The year is 2012. At Rick Owens’ Paris show, a runway lined with creeping flames fades into view and a pulsating beat begins to fill the room. As models stomp the catwalk, tensions in the track rise over a heavy bassline. Camera shutters fire off and snarling vocals declare, “Ima read that bitch.” This was the moment in which Zebra Katz became an overnight hitmaker.
Eight years later, the Berlin-based performer – real name Ojay Morgan – is preparing to release his debut album, LESS IS MOOR, a self-funded passion project that reflects his commitment to working as a fully-independent artist. “Most of the time I feel like I’m speaking in hieroglyphics,” he says, discussing how he had to present himself to the industry after this debut. “I don’t know if it’s because I come from a theatre background, or because I manage myself as an artist.”
Zebra Katz is a first-generation Jamaican-American, born in Florida’s West Palm Beach, whose artistic expression paved the way for this project. A thesis written while at university in New York, titled ‘Moor Contradictions’, acted as the precursor to LESS IS MOOR, with its exploration into issues surrounding the Black experience. Nevertheless, it was Fashion Week exposure that catapulted Katz to fame, resulting in a nationwide tour and an invite to appear on the Gorillaz album, Humanz, which also featured his personal hero, Grace Jones. Once this all came to a close in 2017, he settled down in Berlin and immersed himself in his solo work.
The results are showcased on LESS IS MOOR. A raw patchwork of who Katz is, the dynamic collection ruminates on identity, sexuality and the life of a star, and operates outside the constraints of genre. The dynamic collection jolts between the dark and brooding techno-driven ‘IN IN IN’, via the sexually-charged ‘LICK IT N SPLIT’ featuring Shygirl, and the stripped-back ‘NECKLACE’ with gentle guitars and vulnerable vocals.
“I didn’t want to make what people thought I should be making,” he says. “The first track, ‘INTRO TO LESS’, is inspired by the [Public Enemy] album, Fear of a Black Planet, and is kind of setting up how I was perceived in 2013, when they were just talking about my sexuality. I was coined as ‘queer rap’ and that’s all that people were focused on.”
“I was labelled as a ‘ballroom’ artist but I wouldn’t call myself that,” he continues. “I think that’s why I wanted this album to be well-rounded and be genre-nonconformist because I am. I don’t adhere to one sound.” Working with the likes of Sega Bodega, Tony Quattro and fellow Red Bull Academy graduate Torus, Katz has created an album that successfully showcases his versatility.
As a self-managed artist, he has been able to build his own image, create his own sound and decide the time-frame in which he releases new projects. “Every time I make a choice, that’s my decision,” he says. “That’s been such a breath of fresh air for me; I feel very proud. I’m very thankful that I didn’t rush it. I didn’t go off any of the fear and doubt that people put into my head.”
“I didn’t want to make what people thought I should be making”
The visuals for ‘ISH’ further demonstrate this fearlessness. Opening with a news report about an escalation in violent homophobic crime, the video then cuts to a dancer whose expressive movements indicate some kind of torment. Slowly, flashes behind him reveal a crowd jeering.
“There’s a shot of a mob, because we’re thinking about all the politics we watch,” he explains. “The far-right, Black Lives Matter, anti-vaxxers: there’s always that mob mentality. With the news anchor, we refer to the notion of how the media blackouts are covering up hate crimes against the LGBTQ community, especially against trans black women, and I wanted to say that.
“The video is kind of me lashing out at the anger I feel. The quote by James Baldwin, ‘to be a negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time,’ is at the centre, and I’m trying to capture that rage.” Having the freedom to express through such audio-visual media represents a new chapter for Zebra Katz. “I’m getting back to the parts I enjoy: getting on stage, performing and making these tracks have a visual aspect,” he says. “And I’m glad I did it this way because I’ve learned so much more about the industry and my process.”
Photo by Larissa Matheus.
Make-up by Sofia Ghezzo Leal.