How Zebra Katz Earned His Stripes

“I’m not just this one trick pony, you know?” says Ojay Mor­gan, “I’m a Zebra.” On his debut album Less Is Moor, released last Fri­day, the Jamaican-Amer­i­can artist, bet­ter known by his per­sona Zebra Katz, bold­ly reasserts this claim across fif­teen, club-ready tracks. He snarls, teas­es, and throws shade, inten­tion­al­ly show­ing off all the verve and rhyth­mic elas­tic­i­ty of his voice on top of minor key beats and rapid drum ‘n bass by pro­duc­ers such as Sega Bode­ga, Shy­girl, and S Rus­ton. One sec­ond, like on ‘Blush,’ he’s all demon­ic seduc­tion, and, in the next, like on ‘Neck­lace,’ he’s croon­ing a flick­er­ing lament.

Mor­gan’s com­mand­ing vocals, of course, in all of its raw and reck­less con­fig­u­ra­tions, is where it all start­ed. Back in 2012, he launched his career the out­ré sin­gle ‘Ima Read,’ a song that end­ed up on repeat at that year’s Rick Owens F/W wom­enswear col­lec­tion, becom­ing the sound­track du jour of Paris Fash­ion Week, was picked up by Diplo’s Mad Decent label, and even­tu­al­ly ric­o­cheted onto dance floors around the world. With his whip of tongue-in-cheek lyrics, “Ima take that bitch to college/ Ima give that bitch some knowl­edge,” Mor­gan solid­i­fied him­self in the fash­ion and club canon simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. Last year, NAAFI’s Lao illus­trat­ed the track­’s stub­born pow­er when he flipped an edit dur­ing his Boil­er Room Shen­zhen set

Since then, Mor­gan has released a hand­ful of sin­gles, toured with the Goril­laz, and became even clos­er friends with Rick Owens and his wife and muse Michele Lamy. (He tells me he par­tial­ly ded­i­cat­ed Less Is Moor to the two, and hand-deliv­ered a copy of the album to them the last time he was in Paris.) 

After an eight-year incu­ba­tion peri­od, Zebra Katz returns with a full-length state­ment that bor­rows some of its unflinch­ing strength from style influ­ences like Grace Jones, con­tin­ues to give def­er­ence to his club cul­ture roots, and raz­zle-daz­zles in his glitzy album iconography–just like the ani­mal from where he got his name. His music now, as it were, still cel­e­brates its orig­i­nal stomp­ing grounds and sounds most com­fort­able trot­ting down a run­way, side-eye­ing all the com­pe­ti­tion, and then flee­ing imme­di­ate­ly to the after­par­ty. He cap­tures this nar­ra­tive best on sin­gle ‘IN IN IN’ when he says, “Yo, what it do, it’s a real GQ inter­view / On the run­way wait­ing for the shoot / Glam squad, got me look­ing hel­la cute,” and then growls on ‘Zad Drums,’ “I got so fuck­ing high last night, I kicked myself out of Berghain.” 

In his Sound and Style inter­view, Zebra Katz shares the brash and, at times, con­tra­dic­to­ry aes­thet­ics of his irrev­er­ent uni­verse.

You men­tioned that Grace Jones was one of the influ­ences for Less Is Moor. Grow­ing up, were there oth­er fig­ures you looked towards in devel­op­ing your per­sona? 

I think there were a lot of fig­ures that influ­enced me grow­ing up. I’m def­i­nite­ly a child of MTV, VH1, and ‘The Mak­ing of the Bands’ and pop cul­ture at its great­est. Those were the days when I had peo­ple like Mis­sy Elliott as a style icon to look up to, and peo­ple like Bus­ta Rhymes as a char­ac­ter and a larg­er than life fig­ure, and some­one that was just an enti­ty on their own. 

Even now, I look at peo­ple like Lit­tle Richard who’s such a , influ­en­tial char­ac­ter in ways that I did­n’t even real­ly know. It did­n’t hit me until the last two years when I was just doing research, sud­den­ly look­ing at an influ­en­tial char­ac­ter who was so ahead of his time in the ’70s, a time where we did­n’t even have the lan­guage to explain Black oth­er­ness. And not just queer­ness in par­tic­u­lar, but for some­one who was punk, and some­one who was very flam­boy­ant, and some­one who was cen­sored, and some­one who was white­washed, and some­one who was used as a fig­ure to put some­one like Elvis on, and help cre­ate the icon that is some­one they say “cre­at­ed rock and roll”. And it was­n’t Elvis, it was Richard.

He also put Chuck Berry on, and he put the Bea­t­les on, and he put Jimi Hen­drix on, and you got to see this icon­ic fig­ure do so much for music and still get no cred­it for it, and he’s actu­al­ly still a liv­ing leg­end. It’s just real­ly inter­est­ing to see how time, not much has changed, but yeah, it’s just some­thing for me to be mind­ful of, I mean, espe­cial­ly when it comes to what it is I expect from oth­er peo­ple when it comes to releas­ing your music or shar­ing some­thing that’s so vul­ner­a­ble and per­son­al.

Con­sid­er­ing these larg­er than life char­ac­ters you looked up to, let’s talk about the opu­lence on the album cov­er. What was the visu­al con­cept behind it?

A zebra’s main defense mech­a­nism is to dis­ori­ent their prey with daz­zle camo, and I want­ed the cov­er to have this dis­ori­ent­ing effect where you could­n’t real­ly tell that things are mov­ing or if there was a play on it, and then play­ing on the idea of ‘less is more’. There was less of a fuller image, so it’s real­ly zoomed in. There was also jew­el­ry deca­dence because I think it’s play­ing on these mono­lith­ic Black rap char­ac­ters that you usu­al­ly see that are like, “Oh, I have the mon­ey. I have the car, and I have the whip, and I got the jew­els, and I’m iced out.”

It’s very much a lev­el of facade for me. You know what I mean? It’s very much this daz­zle thing. It also is like it appeals to the eyes. But there’s also this song ‘Neck­lace,’ which is like the oppo­site, and then I’m just say­ing, “There ain’t no dia­monds on my neck­lace.” You know what I mean? Like I’m not por­tray­ing that lifestyle. So it’s anoth­er play on just con­tra­dic­tion, in what these char­ac­ters are and what Zebra Katz can’t and can be. And I think so much of my career was based off what I could or could­n’t be, or where I could suc­ceed and where I could­n’t, and what music I was-

Did peo­ple tell you that?

It was always pro­ject­ed on me, what I could and could­n’t do. It’s always been pro­ject­ed on me. My sex­u­al­i­ty has always been pro­ject­ed on me, and so has my race. So those are giv­en when it comes to how I do things. I think my art is how I’ve man­aged to make peo­ple think dif­fer­ent­ly and how do I change peo­ple’s ideas, and how do I fuck up a con­cept of being a genre non-con­formist. Or being like, “Well, you’d think that I’m just this genre, but I’m actu­al­ly doing some­thing that melds all of these togeth­er in a way that makes it thought­ful and provoking–for me at least.” And if you can’t see those things, I hope to take you on a jour­ney where you can.

Con­sid­er­ing the exper­i­men­tal elec­tron­ic pro­duc­ers like Sega Bode­ga and Shy­girl who you’ve teamed up with on your debut, would you say that club cul­ture has also had a heavy impact on how you grew into Zebra Katz?

Yeah, I prob­a­bly came up with the char­ac­ter idea for Zebra Katz when I was emcee­ing at this club in New York called Hap­py End­ings, and I was throw­ing a par­ty called Pop­ping Bot­tles, Get­ting Preg­nant along­side [Brook­lyn-based rap duo] Nin­ja­sonik. I also was a go-go boy. I also worked in pro­mo­tion. I was very much in the club scene ille­gal­ly when I was 18, 19, 20 liv­ing in New York , also get­ting my col­lege degree, but also hav­ing to work. I was a part of web­sites like myopenbar.com. I par­tied hard, and I went to [nights like] Mis­Shapes and Moth­er­fuck­ers. Def­i­nite­ly had a strong club knowl­edge back­ground, and that was def­i­nite­ly some­thing that informs my music.

Don Aretino tunic

Can you touch upon your ear­ly club expe­ri­ences and how you got into this scene?

It was just my friends, my peer group. I had a class [at The New School’s Eugene Lang] with [DJ] Louisah­hh. We were in fresh­man writ­ing togeth­er. I’ve had class­es with Venus X. There were a lot of par­ties going on in New York at that time. Also I went out in Lon­don because I stud­ied Shake­speare in 2009 at the British Amer­i­can Dra­mat­ic Acad­e­my, and that’s when elec­tro was pop­ping and Peach­es was kind of going off. I was very intrigued with nightlife and club cul­ture, but then I just burnt out from it because I was like this is all the and I’m sick of drink­ing.

But I’m always fas­ci­nat­ed with it. I mean, unfor­tu­nate­ly, I even went to Burn­ing Man at some point just because of my mor­bid curios­i­ty for shit. Like, if they say it’s the best par­ty, I want to fuck­ing find out. Let’s go. I am adven­tur­ous in that way. I want to be a great, informed artist who does­n’t feel that I’ve seen it all, done at all, so I’m the best because I know that’s not the truth, and I’m going to con­tin­ue to grow.

That’s prob­a­bly why I like to go out so much, and I want to see who’s play­ing good shit, who’s remix­ing. Yeah, I a good time out because I also bust my ass send­ing e‑mails, doing admin for weeks at a time. So it’s good to let your hair down and go out and be a human being, see what else is out there.

I also think club fash­ion, espe­cial­ly, is always the most exper­i­men­tal. In the dark, peo­ple can real­ly come alive. You can be a bit more risqué. So, in that sense, what is the Zebra Katz aes­thet­ic now? How did it ini­tial­ly begin and how has it shift­ed over your career? 

I mean, it’s con­stant­ly evolv­ing. I remem­ber call­ing it ‘hip­ster cou­ture chic’ at some point because that’s when Amer­i­can Appar­el unfor­tu­nate­ly was thriv­ing and hip­sters were on the top, and it was about what skin­ny jeans you were wear­ing.  Were they Lev­i’s or were they acid wash, were they black… It was very much that sim­plis­tic, “Oh, you prob­a­bly got those from Urban Out­fit­ters.” I did­n’t have mon­ey like that. I remem­ber when I got my first jack­et gift­ed from Rick Owens, I wore that like three times. I was like, “This is fresh. I can’t take this out,” you know what I mean?

So it’s def­i­nite­ly evolved. I like to keep it dark, but also, am I per­form­ing? Is it some­thing I can move in? Am I going to sur­vive? What’s the reveal? I was very much into the idea of mask­ing. I am still into the idea of mask­ing in my per­for­mance because it brings it back to the com­e­dy and dra­ma ref­er­ences from my thes­pi­an days. It’s a big part of the reveal, which I real­ly like in a live show because I think it’s very dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to get to know who I am. I’m con­stant­ly evolv­ing this char­ac­ter in front of my fan base for the last sev­en years. So I get it. And I think with each visu­al, with each per­for­mance, I think they get to see a lit­tle bit more, into this uni­verse that I’m try­ing to cre­ate.

Hadas Hinkis latex ruf­fle acces­so­ry

And what is this uni­verse exact­ly? Or the newest iter­a­tion of it, that you’re open­ing up in this album? 

I think James Bald­win always said, “To be a negro in this coun­try is to con­stant­ly being enraged.” And that’s def­i­nite­ly about the US. That’s kind of what I’m danc­ing with on this album. You know what I mean? Sim­i­lar to what you see in the ‘Ish’ video with me danc­ing out­side of this box that I was so com­mon­ly placed with­in, and try­ing to fight against that. This refers back to Lau­ryn Hill’s ‘I Get Out’ per­for­mance on MTV, Unplugged. It’s very much these moments that I res­onate with and want to have some­thing to say that I think is very cur­rent and to say. But I also want­ed it to be fun and I want­ed you to be able to dance with the oppres­sion.

With your debut, you’re putting the eight years of your per­son­al, musi­cal, and styl­is­tic growth on dis­play here. Ide­al­ly, what should lis­ten­ers take away from it? 

It’s broad, but I don’t think it’s just the Black Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence. I think it’s a Black expe­ri­ence and it’s because it’s through my lens. I don’t think you have to nec­es­sar­i­ly be Black or white or any race in order to feel what I’m deal­ing with, or going through, or try­ing to express with this album. But it def­i­nite­ly is a cap­sule of how I see the world right now and how I am reflect­ing it, and how I see it in my eyes.

Yeah, it’s a jour­ney, a tes­ta­ment to just per­se­ver­ance and to believ­ing in your gut and cre­at­ing your own god­damn work and see­ing where it gets you. Look where it got me. And I’d teach any kid and any kid, espe­cial­ly, that looks any­thing like me or was in any sit­u­a­tion sim­i­lar, that you can get to where you need to go if you trust in your own work, and pro­mote your­self, and work fuck­ing hard. And it’s going to be hard work and peo­ple are going to tell you to your face how dif­fi­cult it is, and peo­ple have told me time and time again. Ear­ly in my career, I was only cel­e­brat­ed for my hard­ships and nev­er cel­e­brat­ed for my accom­plish­ments. So now, I’m cel­e­brat­ing my god­damn self, and I’m cel­e­brat­ing my work. This is what this is, and I hope peo­ple can feel that and hear that, and I hope peo­ple res­onate with it.

This inter­view has been edit­ed and con­densed for clar­i­ty.

Zebra Katz’s Less Is Moor is out now. Buy it on Band­camp here

Whit­ney Wei is the Edi­tor-in-Chief of Elec­tron­ic Beats. Fol­low her on Insta­gram.

Cov­er look: Hadas Hinkis latex ruf­fle acces­so­ry, The Black vin­tage pleat­ed skirt piece, artist’s own black puffer and chain­mail glove

Pho­tog­ra­phy by Eily Thams, light­ing by Rhi­an­non Thay­er, styling by Chaz Aracil, set design by Anna Wim, make­up by Rieke Mei­sai, pho­to assis­tance by Aisha Altenhofen, styling assis­tance by Ixa

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