Zebra Katz: Summer Happenings at The Broad
It’s a brisk night in downtown Los Angeles. Sitting on a stump and watching artist Damon Locks washed in an electric-blue light, the first comers meander toward the stage as sounds of synthesized guitar strings filter over the lawn. The Broad Museum’s doors remain closed as he sets the tone for the evening with a sound piece inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work. It’s an overture that impregnates the air with possibility, intrigue and anticipation.
Summer Happenings at the Broad Museum ends its second season with an homage to Jean-Michel Basquiat; a celebration of the internal and external forces that shaped the man and his work. The evening turns its focus to the immaterial and live—dance, performance, music—to animate a dialogue between the Broad’s collection of art and artists working outside their walls.
The museum doors open and the night picks up its pace. Colorful waves of people across cultures, ages and styles—a favorite was the barely clad couple in leather with more silver than skin for ears— spill through the doors or onto the lawn waiting for the next musical act. The performances outside and inside the museum create the cacophonous world of Jean-Michel Basquiat where “punk meets hip hop, gay meets straight, black meets white, and downtown party meets uptown art world.”
Through the lobby, up a dark flight of stairs to the second floor, the Oculus Room is transformed into a downtown dance party. Photographs of Basquiat are projected onto the wall; in his studio, with Andy Warhol. The slides take pause; superimposing a slower more reflective beat on DJ Michael Stock spinning uptempo funky-punky tracks. From his slender slip of a stage, he faces a trio of dancers in Outkast t-shirts drenched in hot pink, purple and green lights. They were joyous and generous with the audience, doing a mixture of popping and locking and flexing, also known as Bone Breaking. In speaking with one of the event organizers, he was enthused and reminiscent himself of New York City at the end of the 70’s and early 80’s; the fertile concrete from which Jean-Michel Basquiat rose along hip-hop, punk and new wave. Rapture by Blondie put hip-hop on the map. The Clash did back-up for hip-hop, so did Aerosmith before they worked with Run DMC. That era in New York City produced an unparalleled collaboration between artists and genres, paving the way for the musicians who now find themselves on the Broad Museum stage.
Back on the lawn, his name sing-songs through the speakers. A heavy beat kicks in as he enters. Clad in a silver jumpsuit, face hidden underneath a black mask with long silver beads for hair, Zebra Katz seduces and taunts the audience with a low and booming voice. Aggressive, sexy, theatrical, enigmatic, Zebra Katz is the underdog, the “dark lord of hip-hop” brought into being by Ojay Morgan.
Born in Jamaica, raised in South Florida, Ojay Morgan then moved to New York to attend Eugene Lang College where he majored in theatre and minored in costume design. He rose to public attention when his minimal and haunting track 'Ima Read' was used by fashion designer Rick Owens for his 2012 runway show in Paris. To say Katz has style is undercutting a look that draws its inspiration from a variety of sources: high-fashion, street, costume, masks. It hints at an underlining playfulness beneath Katz’s dark exterior.
Before his set, Katz is in a simple white t-shirt with his dark hair pulled back into a high ponytail. He holds his tall and broad stature with a confidence that’s rooted in his feet. In other words, he’s down-to-earth, fiercely intelligent and thoughtful. With an expressive face and physicality, he speaks about making his own way as a creative and the challenges he faces as an artist who refuses to be defined.
“We have to make our own work. It’s what I learned being an actor, moving into NYC to follow the dream. You put yourself out there, you become a product to these casting directors and you’re like, what role do I fit into? My senior thesis was a one-man show called Moor Contradictions because I was constantly playing the Moors in Shakespeare.”
In Moor Contradictions, he created a composite of characters that he describes as fragments of his personality. “I went to study at the British American Dramatic Academy in 2006. I played Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night. Even then, I was working with a prominent director there and he said to me, ‘I cast a negro once in a lead role.’ Morgan throws his hands open, “he said that out loud to me… it sparked my interest in the Moor. I knew those roles well. What were [Shakespeare’s] ideas behind these “pagan” characters?” He asks himself. “They were fragmented but…” he shakes his hands to stop himself from diving too deep, “…but not necessarily understood. I made characters based on that; the contradictions I had within myself, recorded them and put them on the internet.”
His first attempt at making music was for the Zebra Katz character that opened his show -- little did Morgan know that ‘Zebra Katz’ would be the character who would launch his entire career. “This was the same time that people were getting famous for creating characters on YouTube—another person I went to school with, Franchesca Ramsey, she did Things White Girls Say to Black Girls. If people weren’t writing work for you, you had to create work that was going to benefit you. I was finding that I didn’t want to play a cool detective or drug dealer on Law and Order —and I think you have to do that, you have to pay your dues. I looked at people like Whoopi Goldberg and Agent Piper who put themselves out there and that’s what inspired me to do a one-man show.”
Like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Morgan worked with what he had. “It was Basquiat’s approach to working that struck a chord with me. I used GarageBand… I wanted to work with what I know which was minimal beat and breath. And using my vocals as the driving force behind it. Ima Read, people probably count the word bitch more than they count the breaths but…” he laughs and shrugs.
“I came into this in 2012, with Njena Reddd Foxxx (who is featured on the 'Ima Read' track) not knowing anything about the music industry. I knew a lot about SAG and getting into the union, going out on auditions, updating your headshot, having a good resume. I was much more about sharing stuff with people that I enjoyed on Myspace & Soundcloud. I was experimenting and it grew out of that.” He sighs. “I was really inspired by that moment of people letting loose.”
Since 'Ima Read'’s international debut on the Rick Owen’s runway in 2012, Morgan quit his day job and plunged into the music world with Zebra Katz forging ahead. 'Ima Read' has been remixed by many including Azealia Banks, Tricky and Busta Rhymes’ version Ima Lead appears on Katz’s 2013 mixtape Drkling. Now Katz lives in Berlin and has taken a break from touring with the Gorillaz to perform at the Summer Happenings Basquiat event.
“It feels great to be one of the most featured artists on the Gorillaz album. On the deluxe album I’m featured on 'The Apprentice' and 'Out of Body', a track with Kilo Kish. I’m on 'Sex Murder Party' with Jamie Principle, a legend in his own right. It’s a great experience to get to another audience, and lend a voice to a character I created.”
Persona is defined as the aspect of someone's character that is presented to or perceived by others. The word itself comes from the Greek for mask. We interchange our faces in accordance to our environment. We’re not the same at work as we are at Thanksgiving dinner with our families but it’s deeper than that. Using masks, both Basquiat and Katz explore identity in a world that categorizes and labels human beings as colors, genders and sexualities. “Being the artist I am and the body I have, I get generalized all the time, put into boxes. I have to work with that within my work.”
Katz flicks his dreads back. “Our masks have gotten so meta…” Katz punctuates the “t” and shares a laugh. “Instagram is a mask. It’s hard… finding your true self within all these layers… how someone is going to perceive you versus who you really are…”
When Morgan was developing his persona, he turned to masks as a way of playing with the drama of Zebra Katz; a fragment of himself. “…Gimp masks, Mexican fighting masks…” he sheepishly laughs, “I would just look in really crazy places, even go to sex shops sometimes, which would be so weird…off-putting when I was in a small country but just to see what they had.”
The mask freed Morgan to cultivate a part of himself that maybe wouldn’t have had a voice in mainstream hip-hop culture. “I do a mask reveal a lot - something someone would see in RuPaul’s drag race, you know, you can’t have one wig, you gotta have two wigs! So I had to look at how different performers incorporate the mask. Mask carries a lot of feeling. With this music, it’s really intimate and vulnerable. I’m revealing who I am throughout. The mask lends itself to the darkness that Katz brings when he enters and exits the space. I wouldn’t be able to tell you, I’m in such a daze…” He buckles over and claps. “I get off and I’m like, who am I?”
After Zebra Katz, latino punk takes the stage. The Downtown Boys fuel the evening with a youthful, fuck-the-establishment, raucous good-time. The lead singer screams across the lawn as a hard snap echoes in the lobby of the museum. Shani Crowe whips a Caucasian man in his underwear with her hair braided long in the colors of the Pan-African flag. Up above, jungle noises fill the Oculus Room. The Mecca VA and the Movement are dressed in burlap sacks and cardboard crowns. A black woman paints her face with thick white paint, recalling African tribal traditions. A man covered in toilet paper makes wild love to a wall. We exit their earthy, visceral world and enter white walls and bright light on the third floor.
Footsteps and chatter fill the spacious galleries as people peruse the Broad’s collection of art. It’s ordered and civilized; another world that floats above the music outside and the rage downstairs. Jay Carlon choreographs a movement with a guitarist, violinist and group of contemporary dancers that spreads throughout the third floor galleries. Dressed in mustard yellow, they collaborate with each other, the audience and art surrounding us to create an original performance. It’s a reminder that art is not static; it’s a conversation.
The Broad Museum’s overarching mission this evening is to support marginalized voices. Being that Jean-Michel Basquiat was one of the only Black American painters to rise to international prominence, he, along with others, paved a path for others to reference. Zebra Katz comes back to mind -- he cites Basquiat as one of his major influences:
“He was one of the only black downtown artists that was prominent in the 70’s. I identified with that, being Jamaican and not being necessarily fitting into my group in South Florida. When you’re a person of color in the art industry and you have a certain look or aesthetic…” his eyes get wide, “for example, me, people associate you with certain people you wouldn’t know about… so in high school I learned about his work.”
Although one could say there are similarities between Basquiat and Katz, this speaks to the unconscious associations that even the most liberal-minded and well-intentioned individuals make. The grouping together of people across the spectrum of “type” is a general problem. As human beings, we make connections, it’s how we create meaning out of the chaos of reality but we must remain acutely aware of our responsibility in perpetuating stereotypes. With the sudden cultish popularity of 'Ima Read', Zebra Katz found himself lumped into a new genre of music dubbed the “Queer Rap Movement,” a term that doesn’t make sense to him.
“It’s not a genre. It’s a blank, redundant, sexist label. If you look at my Wikipedia page, it’s like a calling card for the ‘Queer Rap Scene,’ and I’ve been trying to change it. It’s the only genre that affects black bodies, usually men, sometimes trans of color. It’s systematically putting the pressure on urban culture, black, brown culture. It’s reiterating the fact that it’s not okay in this community,," Katz says. "The only reason why it’s a big feat then, or a pat on the back for these artists is because they’re existing in a dominant society that doesn’t want them to be there. That’s why it works.”
In comparison, “look at artists that are not of color and how they’re phrased in this world, who they’re positioned with, who they’re doing interviews with. There are a lot of other artists out there that are thriving and aren’t pigeonholed into this small community—and then pitted against each other to see ‘who’s going to cross over into mainstream.’ That’s not the fucking goal…” Katz covers his mouth, “excuse my french.”
Katz calls “Being gay, trans, it’s a wave right now. I remember in 2012, no one wanted to talk about it. There weren’t a lot of black queer bodies that people had reference for. Even when I was growing up, there was James Baldwin if you were reading at that time but I didn't get him far into college. There was André Leon Talley, a fashion editor, if you’re into fashion. It was limited. The Paris is Burning Soundtrack and the film came out and became a reference point for looking at blackness and black youth—so if you’re black, you obviously know how to vogue but that was just a generalization and I got caught up into that too, not just because of the music but the body i have, being black, being in NYC at that time. I’m not saying the association was wrong, I love the ballroom scene—but there should be more references — if i was going to stand up for any kid out there, then I would be that. But I was ridiculed and seen as self-loathing for not wanting to stick up for a genre that I didn’t think fit who I am.”
Katz recently released a new video Blk & Wt directed by Ada Bligaard Soby that sheds light on another community that is feared, judged and misunderstood—the refugees living in and around Soby’s native Copenhagen. “Living in Berlin, I was faced with that a lot more. I got to really see another perspective of that I didn’t have before. I had to put myself in that position— this is all of us.” Refugees volunteered to not only share their story with the director but to relive that trauma on camera. Terrified, on the run, they are pursued and punished for trying to survive. A stark cry from another persecuted and ostracized group of individuals who don’t have a voice.
The last of Summer Happenings series showcases a man and his work by bringing together the forces at play around and in him. The insurgence of that time in New York existed in opposition but side-by-side with systemic racism. It’s a matter of focus, of providing a canopy under which all of these elements could be experienced. The injection of the youth, of artists working today, are a part of that lineage, responding to both past and present. The bigger picture of a person or moment in history is not one thing—it’s a conglomerate of ideas, beliefs and values that we continue to embody and/or strive to evolve.
To quote the man of the evening, Jean-Michel Basquiat: "I am not a black artist, I am an artist.”
Written by Maria Mocerino
Event Photography by Priscilla Mars