Zebra Katz Talks Berghain, Brooklyn and Shakespeare

Zebra Katz Talks Berghain, Brooklyn and Shakespeare

The origins of Zebra Katz feel almost apocryphal at this point. He dropped a hit debut single about reading before Drag Race introduced queer slang into the mass lexicon. Posted to MySpace and picked up by Diplo's label Mad Decent, it didn't take long before the dark minimalist ballroom-influenced "Ima Read" was being played out by Rick Owens during Paris Fashion Week and getting remixed by the likes of Azealia Banks, launching Ojay Morgan, a young theater major at the time, into the realm of underground sensation.

It's the same story that starts off any article, review or interview you find about Zebra Katz since 2013. And to be fair, it's a good one, digestible and easily packaged into a pithy artist bio. Zebra Katz came up alongside other openly queer POC rappers such as Mykki Blanco, Cakes Da Killa and Le1f, making it easy to lump them together as part of a burgeoning scene (a designation that all have vocally critiqued or pushed back against at some point in the past seven years). Zebra Katz was positioned as being queer rap's next big crossover star, but things don't ever work out that neatly.

It's not like Zebra Katz faded into obscurity. Since "Ima Read," Morgan has gone on to release a steady slew of singles, a couple mixtapes, and wind up touring with the Gorillaz after featuring on their fourth studio album, Humanz. All this without the backing of a label or manager. Morgan has had to cut his own path, whether it be through teaching himself how to produce so he could have beats to rap over or founding his own label, ZFK Records, so he had somewhere to put out his music. Out of necessity he's had to become his own biggest advocate, always ready with an elevator pitch, articulating every point about why you too should care about Zebra Katz. He's had to hustle and grind every step of the way, which is what makes his long-awaited debut album, LESS IS MOOR, all the more outstanding of an achievement.

Spread across 15 tracks, LESS IS MOOR is a sonic tour of every possible underground genre you've the heard in the back room of a sweaty queer club in the past few years. There's a little bit of hard drum, deconstructed club, dembow, harsh noise, experimental trap, pop techno and even a donk track towards the back end of it. To understand how varied the range of emotions and sounds expressed on LESS IS MOOR, one need look no further than the way Morgan's producer tag of "Zebra fucking Katz" morphs throughout the course of the record: from opening the album as a cybernetic wheeze to its invocation as a psychosexual grunt at the sexually charged climax on the Sega Bodega-produced, Shygirl featuring,"LICK IT N SPLIT."

The other thing about Zebra Katz is that he's really fucking funny. LESS IS MOOR tackles a wide breadth of loaded topics such as race, drugs and sexuality — but never does so in a way that feels preachy or condescending. That said, he's not above pinning you up against the wall and spitting it in your face to make sure you get the message, either. On "Zad Drumz" Zebra Katz bursts out of a flurry of blistering drum breaks to belligerently shout, "Last night I got so high I kicked myself out of Berghain," which is objectively hilarious. At the same time the song's also pointing a finger at the elitism and obligatory substance abuse the infamous German techno institution has come to represent. Morgan's ability to balance razor sharp cultural critique with witty lyricism is part of what sets him apart from MCs and makes LESS IS MOOR hit way harder.

In many ways this is a full circle moment for Morgan. The very title of the album, LESS IS MOOR, is a reference to his senior thesis "Moor Contradictions," out of which Zebra Katz was initially born. It took seven years full of countless trials and tribulations to shape Morgan into an artist, to understand what he's trying to say, figure out why he's saying it and find out where Zebra Katz fits in the world, even if he has to carve out that space himself to do so. LESS IS MOOR is an unapologetic testament to everything Morgan has built as Zebra Katz and a road map for everything yet to come.

So it's been seven years since "Ima Read." Why did it take that long?

I just had to remind people that when I started in 2012 I was not someone who had any information on what the music industry was. I wasn't aspiring to be an artist nor did I think I would have a career in music. It took me this long because I had to learn. I needed to familiarize myself with what it's like to run a label, to independently release, to fund your own work and build a team of people to help you get it out there. In the last seven years I've been working on artist's albums. I've worked on the Kanye album, I worked on the Gorillaz album. I never had to make an album. I've been touring consistently without putting out an album and I'm lucky that my singles have been championed and resonated with people so I could make music my full-time job. If I would have made an album seven years ago I don't think it would sound the same as LESS IS MOOR. I wanted to make sure I knew what it was I was going to do and how I wanted to say it and how I wanted it to look and feel and I think with this album I know that.

Was there sort of a tipping point that pushed you into being like, "Okay, now is the time?"

I was on tour with Gorillaz. I was able to see what it's like to be an artist who has a team of people that support them. I didn't really have that. I barely had a booking agent and I didn't have a manager. I was surrounded with big artists that had that and I got to see what you got treated like when you had that support basis. I got to see artists like Kilo Kish, Lil Simz and Vince Staples teams get them to put albums out at the same time the Gorillaz tour was going on so that they could actually maximize the exposure they were getting. I saw that and I just kicked myself. I wish I would have known this would have been the perfect time because all this press is basically going to cover it and that would have been free press. When I was living in New York it was very difficult for me to sit and work on something because I was constantly travelling to Europe to work. I would spend half my year in Europe, half in the States and really wasn't settled enough to make the album. It took me leaving my New York apartment, where I was for 13 years, moving to Berlin and trying to isolate myself to focus and reflect on everything I did in the last year. I needed to do that on my own terms, not on anyone else's. I had a lot to reflect on. 45 was just elected… I was ready to get the fuck out of America. In Berlin, I had space and economic freedom because I wasn't spending New York prices. That's why the album materialized so much quicker than it would if I were in New York.

It definitely feels like there is this mass exodus of young artists leaving, say, Brooklyn for Berlin at the moment. What were some of your motivations for making the move?

I left Florida, where I was born, in 2004 to go to Eugene Lang College. I left straight out of high school to go to New York City with the dreams of being an actor/fashion designer. After I graduated in 2007, I could see my friends leaving each year because the rent was too damn high. I feel like if you don't make it in your desired field of choice that you're constantly feeling pressured to maintain because New York City is not a cheap city to live in unless you come from people that pay your rent. There is a level of how long you can take it. Before I started finding any success in my artistic career, I was working a day job and busting my butt in order to make ends meet in Edgewater, New Jersey. When the opportunity was possible to move, I had a passport and the privilege to get up and leave, I did it. I felt way too comfortable in New York, I could afford to live there, but I wanted change. There were a lot of adjustments I had to make. It wasn't easy, I left my support team, the people that I would make videos with, the people that I worked on music with. I left a core group of friends that supported me with what I was doing and I supported them as well. I can move back to New York at any time. Where else can I go in the world? Where else can I plant seeds and grow in other places?

What has been surprising to you about Berlin?

I visited many times. I had shows here before I decided to move here. I can't really say I've been surprised. If anything, it's my ego and making adjustments to living in a city where I felt comfortable and could attain and accomplish a lot of things. It was a little more difficult for me here because I had to master the language and I've been able to survive, surprisingly, without really knowing it. It's just the change in culture that I'm fascinated by. I think people are surprised I moved to a city that is known for its partying and actually finished something that I set out to do.

What were some of the inspirations you brought into the album?

You can look at two quotes that I think have been able to sum up the process in which I wrote this. The first one would be from Nina Simone: "An artist's duty is to reflect the time we live in." I was very mindful during the process of making this unique and unexpected album. I wanted to reflect on what it felt like to be me, the time we live in, in a way that you can dance with.

The second would be James Baldwin: "To be a negro in this country is to constantly be in rage." With this album I'm somewhat dancing with that rage. I'm taking a risk. It's my way of saying that this is a full body of music, this is a story in a way I've never presented one. This is something that is extremely personal, done on my rules, my terms. That's why I'm so proud to independently release it and not have to shift or censor my work for it to appease a bigger label or company that may not resonate with the nuances this album tackles, such as race. What it's like to be a person of color who leaves the country they grew up in. Not to escape but have a sense of calmness. If I was living in south Florida there's a law called "stand your ground" where I could be shot based off my body threatening someone else… there's a lot of fucked up shit happening in the world.

And what sort of musical inspirations did you look to?

I think a song like "Up" is very inspired by Grace Jones "Pull Up To The Bumper'' and has a lot of nuances from that track. There are songs like "Zad Drumz" which talks about the club hierarchy. There is a lyric "I got so fucking high last night, I kicked myself out of Berghain" which is a joke about a place that takes itself too seriously. It's also a reference to drug culture and how it is affecting the hip-hop community, particularly young artists, like Juice WRLD or XXXTentacion or you name it. I'm talking about drug use but also the idea that you make the most money once you're dead.

I use Little Richard as an archetype for this album too, because he's a living legend who is kind of the archetype for rock 'n' roll music. Because he's living and hasn't passed away yet, I don't think, as a culture, we've been able to celebrate him. He's outlived a lot of the people he put on, from Jimi Hendrix to Elvis to The Beatles. You look at a character like Little Richard who is extremely flamboyant in the early 70s — he was navigating the territories that I find myself in without the terminology we have now. I have to think about how influential he actually is as a living person and that was my way of giving him his followers.

Would you say this album is an artistic evolution for you?

This work is really reflective of my earlier work. My senior thesis "Moor Contradictions" was definitely a part of that puzzle in order to help people see the bigger picture of what I do and how I came about doing it. It was a great reference for me to have because I got to look back at my work and dissect it. I got to see what worked and what didn't or where I could take a bigger risk. It's also sexually charged because I thought I had to sway away from sexuality in my earlier songs because that's the only thing people were obsessing over and I didn't want to give them something they already knew. I think now I'm owning that and not afraid to show it.

Do you feel like this album is trying to get out from under the shadow of "Ima Read?"

This album reflects the sonic growth of someone who released a track seven years ago that was never meant to be heard by the public. A song that was put on Myspace to give my page some light. I did some experimenting with GarageBand, then that was taken to Mad Decent and given away on Jeffree's, Rick Owens heard it and supported it and then it was a song at Paris Fashion Week. People in 2012 were just so fascinated by the fact that I was a person of color making hip-hop music and then alluding that the black community doesn't accept me. It was hard for me as a brown artist to be celebrated when they were just celebrating me for my hardships. "Isn't that difficult? Tell me about your experience." But, I never thought it was difficult. I always knew there are queer brown bodies in the music industry that were shaping and molding popular culture without the credit they deserve. People didn't necessarily need to know they were gay because they were worried it would affect their career because it does. Let's not pretend that being queer isn't also the bad thing. That Pussy Riot isn't going to get arrested in Russia for gay propaganda. There's all these things that are stacked against us when you're different and bold.

I want to walk back a little to "Moor Contradictions," could you explain what your senior thesis looked like and how that ended up influencing the album?

In a nutshell, my senior thesis was called "Moor Contradictions" and as someone who has been studying theater for a majority of their life, I was always trying to tackle the idea of colorblind casting. There are very few black references in Shakespeare outside of Othello being a Moor. I looked at the Moors in Shakespeare and these monolithic black characters like the "thug" or the "police officer" or the "angry black man." Having gone to study Shakespeare at the British-American Drama Academy, I had to tackle that and try to get my professors to see that. We could re-interpret these words in such a way that actually does something and means something. So, I took that and I went back to Eugene Lang and instead of doing Three Sisters or Uncle Vanya by Chekhov, I wanted to do my own work. I created "Moor Contradictions" and Zebra Katz was one of several characters within that piece.

I wanted to stay true to that and show that these characters can live within a world of their own. In 2012 we were in a time where a lot of people were becoming famous from Youtube videos — like people are now "TikTok famous." We were just getting to that realm where you can have your own channel and can create your own database for people to connect with your work. It was me trying to do that for Zebra Katz. I wanted to remember that headspace I was in when I wrote "Ima Read" and stay true to that. Yeah, I could listen to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill but she's a different artist. I had to figure out what that was for myself and it took time. I could hand everyone my senior thesis but I don't think it would resonate the same way.

So that's where Zebra Katz came from?

That's where it started and then Zebra Katz just lived online and it wasn't until a friend of mine heard it and was like, "Let's send it to Diplo." I never thought of being a rapper. It was a character that I made and a character that I had to really take seriously once everything took off for me. I quit working my day job and fully commit and grow as a character in front of an audience. I couldn't really tell people, "Oh, I'm really new at this. I don't really know how to use my voice yet." It took me time to grow as a producer as well. It wasn't until I went to Red Bull Music Academy in Japan that I actually started focusing on my production more and working with different soundscapes. It was a lot of growth that went into the seven years up until this album.

What was one of the hardest things, personally, that you had to overcome in making this album?

The hardest thing I had to overcome was people telling me I couldn't do it. I shopped this album to a lot of labels but they didn't support it. I was like, "Fuck, okay, fuck." I finally did this thing and no one really wants it. I had to support it myself and that's why I take so much pride in being able to independently release this on ZFK Records and not have to censor myself to fit within these major corporations and make it comfortable so they can sell my work. I never want it to be easily packaged and digestible, I don't think I'm that type of person. I had people that I was working with telling me that people in this industry like me but they don't want to do business with me. What I represent is someone who goes against the grain.

I should be a prime example that you can go out and do something in a world where people say you're going to be faced with so much adversity. And I did it. I can share thousands of stories that are disheartening, but I'm just trying to focus on the positive now and stop bringing up the negative because they don't get me anywhere. I want people to understand what it is that this album represents, that I was able to do it. It's an homage to me doing that very same thing with "Moor Contradictions." That's why it's full circle for me in this project. I put two years into this. I put my income into this. I put time into this. Not in anyone else's world or court.

It's really refreshing how candid you are about the industry. A lot of people don't like to talk about how the sausage is made.

Oh no, because it's easier to… they're told, "Oh, they have media training." I don't have media training. I was doing my own PR for the last seven years, I remember messaging PAPER like, "Do you guys want an exclusive on my 'Hello, Hi'' video?" I had to hustle. I burned a lot of bridges but made a lot of my contacts there. That's the ugly truth about this industry. I don't want to expose all the skeletons because I think people like you to be a weak bird in order to manipulate you to better serve their goal. I learned a lot in my mistakes that I've made over the last seven years which helped mold me into the person I'm today. I could manage myself because before I was doing music I was working at a company managing other artists and doing their schedules. I'm okay to orchestrate a schedule or have an interview and be candid about what I do. There's moments I can't talk about because I signed an NDA. I skate around it and drop hints here and there but I'm not trying to be sued, I don't have that money yet. I started working with management with this release and they were able to help me get a team together to do press, but that's what every label should have when you're getting ready to release an album. Otherwise, I would've released this album and in a year from now you'll be like "Where you've been? What have you put out?" I just wasn't playing the game of the industry and paying people to promote something I felt could promote itself. I didn't pay that money when I did "Ima Read." It was just a piece of work that resonated with people and the press did itself or paid for itself or worked itself.

Do you feel like it's changed?

I feel that the industry is changing so much. As a musician you're expected to run your social media. You're expected to hire an audio-visual person. You're expected to do all of this because we have these phones that can enable us to film our own videos, post it live, build a fanbase and have our fanbase come to us. In 2012 there was no Spotify, there was no Apple Music. I wish there was an OnlyFans for musicians that wasn't like Bandcamp or SoundCloud, something a little bit more user friendly. That's why I have ZFK Records because I had to do the hard work and know what it's like to put out music before I could trust anyone doing that. I'm just that type of person.

What would be advice you would give to artists who are coming up right now that want to make it in the industry?

Trust your gut. Trust your gut. Don't change who you are. Fight against grouping. Don't be grouped into anything unless you're part of a collective. Try to stay in your own lane. Trust your instincts. Support your own work — create your own work. People aren't going to work with you, don't take that as a bad thing. Take it as a blessing. Stick to your guns. Less is more. Push your boundaries. Refuse to be boxed in and fight for your right to be a bad bitch. Get it done. Release that bitch. You got this, is all I can say, because I didn't have anyone telling me that. I really had to tell myself that and this is how far it got me. "Ima Read" was an anthem to be that bitch and I believe that. It's gotten me very far. I'm thankful for that. I did something with Njena Redd Foxxx that people are still referencing and listening to this day. You can do it, I did it. You can read about it, and that's it, really.

Photography: Ian Wallman