Don't Ask This Rapper If She Makes Her Own Beats [Exclusive]
Leaf, a 20-year-old rapper, is about to be very, very busy. When we met up the week after Thanksgiving, she lamented the low amount of delicious carbs she ate; she’s prepping for an early 2016 tour with singer Alessia Cara, and the lady has to keep her measurements right. While we personally wept for the lack of pie in Leaf’s life, the pumpkin sacrifice is sure to pay off. Leaf’s music– ethereal vocals over grimy beats– is sure to connect with a wider audience once she’s out showcasing her talent. It took me forever to write up this interview, because I kept stopping to dance around to her tracks. (Sorry, not sorry, to the neighbors who witnessed such
Born Mikala Leaf McLean, Leaf grew up in New York and recently moved to Atlanta. She is aware that it’s easy to confuse her with Le1f, and even chatted with him about it; it turns out that the two grew up in the same Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.
The musician, who is signed to Fool’s Gold Records, sings beautifully, dances, models, and spits (we love when she goes hard, like on her single “Slick”). Perhaps, most importantly, Leaf also produces all of her own music. And, like most female producers and songwriters, she’s not given nearly enough credit. The sexism in the industry that has men constantly asking her if she actually makes her own beats (like Bjork, FKA twigs, etc.) is something she’s passionately railing against. We sat down to talk about how she’s combating sexism with her “Magnet Bitch Movement,” her cool style, and what it was like to be an “infamous” bad kid at the famous LaGuardia High School.
How long have you been a musician?
I’ve been officially doing music, [and] in a studio, since I was 16. I’ve been writing music since I was six years old. Obviously not the greatest songs, but I was sitting down, writing out songs. I picked up guitar at 14. Music has always been a part of my life.
Do you play any other instruments?
I play guitar. I am very sub-par at piano. I make beats, so I use the keys to arrange.
I feel like so many women produce their own music and don’t get the credit. That must be important to you.
Yeah, definitely. I always tell people, like, “I sing, I rap, and I produce.” They’re like, “So which one do you really do?” I always get that, and I feel like it’s so rude. So many guys out there do so many different things, and they get so much credit for everything that they do. When you’re a woman, people look at you and think you’re silly. They’re always thinking you’re dumb. I know a lot of really intellectual girls who do a lot of great things with their lives, who deserve the credit. It’s gonna change, though. These years are our years.
All the time I hear, “Oh, it’s so dope you produce, ’cause you could be the first girl to do it.” I [get] silence. Crickets. There are so many girls that have been doing it for so long that deserve so much credit, on all different levels. It’s crazy.
Do you ever feel underestimated in music?
All the time. Every time I walk into a studio, I feel like I have to overstate my presence in order to be respected. Because, especially as a female who works in the hip-hop/R&B field, there are a lot of girls who just sit in the studio and do nothing. You always come into those situations where there are girls sitting in the studio the whole entire time that don’t speak a word. So, whenever I come into the studio, I have to make it very clear, “I am a musician. I’m here to work. Don’t just make me sit in your studio for three hours.” There are really a lot of levels to it.
I think that hip-hop is portrayed in a certain way, and it shines a certain light on females. I wanna come through and be like, “Girls, we have all the power.” I love what Beyoncé does, like, “Girls, we run the world.” Honestly, I feel like more girls need to feel like they have a place. I always claim my place. I always make sure it’s heard that I’m here. I’m Leaf, what’s up? I make music. I’m not just some girl sitting in the studio.
“Every time I walk into a studio, I feel like I have to overstate my presence in order to be respected.”
I read that you call your music counter-active programming–that it’s designed to empower women.
Exactly. I feel like there’s so much music out right now that’s really degrading towards women. I wanted to make music that empowers women, rather than make them feel like they have to fit into this idea of what women should be nowadays. I think that there was a time in the ‘90s and the 2000s where women had a voice, and I feel like it’s been kind of taken away from us, in a way. There’s only so many voices that are out right now, speaking in a way that I can connect to. I want to come through and give girls another voice to listen to.
It seems like things are getting better for rappers that are women, but it’s still a pretty small pool.
It’s really hard for us, because I feel like when you’re a female, it’s a great thing and it’s kind of a challenge sometimes. Women are just naturally versatile, but I feel like people try and box us in. Like, “Oh, you dance and you sing? Oh, you’re like Beyoncé?” “Oh you rap and you sing? You’re Nicki Minaj?” “Oh, you sing? You’re Rihanna?” You know what I mean? It’s like, there are so many girls in the game, and people try and box you in those categories because they don’t wanna think out of the box and have to reprogram themselves to think of something new.
One hundred percent. On another note, I heard that you were a bad kid in high school?
Yeah, I was. It was so bad that at some point someone came up to me and was like “yo, you are infamous!” I was like whoa, that’s not anything I’ve ever wanted to be called! It wasn’t that I was a bad kid, it was that I was at a school that just didn’t understand me. I want to LaGuardia high school, and I wanted to be an R&B singer. I wanted to do hip-hop, and I was constantly trained in opera, for like four years.
Yeah, it’s great. But, at the same time, you’re constantly being put down by your teachers because of what you wanna sing, and they’re telling you “Oh, you’ll never be a singer.”
That’s horrible! They tell kids that?
Well, not [as] dramatic, but my teachers were literally like, “You’re so good, but you’re really lazy. You may never be anything.” Stuff like that is really heartbreaking. I tried out for the one class in school where you could make your own music, and they turned me down because it wasn’t, like, indie rock. It was a hard time in my life, because I’ve always wanted to be a musician. And so, to have four years of your life where people are telling you that you may never, ever be anything great—it’s kinda hard for any artist, any musician, or anyone.
It must be kind of satisfying to be so successful in the face of that.
I’m happy for the experience because it drove me harder. I was cutting class to make music, I was leaving to make music, I graffitied the school to promote a party—which backfired, obviously, because they found out who I was because it was my party. It was a driving moment, and I have to thank them now, because I wouldn’t be who I am without that experience. But it was harsh, and I hope that in the future they’re way nicer to other kids.
Me too. On to a lighter topic, you have great style. What are you feeling right now?
I like fashion. I like to sort of call my look “glamour goth,” ’cause sometimes I can be a little more upscale, sometimes I can take it down a notch, but my look is very dark and gothic. I wear lots of black, white, and red. Occasionally, people like to call it tomboy goth. I would say my look is between glamour goth and tomboy goth. You know, a little bit of this, a little bit of that.
Could you tell me about your Magnet Bitch Movement, which inspired your EP?
Yeah, I’mma break it down. ‘Magnet,’ because I feel like women should know that they magnetize everything into their lives. Anything that you want, you can create for yourself. You’re a magnet in your own life. ‘Bitch,’ I like that word. I feel like it’s only created negative connotations now. There was “Oh, that’s bitchin’,” like in the ’80s; it was a good thing then. For me, a lot of people have come up to me and been like, “Oh, you look so mean, I thought you were a bitch.” So, I wanted to take that word and be like Magnet Bitch Movement.
Do you have Resting Bitch Face?
Yeah, I guess so. I feel like every girl in New York kind of has Resting Bitch Face. It’s naturally in us to just be a little bit more stank than other girls. But, I want other girls to know that just ’cause you’re beautiful, talented, versatile, and you know what you want, doesn’t mean that you’re a bitch or that you have to lower yourself or quiet yourself for other people’s comfort. I want girls to be comfortable, go out, and do their own thing. Magnet Bitch Movement is really for DIY females and entrepreneurial females, who want to just take over the world.
Check out Leaf’s Magnet Bitch EP, out now on Fool’s Gold Records. Her album will debut in early 2016.
All photography shot exclusively for Milk by Carlos Santolalla