A first glance of Virginia-born, Brooklyn-raised Leikeli47’s balaclava-clad visage suggests an artist who is more Sandinista than superhero. But as her kaleidoscopic sound soon makes clear, she’s both. Beneath the sub-comandante aesthetic she makes unabashedly joyous megawatt bass music, the sound of a BK block party in honor of your right to fight. Over the course of four mixtapes, three EP’s, and most recently, her critically-acclaimed second album Acrylic, she’s woven dance-hall, trap, NY boom-bap, house, punk and soul into a joyful gumbo that celebrates the people and communities that have lifted her from the beginning with a virtuoso polish that invites glowing comparisons with trailblazers like Missy, Jill Scott and Nicki Minaj and feels similarly arena-bound.
Whether Leikeli47 is riding the electric bounce of “Full Set”, mashing up the dance-hall on “Tic Boom” or conjuring the soulful summer shimmer of “Top Down”, her art is a shape-shifting display of female power where barriers are an afterthought. Her swagger is hip-hop but rapping just one facet of her innate musicality. She doesn’t flip styles – she embodies them.
A sense of place looms large in Leikeli47’s music. The sisterhood of the neighborhood salon and the queer ballroom scene are recurring motifs, sources of strength to be honored. She’s as inspired by the art-pop archness of heroes like Grace Jones and David Bowie as by the clear-eyed grace of Tom Petty and Kendrick Lamar. In conversation, she lays out a radical musical vision with a disarmingly light touch. Psychoanalyst Adam Philips once wrote that “the masked are always great unmaskers”. If that’s the case, Leikeli47 is here to help us see just how poorly our own are serving us. Her music is a call to arms for carving your own lane in a cold world where flying your freak flag may just be a revolutionary act. — Joel Biswas
A lot has happened since “Fuck the Summer Up” in 2014. Are you still rehearsing in your kitchen the way you did back then?
That same kitchen. I’m there everyday rehearsing. Making sure you sharpen your sword and master the wonderful gift that the higher powers have created. I’m always in the kitchen, the studio – I’ll rehearse in front of my dog. It don’t matter to me.
How do you describe the music that you make?
It’s a huge pot of gumbo with all your favorites in one pot. I know genres exist but I never really took to them, they were never attractive to me. David Bowie didn’t sound any different than Marvin Gaye. I’ve always approached it in that way. Listening to Run DMC and Tom Petty was the same, just different ways of approaching the emotion and that’s just how I do it. I know a lot of people call me a rapper but I’m just a musician and an artist and I want to keep it that way. If I get up and I feel like I want to talk, I’m gonna talk on a record. If I feel like playing with melody, if I feel like rhyming, Imma do that. To me, all of the greats had that ability to kind of just intertwine and involve and go in and out of things. I’ve designed and I’ve carved my own lane to stay in. I’m 47. But I’m grateful to have all of that gumbo that came before me to build me into the artist that I am.
What’s the significance of [the number] 47?
I used to never really talk about it but it’s really no big secret. ’47 was the year that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and it also represents one of my favorite microphones – the Numan 47, a mic that a lot of legends have recorded some great masterpieces with. But that number was always present and important in my life, especially coming from the Jackie Robinson side, doing it his way. Breaking down barriers speaks to the artist I was coming into the game. Being a black girl coming in and trying to be different, outside of the norm – that number gives me power to keep pushing and challenging. I never put it out there like that, but that’s what it is.
That’s dope that you shared that. What barriers are you trying to break down in your work?
All of them. I’m not even gonna give the barriers power by pointing them out, I’m just gonna let you know all of them. It’s crazy – they are there but they are also something that I don’t see and I don’t dwell on. Because I don’t like to sit in that kind of space. I think that all things are possible. I can burn that barrier down, kick it down. They are there and new ones may appear. It is what it is but it’s sometimes fun like plucking them out of the way. That’s how I approach any kind of barrier and I strongly encourage anyone with whatever it is that they are facing to never look at the barrier, at what it looks like right now. Burn it. You got two feet – kick it. You got two hands – punch it. Elbow, whatever – just go. Balls to the wall.
You talk a lot in your music about the people, communities and ideas that give you strength. Who are you repping in your work?
All communities but especially mine, the black community. A lot of people know me as that girl from Brooklyn by way of Virginia. And growing up in those two places, up and down the I-95 I have seen things as we all have, but a lot of those things aren’t always negative. As a kid and young adult just living life, I always looked at the places I’ve come from and lived in as these creative magical playgrounds. I think it’s important to remain childlike and see it in that way. They’re always gonna make the ghetto seem like something totally bad, like ‘don’t go there’. Everywhere you go there are gonna be trials and tribulations but look at the people that have come out of my community – Beyonce, Rihanna – these beautiful beings that look like me and come from places that I come from. It made me look at where I come from in a whole different light. These things that we go through they build us, they build character, they build a fight in us. And the fight they build in us is not a negative thing. It’s not a black thing. It’s a world thing, a people thing because a lot of us, people of many races come from different ghettos and different hard times. It’s beautiful to know that there are these roses growing. Years down the line people see these beautiful human beings who make the world great and that’s just how I look at where I come from. Where I come from, they produced people like Nas. People like Biggie. People like 21 Savage.
You talk a lot about the act and ritual of looking fabulous. Being fabulous, wearing Galliano, wanting to be looked at and part of how you do that as an artist is with a mask. Is there a tension there?
As artists and creatives we all have our own thing and I’ve always been this shy creative. I’ve always just wanted to be heard before I was seen. I’ve faced a lot of things with my appearance alone, just coming up being a black girl and this is outside of the industry, this is just in the world. It is what it is. The mask just always represented this freedom – every boy and every girl that’s like me – it represents humanity. It’s genderless, faceless. I want to be someone who just reaches people no matter where they are. That’s what my mask does. I wear different colours, types and shades and style and textures because as human beings that’s what makes us, us. My mask represents you. I want people to see themselves in that mask. It’s also fashion, darling, it’s fashion!
But outside of that I want to spread a message of love and message that’s spiritual, a message that it’s ok to want to mask what you have going on, it’s ok to be kind, it’s ok to be crazy, it’s ok to be quiet, it’s ok to be loud. I’m a very shy and private person and obviously the mask helps with that. It goes back to the barriers, you hear the no’s, the “that ain’t never gonna work”, this and that. It gave me so much power and a boost of confidence and helped me achieve dreams things that I have always wanted to do. I’m here talking to you because of that mask and I’m very grateful. And I hope that people understand that. I wear it for you to understand and know your freedom. Before me, the godfathers of this are MF Doom, Ghostface, you can even go to Daft Punk – these are people that did it their way and I’m grateful that I’m the first and only girl to do it my way. It’s something that I’ve always done and always wanted to do. And with this mask, people see me. It’s crazy.
Do you ever feel the desire to focus on one style? Or do you go through creative cycles related to a certain style of music that you write?
Coming out and being an artist, whatever I did was what I was feeling in the moment. That’s how we should approach art, live in the moment. I create in the space that I’m in. It’s 2019 and there is so much greatness before me. I am creating a genre for myself. What I am doing right now is what my heroes did before me. Pharrell came and he changed radio. He had a sound and beat, these magical influences and he changed radio. Timbaland. Swizz Beats. People that came and shifted the whole atmosphere – those are my heroes and I feel like that’s what I’m doing. Can you classify it? Can you name it? No, it’s some futuristic, ghetto, country… When you hear it you have those nostalgic moments but you can’t credit it to anyone else. It’s her thing. And I want to shout out every single artist that is doing that today. Migos came out and just carved a lane – like what is this? It’s Migos. To answer your question, I’m creating a new sound. I want people to see that they can do it too.
Who inspires you in the creative community?
Cardi B for one. She is such a breath of fresh air and I think she represents everything I talked about. Artists like 21 Savage. Kendrick Lamar. J Cole. I love Jungle Pussy. I absolutely love her. She is a forward thinker. Her art is so cool. It’s always love and support when we see each other. She sits in that lane. Kamaiyah. The way Eve and Pharrell did it. They are the shit.
You’re largely self-produced across a range of musical styles. Are you trained in music?
I don’t like to give too much away but yeah, something like that. I study music, people, artists. This is what I’ve wanted to do my entire life and it’s no different that Jordan coming up and practicing on that court every day. I think it’s important that we all remain students. Everything from Egyptian scales down to… I hope that everybody can feel like I feel every day on the wake-up. I produce most of my music, I co-produce with my partner from DC Mike Barney, he’s a heavy DC guy from the DMV. We’ve done so many records together, have so much fun and I’ve learned so much from him. But yeah, I produce, I write – I do it all.
Repping the Ballroom community lends a certain flavour to your music and presentation. How does that come into your work?
Growing up down the 95 in Brooklyn and Virginia, ballroom culture has been very always been prominent in my life. I grew up with cousins who were involved in the scene, friends. It’s just what happens in my community. Going back to talking about growing up and repping my community, this is part of the beauty that I see – as a shy kid seeing people just so fearless and so unapologetic being just who they were. It sparked something in me to be the person that I am today. It inspired me to be as comfortable as I want to be with my sweats, my furs, my mask, my dancing, whatever. The ballroom lifestyle was always accepting to difference and that’s attractive to me. It’s etched in me and it’s definitely a part of my sound.
You go to the ballroom to “get your tens” and ballroom is getting its tens right now. The essence of ballroom is very important for us to protect. Because we need to see more of our ballroom legends acting, dancing, doing choreography – doing it all. It’s such a rare, beautiful art form.
I was privileged to do a ball with Red Bull, the ATL is Burning Ball. I actually cried on stage from the love I received. As an artist, you live for these moments when people know your lyrics and they sing back your words and just looking out and seeing so many people with their arms open and accepting you and ready to have fun, just dancing. So much love in that room on top of fierceness on top of that competitiveness because the girls and the boys are competing. It’s such a beautiful atmosphere. The ballroom is like oxygen. That’s how I like to look at it.
We’re finally in an era where we have openly queer hip hop artists who play with gender and are widely embraced. Where do you see yourself in this new tradition that’s still being built?
As a straight advocate for the LGBT community, I am always gonna stand up and fight arm-in-arm with my brothers and sisters to be able to move and do and create in any shape, form or fashion that they want to. Because as human beings, we all deserve the right to. I don’t know if I am a big voice for it, but I am always going to lend myself, my heart, my voice, my mind – everything to the community because it has given it all to me. We’re all human beings. It’s 2019. I’m ready for this new shift. It’s crazy when I look at us as young people today in my generation and I go back and I study and read and I see how progressive people were in the 80’s and 90’s and it’s like here we are in 2019 and we are stuck. It may have been harder for them and their community with people being hateful. But even in the midst of people being totally unaccepting, it never stopped the culture.
I’m still puzzled as to how we went from trailblazers who were having so much fun in an era when people hated them, didn’t understand them, were disgusted by them but culturally they progressed to the point where we are all still borrowing from them today and won’t admit it! I hate to say it but I feel like I am coming up – and let me say this first, there are so many super-dope creative geniuses out here – but we can have more. Sometimes my generation can be just a little unoriginal, just a little stagnant. But there are people out there killing it. Those are the people that I see, that I am attracted to and praying help shift the culture today. Because it’s weird to know that we were so fun and progressive and then we get to today.
We’re in 2019. Back then, they probably thought we would have flying cars today. I’m sure they thought we’d be like walking on clouds by now but unfortunately we are at a time where we’re somewhat creatively stagnant. That’s why we hold onto the people and the art that we had and we fight for it. Because it’s very scarce at the moment. That’s why as a culture, artists we need each other and we need to keep building on each other. We need to not be scared of our ideas and not be scared to pitch our ideas to each other. We need to not be scared to work with each other. That’s not to say that the world is gonna be all “Kum Ba Ya.”
But on the level of what’s important, partner up, have some fun. Don’t be scared to color outside the lines. Don’t be scared to say yes. Or say no. Don’t be scared to wear the pink wig. Or the blue shoes. I can’t wait ‘til we get to that. That’s the mission. To be part of an industry that is completely fluid. Where you have all of these amazing sounds, all these amazing people, where it’s a source of life. I want to be a contributor to that music industry, that creative world. No matter who you are – black, white, brown, gay straight – you deserve to be heard, you deserve to create and you deserve a chance. I’m always gonna be a champion of that shift, and walk that path for people. For the love. For us!