Zebra Katz have taken the fashion and underground music scene by storm. Referencing hip-hop, ball culture and Shakespeare in their work, Ojay Morgan and Njena Reddd Foxxx are on to something good. Swide's Ben Taylor caught up with them in Milan during fashion week.
It’s one thing when you’re making waves on the music scene but to be hustled as part of a new movement is another. Now based in NYC, Ojay Morgan and Njena Reddd Foxxx’s track ‘IMA READ’ has become somewhat of a mantra among subcultures, bringing aspects of ball culture, as seen in the iconic film 'Paris is Burning, to the underground scene and making us think about what it is to read.
25-year-old Ojay and his first lady Njena dropped by Milan Fashion Week to play live for the notorious party Punks Wear Prada at Santa Tecla. The irresistible heavy beats of IMA READ were originally laid down 5 years ago but fast forward to 2012; Fashion designer Rick Owens used IMA READ to present his FW12 collection, current leading lady Azealia Banks is taking them on tour as support and other artists are itching to collaborate with him.
All of this aside, Ojay and Njena cut pretty damn interesting characters and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to share a drink with them and talk ball culture, hip-hop attitudes, the misconceptions of gay rappers and learn what a Devil Dip is…
Here’s what they’ve got to say for themselves:
Ojay, Tell me about your upbringing
O: The sun, grass, I went to public school for the arts and I studied theatre, doing performances and eventually stepped into the art culture and tried to be a well rounded individual. I also went to the high school for performing arts in West Palm Beach and so I’ve always been heavily invested in performing and being an artist and working on my craft and I am thankful to have that upbringing and to have the time to dwell on it, giving me the opportunity to explore and develop myself. Also, where I am from, growing up there was a lot of diversity and me being Jamaican I had a lot different influences weaving in and out of my musical horizon.
You moved to NYC in 2004…
O: I wanted to go to Parsons design school but it didn’t work out and so decided to go to Eugene Lang college and I got… a liberal arts degree, which I am still paying for. I gotta do something about that asap. After living in different district I ended up in Williamsburg and that’s where I’ve been living since.
So when did music take centre stage in your life?
O: It kinda just happened. I’ve felt like I’ve always had a hand with music, you know, splicing songs together for a routine or a group piece or trying to make songs for performances. With my studies music was always involved, like chanting, body percussion, clapping etc and it is something that I’ve always been very much in love with. Then there is the voice and what it can do. It’s that that really inspired the side of me that was more inclined to music and but actually I never thought that I had the ability to record my voice and put it to backing and put it out there. That changed when I got my computer and I discovered Garage Band and so thought… oh this is really fun, why don’t I put it on the internet? It became hobby, much like what my friends were doing, and it grew out of that.
So that’s where Zebra Katz came from?
O: Well, it came out of this and also a performance piece called ‘Moor Contradictions’ that was premiered at the La Mama theatre. The performance had seven characters within it, Zebra Katz being one of them, and that character stuck. Then, the music grew with the character that I portrayed in the piece and so did I.
IMA READ the track which got you and Njena the attention you deserved was actually produced 5 years ago. Why now?
O: I think timing was everything. There is a lot going on in the music and fashion industry. Then things that seemed to click within politics and attitudes, the re-release of Paris Is Burning and artists emerging through this subculture. Then fashion designer Rick Owens found inspiration in us used our track IMA READ for his FW12 Women’s runway. He found what we created in that environment and what we put on to the IMA READ track, he was thinking the same thing and wanted to express the same thing. And then it’s gone on from there. All the support we’ve got from the fashion world and current artists has been phenomenal.
Njena, I understand that you got involved 2 years after the track was originally put down. How did it all happen?
N: I was his best friend at that point and just hanging and he said that he had this track and wanted to know if I wanted to write something for it and get on it and I was like ‘OK’. I got out a pencil and paper, I wrote my verse…
O:… not only…
N: We made a little devil dip. Something special that Ojay whips up.
What is Ojay’s devil dip?
N: We’ll give you the recipe later. It’s not for now. So, anyway, we laid it down and made that third verse that goes back and fourth at the end, and that is the version that everyone else is heard. And it’s crazy. We recorded in the bedroom, directly into the computer mic, right up to it. That’s how it was recorded, it’s never been re-recorded and that is THE version.
Photo by Whitney Summer Boyd
The aesthetics of the track and the accompanying video are very strong. Talk me through that.
O: I wrote and produced the track to be dark. IMA READ, you could say came out of a dark place, but for me it was very exhilarating. I was able to connect with a beat that was very minimal and could travel and that felt like my heartbeat at the time. The line itself is like a mantra to help me get through times when I thought that wasn’t that much control that I had on certain situations or more specifically in an academic setting of a performing arts school and you sit around sitting with people who may not have the same background and knowledge experience that you may have. So, I think that I was reading people, taking them to college and showing them what is out there that they were missing due to a lack of interest in certain things. Maybe someone is going to read you and tell you that you don’t know what ‘reading’ is or maybe I won’t be able to read you. There is that attitude that the song came out of. Then adding Njena to it combined with the bitch reference it gives the track more layers because people can think that I am misogynistic ‘he’s the worst, who does he think he is?’.
N: It’s just because they didn’t understand the reference to reading.
How has IMA READ evolved?
O: Well, I hope it has evolved. The term reading is universal, it’s from ball culture and, obviously, it actually means to read something.
Sorry, but i got to ask, what are you reading at the moment?
N: At the moment I am not reading anything new. I am doing a lot of re-reading. A book that I always turn to is James Joyce’s Ulysses and certain sections of it, I have an affinity with it. A whole semester at college was spent studying it and it takes me back to a time where I was heavily involved with a lot of things, when school is about discovery and searching and opening up to new things. That book always takes me there and it is somewhere that I am right now as everything is so new. This whole music thing is so new to me and so it’s good to just take myself back to that place and remind myself that I’ve been here before.
Diplo, the producer and artist, signed you up. He’s done you a favour. How will you pay it forward?
O: I think that’s a very interesting question. You think about the music industry and I think Diplo is a great individual and Mad Decent is an amazing group of people. We were really lucky to have them pick it up and show interest in it as a misconception of Mad Decent is that it is a lot of people, where as it is a relatively small team and so we’re lucky that they saw potential in us. This company is global and it has given the opportunity to branch out to Europe and different events. About paying it forward… we’re working on it. We need time to grow as artists, there’s time.
Winter Titty EP?
O: It’s a web collaboration with a Lithuanian DJ called Boyfriend. Soundcloud made that possible as it makes it so much easier to connect with artists that I never would have heard of and Boyfriend and I were talking about our tracks and his style of moombahton and decided that we should collaborate… and Winter Titty was born.
To finish up, let’s talk about gay rap.
O: Oh man. Njena.
What’s the biggest misconception?
N: Misconception of what?
This ‘movement’ of gay/queer rap?
N: Is there a movement? I don’t think there is and that is the biggest misconception. This is just a bunch of people making music who aren’t necessarily connected, or making music about the same things or even about being queer and I think that putting us all together is actually very limiting and it’s just an easier way to round this guys up rather than looking at these artists as individuals and what it is they are saying. I’m not gay… where does that leave me? Does this mean I am written out of the conversation totally? I don’t think sexuality has a lot to do with these people’s projects. It’s easy to group it together. Some of the artists that are high profile at the moment haven’t been seen before and, so, to make it easier to understand, they get grouped together. Even though, I am aware that, yes, sexuality does obviously has something to d with it. We’re all sexual. Ok, I’m done… hahahahah
O: It’s just a mindset and it’s something that will change… and is changing.
Interviewed and written by Ben Taylor
cover image by Whitney Summer Boyd