Le1f: "It’s Been a Challenge to Get People to Do More Than Read the Word 'Gay' "
Photo by Eric Johnson
Le1f is gay. Le1f is a rapper. But please don’t call him a "gay rapper."
Hip-hop loves taxonomy. Despite lines of race, gender, and sexuality increasingly blurring in society, the genre is quick to categorize new artists in nice, neat boxes — regardless of whether they're accurate or an uncomfortably tight squeeze. For dancer-turned-rapper Le1f (pronounced “Leaf”), his identity, or the identity most frequently ascribed to him, is a misnomer.
“It’s definitely been a challenge to get people to do more than just read the word ‘gay.’ It’s definitely been a challenge to get people to look into the music,” the 26-year-old says. With the release of his debut full-length, Riot Boi, on November 13, he joins the growing group of local artists shifting the paradigm of New York City hip-hop. Still, he wants to be more than a label. “That’s my goal, to get in a position where they’re forced to listen to the music.”
Le1f has always had a strong sense of purpose. Born Khalif Diouf in Manhattan, his artistic family pushed him toward excellence. “There was a standard in my family. It wasn’t the kind of black family where you were allowed to not go to college. You know? It was one of those ‘Excel by all means necessary no matter how broke we are’ kind of families.” He began taking ballet and modern dance as soon as he could walk. “[My family] didn’t take it as a hobby. They wanted me to be trained.” He studied at the Dance Theatre of Harlem and attended the Concord Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts, for high school. As you can imagine, the latter was a culture shock for the self-professed “angsty” teen from the city. To get a change from the “lames and squares,” he would come back home and immerse himself in the downtown club scene. “I would go out to the clubs like Nublu and Trouble & Bass and Studio B, when I was fifteen or sixteen, and I made friends with all the musicians that I loved off of MySpace. That’s really how I started.” He hung with cool kids like Black Cracker and Shannon from Light Asylum.
Le1f earned a degree in dance from Wesleyan but decided that professional dance was too confining. “I knew how competitive the dance world was, and it wasn’t my interest to change myself into being the dancer who can do pointe and do all the turns and still not be expressing myself.” Through his college’s alumni network, he linked with Das Racist and produced the group’s popular 2009 single "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.”
Always a performer, he set his sights on rapping. “The world of rap was very functional for me, not being a trained singer. I was already producing beats.” It took awhile before he was able to fill the shoes of an MC. “It took a lot of time for me to become comfortable writing as a rapper. It took a lot of time for me to become comfortable hearing the sound of my voice. It took a lot of time for me to become comfortable hearing myself being the person to say anything. You know? It took many years for me to think not everything I did was corny.”
About three years later, Le1f released his debut, Dark York. The mixtape yielded the viral single “Wut,” which explored sexuality and race. “I'm getting light in my loafers/And I stay getting life till life’s over,” he raps on the hook. The music video features Le1f twerking and sitting on a shirtless male model’s lap. The model is wearing a Pikachu mask and serves as a prop, for all intents and purposes. It’s light and fun but provokes important questions about the white gaze and fetishization of black bodies and pop culture.
Riot Boi continues to delve into the topical. The album’s title is a nod to the riot grrrl movement; the track “Umami/Water” was inspired by New York DJ and trans artist Juliana Huxtable. Produced by Lunice and Evian Christ, the dark, drippy track is a look into transgender culture: “Young Cleopatra, such a teaser/Make all the boys wanna be her Caesar/Was she born with it? Maybelline-a.” The rapper says that his affiliation with XL Recordings gave him the confidence to go after every collaborator he wanted. The album includes contributions from Dev Hynes, Junglepussy, and SOPHIE. “I really hope people hear what I hear. If nothing else, I hope it encourages people to get into their art and their own bodies.”
Racism, police brutality, discrimination: There’s a lot of shit going on in the world, but hip-hop as big business is usually wary of taking a stance on anything. “I think to be a brand and to be a capitalist is to be bipartisan. I think a lot of people are very conscious of not offending someone on the right or the left or in between,” Le1f says. He gets it, but it’s not the kind of artist he wants to be. “While I understand that, that kind of makes me want to throw up in my mouth a little bit. I don’t think I could be that person.”
Le1f's Riot Boi is out November 13 via Terrible Records/XL Recordings.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.