Zebra Katz

by John-Paul Pryor

Vengeance Beats at the Heart of His Alter Ego
Some artists in person are so unlike the personas they project into the public domain that their “every day” form is as equally shocking. Florida-born Brooklynite Ojay Morgan’s Zebra Katz is the middle-class-baiting, queer-forward force behind fashionista-entrancing ‘Ima Read’—a pissed-off ball-culture-referencing track whose simmering minimalist jam shook Rick Owens’ show at Paris Fashion Week. But because Morgan is such a damned gentle guy in person, it’s worth pointing out Zebra Katz is very much a full-on alter ego, in the vein of Marilyn Manson’s Omēga or Saul Williams’ Niggy Tardust. Morgan may be pissed off inside, but it’s the Zebra Katz who lets it out.

The benefit of a persona is it allows you to express your outrage, to be reckless, to say whatever the fuck you want. For Morgan the opportunities to express himself as a black man were limited, but in the Zebra Katz persona he hasn’t just found an outlet of self-expression, but a complex way of representing larger societal issues. “I come from the world of acting and performance, and there’s just not a lot of roles for black people,” he explains, just hours before taking the stage at East London’s flagrantly hipster haunt, The Seabright Arms. So Morgan created a role in order to address the dearth of roles for black men in contemporary American society.

“The character and the music are both kind of juxtapositions of each other. I mean, ‘Ima Read’ is vengeful, sure, but that is just how I felt at the time I wrote it. When I first went to college I thought everyone would be open-minded about race and religion, but they weren’t—some of the students had never even been in a room with someone who was black before, so there was a lot of teaching people going on about what it is to be ‘other’. It was a dark place for me but it’s about showing this side of myself that is kind of hidden. Usually, we try to mask it because we think it won’t be attractive, but it actually is attractive to most people—to some, it’s even beautiful.”

It’s easy to think of the fashion crowd’s support of Morgan’s socially conscious “music” as capricious, since it could vanish the moment “identity politics” no longer seem in vogue. But even if Morgan can’t rely on the continued support of the fashion set, it still feels good to be noticed at all. “To be singled out by Rick Owens definitely gave me the confidence to believe in what I am doing and dive fully into it – to bring the darkness into the light.”

Despite the second inauguration of Obama, Morgan is keen to make the point that America is still a country divided along some very clear lines. “Gender and race is so heavily impacted in the states, it’s sad how divided it still is,” he says. “It’s definitely something that still needs exploring in art. At some time in the future I hope we can have a real discussion as a society about race and gender, but until then each of us has to navigate it however we can to make it work best for us.”