"I don’t like going in the same direction as everyone else," says Ojay Morgan, whose on-stage alias, Zebra Katz, first emerged in 2012 after designer Rick Owens chose the brooding, ballroom culture-inspired Ima Read to soundtrack his Autumn/Winter 2012 show at Paris Fashion Week. Using that as a platform to quit his day job at a mundane catering company, Morgan has since released a series of mixtapes, worked alongside the likes of Kanye West and Busta Rhymes, and last year released his Nu Renegade EP; a collection of songs that showcase Morgan’s progressive slant on hip hop that blends elements of rap, queer culture and theatre.
"The record is testament to my resilience and desire to stick to what I want to do," explains Morgan, adding: "I don’t have a label or a manager and wasn’t waiting for someone to come and say ‘Give us an album and we’ll give you five Gs’. It’s hard to get something out there and not be part of the PR machine, but I hope that people find my music and it resonates with them."
Raised in south Florida before moving to Brooklyn, Morgan was brought up watching MTV, choreographing dances to Missy Elliott tracks to perform at school and later experimenting with GarageBand, which led to the creation of his Zebra Katz persona that comes into its own on stage. "Playing a song live changes it a million times over," he says, with his early work evolving from performance art pieces. "Performing is one of my strong suites and every time I get on stage my music takes on a new life." Ahead of his Drop Everything festival appearance on Ireland’s remote Aran islands, AnOther spoke to Morgan about the music that has played a integral part in defining who he is today.
1: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Lauryn Hill
"I was in the fifth grade when I first heard this record and it’s one of all-time favourite albums. I remember someone giving it to me as a secret Santa gift – even though I already owned it – as they knew how much I loved it. It was on the wall in my room and it was an album that I’d listen to from start to finish – it resonated with me as it covered important topics. It’s been a while since I’ve heard something as cohesive as that album."
2: Nightclubbing by Grace Jones
"When it comes to aesthetics, I love Grace Jones’s Nightclubbing – and every album she’s ever done for that matter – because she is the complete package. Being Jamaican myself I see something in that strong Jamaican woman – she’s an iconic person who I look to and reference often because she has been able to transcend art, music, fashion and lifestyle, and continues to do so to this day. She’s a wicked performer and has collaborated with everyone from Keith Haring to Philip Treacy and that’s really inspirational."
3: Ultra Sex by Mount Sims
"I grew up in a Caribbean household listening to a lot of rhythm and Jamaican music but this album really inspired me while at college – not a lot of people know that I love electro but I am definitely a child of that genre. Because I was fortunate enough to go to art school from a young age and be in theatre I’ve been able to listen to a lot of different music, which has given me a varied and diverse background to take influences from."
4: Sinnerman by Nina Simone
"Someone I discovered later in life who I wish I had discovered sooner was Nina Simone – she was such a huge influence for her voice, her activism and what she did for musicians and people of colour as a classically trained pianist. She’s incredible and her music came to me at a time when I was about to drop out of college, which would’ve meant that I may not have had the opportunity to present Zebra Katz."
5: Emptyset by Emptyset
"My friend [and Nu Renegade producer] Leila Arab recently introduced to this electronic duo who make amazing soundscapes. I really like their approach to music and the darkness of it all. Their sound has actually inspired me in the creation of a new alias that I haven’t really told many people about yet and I’m excited to begin that project and this band was an influence for what I plan to do there."