Meet Leaf, Your New Favorite Rapper And Feminist Icon
"Every time I don’t fit in, I feel like I am doing something right"
Photo by Kaspar Haycock
It's hard to put a label on Leaf, New York's latest rap prodigy and producer, but that's exactly how she likes it. The 21-year-old says she's sick of being categorized, whether through comparisons to other artists or being called a "Female Rapper," as if she were an exotic species of some sort.
Really, Leaf belongs to a genre all of her own, and it only takes a listen to understand why. The artist is becoming known for feminism-charged tracks that are as empowering as they are catchy, from the motivating "MONEY" to her recent Lil Yachty collab and DGAF anthem, "Nada." But Leaf doesn't stop there. The Brooklyn, New York, native also runs her own fashion label and all-female creative collective, MBM (which stands for "Magnetic Bitch Movement" and "Money Before Men," if you were wondering).
If that's not enough to get you hooked on all things Leaf, read on. The burgeoning star stopped by NYLON recently to talk phobias, Lil Wayne concerts, feeling like an outcast, and her upcoming album Trinity, which comes out this fall.
What's your earliest memory of music?
I used to write songs in my diary when I was, like, six, and I would sing Britney Spears songs and freak out in the mirror with brushes. I think we all did that. I was obsessed with the Spice Girls [movie]; I would rewatch it and rewatch it. I was so obsessed that I got one of those sequin tops that they would wear, and I would wear those all the time.
How has growing up in New York influenced you as an artist?
I think it gave me the platform to be whoever I wanted to be. And at the same time, it gave me hustle and perseverance. I feel like growing up in New York, even though being a weirdo is highly accepted, I still felt like an outcast. It gave me a lot of backbone as an artist.
What was it that made you feel like an outcast?
People never really understood me style-wise, because I was always the girl who didn’t dress like anybody else. And there were people who didn’t understand me music-wise because I’ve always made kind of alternative music. I sang opera, and I’ve been in a punk band. In high school, I didn’t have a lot of friends, and there were so many weird cliques in my school that I didn’t fit into. It’s difficult growing up, as a female, and I think just as a person in general.
How do you feel now?
Growing up, I just always felt like, “Shit, I’ll never be anything. I’m a fucking loser. No one gets me, no one understands me.” I gained friends, then I lost friends, then I realized that I’m not supposed to fit into one crowd. I’m not supposed to be comfortable because then I wouldn’t be able to make the art that I make. I think that’s a lot of artists, and a lot of powerful women, too.
Even throughout that period of feeling like an outcast, did you always know you wanted to be in music?
Yeah, definitely. My entire life. When I was 13, I put together a whole show at a venue for all these local bands that I knew. I’ve been throwing events since I was really young, and I didn’t even realize back then that I was really young doing this. I started throwing teen parties at 12. It never clicked with me until I turned 18 that most kids aren’t doing that. I was always a hustler, from the age of, like, nine, I would gather up all my clothes and sell them on the street.
How did you get from there to here?
I started putting my music on MySpace at 12 years old. Then, MySpace got lame, so I went to Facebook [laughs].
Hold on, I have to ask you this one question here. What was your MySpace page song?
It would have had to be Lil Wayne. I was obsessed with No Ceilings and all that shit. I was so obsessed with Lil Wayne, I had a poster of him in my bedroom and I would kiss it every night. [Laughs] I had never seen Lil Wayne live, and then I went to a Nicki Minaj concert four or five years ago, and I didn’t know [Lil Wayne] was coming onstage. As soon as he came onstage, I just started crying. It’s so embarrassing. Honestly, he’s one of the reasons I started rapping—him, Nicki [Minaj], Azealia Banks.
So back to your story.
I was Facebook famous because I was the girl who was always throwing the dope parties on Facebook. After that, my music started picking up a little bit. I started getting, like, 75,000 plays on YouTube. A year later or two years later, that’s when Fool’s Gold found me. That’s where it all started. It’s not finished yet, though.
How did you link up with Lil Yachty for "Nada?"
I was in Atlanta for a year, and I knew his manager. When I made the song, “Nada,” I was thinking, “Who do I want on this song?” So, I sent it to Coach [K], and I was like, “Do you think Yachty would get on it?” And to my surprise, Yachty was like, “Yeah, I know her, she’s dope, I’d love to get on this song.” I met him at his “1 Night” video the first time. And, he not only knew who I was but knew who my girlfriend was. So, I guess, Yachty is just someone who’s up on current shit. He’s king of the teens, for sure. And then I met him again when we did the Miami Rolling Loud festival together. He even came and sat on the speakers and watched my whole set. We’ve been cool ever since.
You've been a very outspoken feminist from day one. Do you think artists are obligated to participate in social commentary, or is it enough to just be a female rapper in this industry?
I believe that everybody should give social commentary. I think it's scary for a lot of people. But I think that if you are an artist, you are making a statement regardless of if you're making a statement not to talk, or making a statement to talk. I think, as an artist, it is your job to talk about things. I think the greatest part is talking about things.
I love the way your brand—Magnetic Bitch Movement—turns the word "bitch" into a positive term.
Well in the '80s, bitchin' was a cool term, like, "Oh my god, that's so bitchin." Every word is just the intention you put behind it, essentially. So people have taken the word "bitch," and used it against women as they use everything against women. We have to take this moment to take everything that has been used against us and use it to empower us. I feel like being a bitch is not a bad thing. It means you have opinions, and you are probably a boss. In my eyes, being a bitch is the best compliment in the fucking world. Every strong, powerful woman has been called a bitch at least once, or five million times.
Who are your female role models?
Number one, Coco Chanel. How do you just decide, it's 1920, I want to wear all black, and I want to wear pants, and I'm gonna cut my hair really short, and I don't need a fucking man, and I'm gonna wear miniskirts, so fuck everybody! I love when girls make super-crazy boss moves and don't care about opinions and are rebellious. She also has this quote, "To be irreplaceable is to be different," and I think that is one that that has always stuck with me as a person. Every time I don't fit in, I feel like I am doing something right. Like we talked about earlier, being an outcast is often a needed feeling.
Another powerful woman is Maya Angelou, just because everything that comes out of her mouth is profound. I've never heard her give a speech that wasn't amazingly moving. The emotions that she has put into her work and the harsh environment she has had to live in her entire life is so moving. I love Janet; I love Gwen Stefani; Aaliyah of course, she's the queen; Beyoncé, and Nicki just because they have done things for women in music that no one else has done.
How do you deal with hip-hop’s history of being somewhat of a misogynistic genre?
I think hip-hop has always been a certain way, and I think that’s why I specifically love the platform that I’m building for women. I feel like it’s our opportunity to change it. Men are always going to do what they think they can get by with. If we accept it, then they’re going to continue to do it. But if we, as women, stand up and say, “We don’t want to listen to this shit anymore, we don’t want to participate,” then that’s when it changes. I think that’s what happened in the ‘90s, there was all the misogynistic rap, but then there were a bunch of girls coming from their side like, “Yeah, all you players, y’all can fall back because I’m not only just a lady, I’m a boss.”
Especially being a woman in this industry, do you ever feel like people try to box you into a category?
I've not only been boxed in with labels on who I sound like, but who I look like, who I dress like. It's not even just in this industry. I walk down the street, and people are like, "Hey J. Lo, Beyoncé!" I don't want to be compared to anyone because I am not anyone except for myself. I think that when you compare people to other people, it gives them this idea that you are supposed to live up to this certain standard, and I don't want to live up to any standard except for my own.
Tell us about your upcoming album, Trinity. Where does the title come from?
The number three is one of my favorite numbers because I believe that it stands for creation, fertility, and women in general. I think women are the symbol of creation. We have been gifted this gift of being able to just hold something inside us for nine months and have a whole entire person come out. I think we are the most beautiful things that have ever been put on this earth. We make life!
Essentially, Trinity is just a project to empower women. It's about the experiences I've been through as a young woman, songs to turn up to for all my girls. It's really about girls coming together to turn up, and also just understanding our gift. I think women need to come together to become a powerhouse. I think we, as women, need to create opportunities for other women. We let men pin us against each other. Women are given so many gifts, and we don't use them because we are raised to feel futile, insecure, and weak. I'm not weak in any way. My mind is not weak, my body is not weak, my will is not weak. If we did band together, we could really do some crazy shit. So, let's get to it.
I hate to ask a dating question—because that feels sexist in itself—but I'm wondering if you find it difficult to find guys who share your worldview?
Well, I can’t keep relationships [laughs]. But, it’s not that I can’t find a guy, it’s that he 100 percent wants to change me and make me some weird experiment for him or some shit. And, I just don’t have time for it anymore. I’ve just decided, fuck dating; I’m just going to be single. It’s hard anywhere. They’re like, “Oh, you cook? Great. You can stay at home and watch our kids.” And I’m like, “Umm... but I make more money than you.”
Alright, time for some quick-fire questions. What's your favorite internet meme?
You know these wild SpongeBob ones? They are so funny. SpongeBob [SquarePants] is one of my favorite shows. I only watch cartoons.
Do you have any phobias?
My biggest fear is being eaten alive by maggots. It only happens if you die, I'm pretty sure, but it's the scariest thing ever!
You have amazing style. What are you into wearing this summer?
These '50s-style bras, I'm obsessed with. I'd be wearing neck scarves with them, but it's too hot for anything on my neck. I'm also obsessed with anything see-through. I've been wearing see-through dresses all summer with nude underwear, scaring people. And, of course, I'll never take off my Vans or my skull socks. I wear them every single day, even if it's 150 degrees. Cat eye glasses, I'm also obsessed with these.
If you could have any roommate, dead or alive, who would you choose?
What's your personal motto?
I'll read you my favorite [Albert] Einstein quote. This is one quote that I live by: "Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." It's one of those quotes that made me realize if I keep judging myself on the measures of others, then I'm just going to forever be short-changing myself and what I believe is success.
You speak with so much confidence and seem very sure of yourself. What kind of advice would you give to someone who is not at that point yet?
Someone told me that the definition of success is making progress in something you love. It's not actually the end goal; it's just making progress. I even have alarms on my phone that remind me to appreciate myself. I think if we all just take moments out of our day to appreciate ourselves and the things that we are good at, we won't feel so bad about ourselves for the things that we feel we are failing at. No one is really failing; we are just growing. I always remind myself, You're growing; you're getting better.