Zebra Katz: "Ballroom Culture Has Been Available For Years, But It's Still Very Much A Subculture"
Zebra Katz was initially was one of seven characters in a performance piece by Ojay Morgan, a NYC-based performance artist and musician who studied at the British American Dramatic Academy in London, Parsons School of Design, and received his Bachelor of Arts from Eugene Lang College. His exhibitions have taken his work to places like Dixon Place Theatre, Glasslands Gallery and experimental theatre mecca La Mamma.
But this Katz character stuck, and took him from Internet sensation to Diplo darling to designer Rick Owens' Paris fashion show. His journey has been a whirlwind, but I caught up with Morgan before he made the trek to Dallas this Saturday, when he'll be performing at Rio Room with the Track Meet DJs.
Off the bat, I wonder if Morgan thought music is what would ultimately bring him notoriety, what with so many disciplines under his belt.
"No, not at all," he says. "This has been so exciting for the Zebra Katz thing to take off. I have been working on so many projects just waiting for something to click. The timing has been crazy."
Indeed. "Ima Read," the single that put Zebra Katz on the map, has been transformative, relying on a minimal beat, mixing hip-hop with house music. "Ima Read" blows line-by-line through the verbal assault known in ballroom and vogue culture as "reading," and while some may be confused by its lyrical content and misread it as misogyny, the song is full of inside jokes for those willing to dig for some context.
"I wrote that song five years ago," Morgan explains. "I would sing the chorus with my friends and I finally just recorded it on my laptop.Then Njena [Reddd Foxxx] added her part. I put it on MySpace and then Diplo got to it. Then Rick Owens heard it, and then ..."
Owens used the song on repeat to underscore the Paris showing of his Fall 2012 collection. With flames behind his Joan of Arc silhouettes, his was a post-apocalyptic take on Paris Is Burning, the remarkable 1990 film that documents ballroom culture in NYC. Morgan is at a tipping point: Even Vogue mentions the soundtrack in their collection review.
"An audience's reaction motivates me," says Morgan. "Ballroom culture has been available for years, beyond Paris Is Burning, but it's still very much a subculture. It makes sense that it is a fashion soundtrack, and that it would get the attention of that industry. Fashion is a part of ballroom culture. It's all about style and attitude and those parallels can be found on the runway."
Zebra Katz will release "Ima Read" officially in the fall, both digitally and on vinyl. I have listened to the track so much, it hadn't occurred to me that it wasn't official. Now signed to Diplo's Mad Decent boutique label, Jeffree's, Morgan is writing and recording with partner Njena Reddd Foxxx, as they work towards releasing their first full-length.
Morgan seems to have the crossover hit, one with references some won't get. Those inside jokes can be mischievous, but he won't reveal the mystery.
"People are still finding out who Zebra Katz is," he says. "Each song will shed a little more light. Is he sinister? Is he a villain?"
My ears perk up at the villain part. I ask if he thinks Zebra Katz has any responsibility within this particular movement. He's thoughtful.
"I am going from project to project. I don't really even think about that. I am glad it's happening and that people are talking about it, and the music I make may be influenced by those thoughts and opinions but I am making art that is my own, and for the joy of making it."
Go see Zebra Katz, performing with Dallas DJ collective Track Meet, in the Rio Room basement on Saturday, July 28.