Into the Wild
Eight years on from becoming an overnight viral sensation, rapper Zebra Katz fills in the blanks with the release of his first full-length album, Less is Moor.
With a low, cool-headed rasp, Zebra Katz made waves when his single “Ima Read” was chosen to soundtrack fashion designer Rick Owens’ Fall/Winter 2012 showcase. Born Ojay Morgan, Katz had teamed up with Njena Reddd Foxxx for a sizzling back-and-forth that turned heads and took names: “Lunchtime, feed that bitch/Like a slaughterhouse, I'll bleed that bitch/Class president, I'ma lead that bitch/Take 'em outside, I don't need that bitch” is just one of the incendiary takedowns the pair offer over a bouncy but bare-bones bassline.
In 2012, a revolution was underway. It was 22 years after the release of Paris Is Burning, the landmark documentary showcasing the Ballroom scene in NYC. The documentary followed predominantly Black and Latin, queer and transgender communities: they met for elaborate dance-offs; they vogued down runways in their best drag outfits; they read one another, a term for flaying someone else through witty but cuttingly-accurate digs. Now, the sounds, sights, and references from a scene, which had often lived in the shadow of mainstream music, were being brought back by a new generation of performers. According to magazines and music writers, rappers were digging into these archives to lay the foundation for a new genre: Queer rap. These artists were breaking down boundaries, they said, and making space for new identities in a field that was dominated by mostly-male, mostly-straight, and mostly-cisgender artists; in the years since, they’ve been folded into the mainstream, paving the way for artists like Kevin Abstract and iLoveMakonnen. And at the core of the movement, some suggested was Zebra Katz.
The weeks that followed Owens’ show were a whirlwind. At that time, the music industry was ill-equipped to deal with a viral hit, and people scrambled over themselves to make sense of Katz’s track. As his profile quickly rose, so did the public fascination with his sexuality. Under the umbrella term of “queer rap”, it seemed easier to make sense of Katz’s work, and even easier to dismiss it as part of a trend.
But like his namesake, Zebra Katz is not easy to pin down: When faced with a predator, zebras scatter across the plains. As the herd diverges, the dizzying array of stripes warp a predator’s depth perception until the herd is out of harm's way – instead of blending into the trees or reeds, zebras hide in plain sight. And that’s exactly what Katz has been doing the last 8 years. Since releasing “Ima Read”, Morgan has released a handful of singles, EPs, and mixtapes, toured the world as part of the Gorillaz’s ensemble, and resurfaced in Berlin, where he has been working on his album. But for the most part, he has remained relatively low-key.
Less Is Moor, Zebra Katz’s debut album which was released on March 20, is the work of an independent artist figuring out how he wants to be remembered outside of music industry trend pieces. His rapid rise to success was one he hadn’t anticipated – the former theater student was still managing a catering company when “Ima Read” made it into the mainstream – nor one where he could cash in quickly with a major-label record deal. On Less Is Moor, Katz finally introduces himself and all that he can be, but this time on his own terms. He’s his own writer, his own producer, his own manager, and his own A&R – if you want Zebra Katz on a track, you speak to Ojay Morgan.
Nathan Ma: Let’s talk about the title of your debut album, Less Is Moor. What does that mean to you?
Zebra Katz: I decided to call the album Less Is Moor because as people of color and disenfranchised people, we're always told that we're gonna have to work harder, we’re always gonna have to be excellent – we're given less and expected to do so much more with it. It's also an ode to minimalism because I feel like techno and a lot of other art forms that are championed here in Berlin are Black art forms that have been washed several times. So, I wanted to make an album that was very pro-Black and that was very pro-me: Independently-made and work that I crafted myself. I wanted to sell myself.
It’s been eight years since “Ima Read.” What has your experience in the music industry been since then, and how has your perception of it changed over time?
I think when I started making music, I didn't know anything about the industry. I didn’t know anything about my voice. I didn't know anything about my artistry in terms of “this is my approach” or “this is my aesthetic,” so within the eight years it took me to make this album, I had to learn the ins and outs of management, working a label, being an artist, being an independent artist and being constantly told that what you’re doing is difficult. It was always people trying to champion me for my hardships instead of for my victories as an artist.
I think a lot of people say, “Where did you go?” or “Why did you disappear?” But it was like, no, I was steadily working throughout. I just wasn't paying, like, thousands of dollars for a PR person to inform everyone. I had to learn that side of the industry, too.
And over those eight years, there has been plenty to celebrate in your career as well. Let’s talk about that.
The fact that as an independent artist, I was able to kind of break through all the ceilings that people said I wouldn't necessarily be able to. I think I need to celebrate the fact that I was able to do it independently when all these labels said no, so I had to learn that in order for me to celebrate myself, I have to create my own work and that's what the Zebra Katz project is about. Once I started fully celebrating and embodying that is when everything changed for me. Let’s celebrate that I was on the Gorillaz album with Grace Jones, who's one of my biggest inspirations as a musician.
Then there was doing stuff for Dear White People on Netflix, or when I did the soundtrack for Broad City on Comedy Central. Just these minor things that were really big for someone who, seven years ago, would have never imagined they would have gotten this far, off the back of a character they debuted in their senior thesis called “Moor Contradictions".
Music journalists, critics, writers play a role in defining how artists are seen because we write about what we hear. In your own words, what kind of sounds and influences are you working with on this album?
The intro originally started as a track that kind of highlighted all of the attention I got based on my sexuality and not my music. I thought, why was I giving that ownership? I know it, anyone that reads an interview with me knows it. Why do I need to get into this on new projects? So I edited the track and I made it more gabber style. On the album, you have a little techno in there, you have a little tribal in there, you have me singing and using my voice. I'm a producer, as well as an artist, label head, and manager. I produced this, and I wanted to put my A&R skills out there. I’ve spent so much time talking about who I am and my sexuality, but I didn't spend any time talking about my craft and what I wanted to do with it. There's tracks like “ISH”, which is extremely industrial and extremely dark and bombastic and very sparse; there's the Zebra Katz tag that you hear throughout the album to remind people who have forgotten that this character exists; there's tracks like "NECKLACE," which is just a guitar and a voice - it's my voice and I'm using my voice in a way I haven't done before.
I think that shows in the content and the lyrics. I'm not censoring myself, even though I'm constantly being censored to be this and be that, you know: “You’re not gay enough because you're black.” “You’re not black enough because you're gay.” So what does it feel like to live within this juxtaposition?
With your work on Broad City and Dear White People, and the writing you did for the Gorillaz, it does feel like you’ve made your way into the mainstream, and that you’ve written yourself into history.
I felt guilty for writing myself out of history sometimes. I think a lot of people thought I was like a self-loathing person because I wouldn't just take the ownership of queer rap, like, “Yes, I did that, and look what we did now.” Black queer artists have always existed. They’ve always influenced media and they’ve always influenced pop culture, but they’ve never been credited. Look at Little Richard, he is one of my biggest icons. Imagine being in the 1970s, being that flamboyant and that extravagant in a time where we didn’t have the language to describe it like we do now. And in a world where you were definitely hated because of the color of your skin, and you were definitely censored because of your outrageousness. To be all of that and still walk away from it, alive and without the accolades he deserves – like I say in the song “LOUSY:” They all love you when you're dead and you're six underground.
How do you then create work when your body is politicized?
I say it all the time, it’s not me fighting against what my body represents. People are going to identify me any way they choose to, but I have a chance to play with that, it’s my job as an artist. It’s one of the reasons “Ima Read” works because people didn’t know my sexuality. They either picked up on the culture if they knew the lingo of ballroom or if they knew to read someone, to teach someone, to give that bitch some knowledge – a lot of people erased Njena on there because they were just fascinated with my sexuality.
Let’s take this opportunity to set the record straight and let’s go back to the start, to the origin story of “Ima Read”.
It is really simple. I was in college and I had a class on how to read a play. There was a teacher and a student who I really didn’t like and I just had this mantra: I’ma read that bitch, I’ma school that bitch, I’ma take that bitch to college, I’ma give that bitch some knowledge.
I was experimenting with music. I had GarageBand and I remember putting the track on MySpace as the music for my page. About two years later, I was working at a catering company when I was introduced to Njena. That night, she came over to my house and I was like, “There’s this song ‘Ima Read’ and I think you should do a verse”.
I named her Njena Reddd Foxx and that night we wrote our verses, back and forth, and then it was done. We did a music video that was shot in my bedroom against a brick wall, but then I met up with Ruben Sneiderman, who's a Swedish filmmaker. With the budget of $200, we shot that music video with two street dancers from the subway – and now it’s history.
I look back at it now, and it only has 3 million views on YouTube, but it's a moment that changed my life. I went on tour with Azealia Banks, and she sampled “Ima Read” on her Fantasea mixtape. Busta Rhymes did a remix of it, then Tricky did a remix of it, then Gangsta Boo did a remix of it, and it meant something to me. As an independent artist, I didn’t know who was listening to my work, but it was clear that people were gravitating towards it, including people I’d looked up to for the majority of my life. That in itself was a win for me because the media wouldn’t let me celebrate. They were like, “You’re gay and you’re Black, and you make rap music, so you’re going to be hated and it’s gonna be hard for you.” Yeah, I know it’s gonna be hard – everyone's always said I’m gonna have to work twice as hard and twice as much. Tell me something I don’t know.