and he thought that (school) was in the way,” she said.
Music as therapy
Wallace said her son’s drug use and his mental health struggles were something he was very open about, and she thinks that’s an important element in his success as an artist.
More than four years after his death, his fan base is still devoted. There is a Juice WRLD Day held annually. Wallace was a featured speaker at the Dec. 16, 2023, event at the United Center in Chicago.
She hears often from fans, and not only at events.
“I get so many messages every day,” she said. “His music saved them. Something about his music that is so relatable. People feel like they’re not alone, you know, and his message was just one of hope.”
He had a way with people even as a boy, she said. He made connections easily and could “talk to anybody about any subject.”
His music was therapy for him, she said. His transparency was what fans could identify with. His struggles were their struggles.
The title of his first recording, “999,” became iconic for his fans. Higgins said during interviews that he came up with it as a play on the reference in Christianity to 666, the “number of the beast” in the Book of Revelation. The reference is associated with the anti-Christ or Satan.
Higgins inverted the number to suggest a positive force.
“Nine-nine-nine represents taking whatever hell you’re in and flipping it over to something positive,” he said in one interview posted on YouTube.
After her son’s death, Wallace has put 999 to work carrying on his message and his mission.
She created the Live Free 999 Foundation to support programs that help address mental health issues and substance dependency.
Currently, the foundation uses the proceeds from merchandise sales to support existing programs.
Wallace has ideas for doing more in the future. She would like to create a kind of pop-up therapy service, making sure help is available at the moment of need.
The foundation has a free crisis text line now. Anyone who needs help can text LF999 to 741741.
A ‘third place’ tribute
Higgins’ memory will also be preserved in a more tangible way through Homewood Brewing Company.
Wallace, along with Robert Lauderdale and her son Brian Wallace, is building a craft brewery and restaurant at 18225 Dixie Highway, the former site of Bogart’s Charhouse.
When Wallace and Lauderdale appeared before the Homewood Board of Trustees in 2021 to present the idea, she noted that the brewery would be in honor of Higgins.
She and Lauderdale described their vision for an establishment that is a hub of community activity.
They hope to serve as an incubator for people who want to develop their skills as craft brewers.
Wallace also hopes to develop a relationship with the Homewood-Flossmoor High School culinary arts program to provide students with another place to develop their talents.
She also plans to commission a Juice WRLD mural in honor of her son. She is working with an artist who created a mural of Juice WRLD on a West Loop viaduct that was a gathering place for fans.
Someone painted over the mural earlier this year.
She once described Homewood Brewing as a “third place,” a term that comes from Ray Oldenburg’s 1991 book, “The Great Good Place.” Oldenburg identified third places as distinct from home and work.
They are places like coffee shops, pubs, salons and barbershops where people voluntarily congregate and socialize. He considered them essential to community vitality and local democracy.