When Brooklyn rapper Zebra Katz takes to a stage, it’s impossible to turn away from his piercing gaze.
Such was the case last Sunday when Zebra Katz played an early afternoon set at Chicago’s Lollapalooza. With massive trees protecting the area from the blistering August sun, he stalked, pounced and growled his way through songs ranging from his scathing new EP, “Nu Renegade,” to his better-known tracks, particularly the forever-fresh “Ima Read.”
All the while, the crowd gathered around the stage continued to grow in size to the point where Zebra Katz, clad in an all-white ensemble, ended his set off-stage, rapping while surrounded by his fans. The fourth wall had definitely been broken, and yet, the spell he held his audience under had not.
Three days earlier, Ojay Morgan, the man behind the “character” of Zebra Katz, sat in the basement of Berlin, where he was headlining the Chicago nightclub’s annual pre-Lollapalooza “side show.”
While he spoke with the same wit and conviction familiar to anyone who’s ever taken in a Zebra Katz performance, Morgan clearly occupies a different space in the world than Zebra Katz, which makes it difficult to put a finger on what Morgan is all about -- and this appears intentional.
“Zebra Katz has a bigger bank account than I have, that’s the difference,” Morgan told The Huffington Post. “It’s really good to have a veil. Like Andy Warhol said, you should always have something to sell and I’m not selling myself, I’m selling a product. I’m selling a brand, selling a lifestyle and it’s not myself. That’s the comfort I have.”
The Zebra Katz "brand," which grew out of a performance piece Morgan first presented while a student at Eugene Lane College, hit the indie mainstream in 2012 with the release of “Ima Read,” a song that attracted the attention of the music and fashion world elite.
Since then, Zebra Katz has remained prolific, releasing a steady stream of mixtapes and videos while traveling around the world performing live sets that are just as intense, if not more so, than the material they are drawn from. Over the past year, he’s played shows in Spain, Switzerland, Germany and Japan. Last week, while spending time in Jamaica with his family -- his parents are Jamaican -- he was stung by a jellyfish.
But throughout that time, Morgan has still yet to release a full-length album as Zebra Katz and has also expressed frustration with how his music has often been lumped in with that of artists like Le1f, Mykki Blanco and Cakes da Killa as a sort of New York-born queer rap "revolution."
“I’m completely against the genre-ization of [a 'queer rap scene'] because it’s really fucked up,” Morgan, who identifies as queer, said. “I think as artists we have so much more to offer than a blanket sexuality that most people think is helping us sell music because it’s not. For some, it may, but it’s not in my music and not in my aesthetic.”
Instead of pursuing a more traditional path through the music industry, Morgan has taken an almost completely independent route, releasing his own music and doing his own publicity -- he may have been the only artist playing Lollapalooza who listed himself as his own media liaison.
But all that’s not to say Morgan doesn’t play well with others. For his “Nu Renegade” EP, released in May, he worked with London-based Iran-born producer Leila Arab, a frequent Björk collaborator Morgan met at a show of his. The result is a collection of six songs that are dark and sexy, sparse yet overwhelming and occasionally challenging to listen to. All of the songs, too, have accompanying videos which are being released once-a-month up until the final three, which will comprise a mini-film of their own.
The latest, the video for the EP-opening “Blk Diamond,” is as disturbing as it is explosive. The track itself brings together elements of rap, trip-hop, electronic and industrial music, like a mix of Grace Jones, the Haxan Cloak and Tricky at their strangest.
“We think it isn’t one of the ‘nicest’ EPs to come out this year,” Morgan admitted of "Nu Renegade." “It’s really brutal and I think that’s kind of just the reflection of our time and a reflection of what’s happening. No matter what realm or fragment of society is fucked up, it glimpses and touches on that.”
Twenty minutes into the interview, Morgan pulls back the curtain on his approach to his music and videos ever so slightly, explaining that the videos draw inspiration from horror films like “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Shining” and “Candyman" and that he relishes playing a villain-type character through his music.
And though his visuals and lyrics might sometimes feel esoteric, Morgan insists there is a message to be taken away from the work, even if it’s not entirely spelled out.
“If people say it’s dark, it’s dark because people are only looking through the peephole of the world I’m creating. I haven’t let everyone in the door,” Morgan said. “But I’m talking about real-life shit. I’m talking about race. I’m talking about my black body, my body, how it means for me to have this body and how I want other people to experience it or experience me. That’s why I’m putting out so much work and all these visuals because it’s content, and with more content you have more context for what the hell I’m talking about.”
With festival season winding down, Morgan has his sights on completing his first full-length album for next year, in addition to bulking up his label, ZFK Records, to help artists with a similar point-of-view as Morgan gain exposure. He’s also looking forward to playing more live shows, with a European tour slated for the fall.
In the meantime, he won't be turning to the Internet for input on his next move.
“I used to Google ‘Zebra Katz,’ but I don’t anymore because I don’t really care for peoples’ opinions that much,” Morgan said. “If I would have listened to everything people told me to do, I definitely wouldn’t be here.”