I first saw $leazy EZ perform at an intimate Uptown backyard concert on a spring afternoon. This was my first exposure to their music, and I remember being stricken both by their sound, an interesting up-tempo hip-hop that seemed to borrow heavily from house and EDM, and by how directly they engaged the crowd, whether spitting from the stage or hopping down to rap among the audience. It was immediately clear that this was an artist who likes to connect with people. Almost exactly a year later, I met up with $leaze in their Elmwood studio. It was a modest building tucked into a string of warehouses and office spaces. Inside, it looked like they were still settling in: There was little in the space but an arcade machine in a back corner and a large wooden table in the center of the room, atop which sat a hefty cardboard box overflowing with t-shirts emblazoned with the words “sensitive to energy” in pastel retro font–merch for a pop-up later that day. $leaze, wearing a pink camo hoodie from likesushi and a beanie that wouldn’t stop slipping off, showed me to their studio room, where we sat down for a chat.
How long have you been in this space?
About a year.
I know a lot of artists work from home studios, so it must be nice to have a little separation.
Yeah, that’s how I started. I started at 15 years old, and I had won a talent show in Metairie, and got a $500 gift card to Guitar Center. So I went and bought an interface, a mic, and a mic stand. So I came from like, fuckin’ very, very humble-ass shit.
That must have been big to you at the time, though.
It was. And it still is, because at any moment this shit could just get snatched away, for any reason, no matter if I own it or not. Every day just be kind of unpredictable. But it is nice to have that foundation.
Still use any of that Guitar Center gear?
I use the mic. These [picks up a pair of headphones] are the same headphones from when I was 16. Everything else is new. I still use the mic for streaming. I’ll probably use the interface for that as well.
You’re into streaming?
I’ve always been on the Black nerd side. When my brother gave me his PlayStation, I started playing online with my friends, and I just stayed in gaming culture. And I’m in a whole bunch of niche nerd communities too. We stay connecting on the internet and with games and shit, and Twitch is just a natural step in what you consume if you’re in gaming culture. Now I’m just ‘boutta be taking my journey on that motherfucker to see how I can combine it with music.
So you were never much of the going-out type?
No, not ‘til I was a teenager. New Orleans kind of makes you go out. When I started wanting to be old and fast, I started going outside. When I started wanting to make money, I started going outside. When I got in middle school, I just started experiencing life in a different way.
Did you grow up around a lot of music?
Actually, no. I was the music in my family. My dad was the one who could sing and draw and all that shit, he just never built on his skills. But I definitely took some of that from him, and I built on that shit. When my mama heard me sing for real, she put me in the choir at church, and then she tried to get me in NOCCA with my drawing, but my stupid ass, I didn’t want to pick a discipline. They make you pick one discipline, and I didn’t want to do that shit; I wanted to do all three.
That always seemed odd to me, picking an artistic discipline to commit to at such a young age.
Right. And I get it, because you want to pick something that you want to be a master at. When you think about the educational side of artistry, it’s all about mastering the craft. And when you think about the lifestyle of artistry, it’s all just about creativity, and what you can put your hands on and do. At [NOCCA], they were trying to send you to Juilliard right after, send you to scholarships. They were really trying to send you to the best situations, and we all know the best situations are corporate; the best situations are more studious.
And that didn’t appeal to you?
Hell no! That’s why I rap. That’s why rap was the first thing, because I been writing down bars. I don’t remember the age I really started taking my poems and reading them for people, but they was like, damn that’s fire, it kinda sounds like a rap. And I was like, oh, I could probably write a rap. And so I just started writing.
How did you develop that interest in poetry before you got into rap?
I was quiet until I was in middle school or high school. Not that I was shy, I just was quiet. (Now I know I was quiet, oh my God.) But that was the only way I could really express myself. I was able to express my emotions through drawing and shit, but drawing just wasn’t enough for me, I guess. And I really did love music already, I loved to sing in the house, so I think that’s what led me into writing and turning it into a rap.
Was there ever a clear moment when you decided you wanted to fully commit to rapping?
I think that moment was during my open mic era. I can’t tell you exactly when, but it was my first headline for an open mic. I used to do this open mic called Writer’s Block that was pretty poppin’.
Where was that?
At Hi-Ho Lounge. I would come in, signing up for the open mic, hoping I could get on stage, and sometimes I wouldn’t even make it. I identified as a female at the time—I’m nonbinary now—but I was just this young chick trying to figure out how to get people to hear me, because dudes were either creepy or they were ignoring me. So I went on stage and I would just give it my all. It’s like a blur. One day I was like, I’ma just do this shit, and now I’m $leazy EZ.
Tell me about the importance of repping nonbinary and queer culture.
I don’t see nobody representing us the way we supposed to be represented, in my opinion. I know they got people doing they thing and I’m not about to knock them at all; they’re just not visible to me maybe. I ain’t seen nothing in my world that I felt like was worth me even getting into that much. And as I meet more queer people, and as I travel, they’re just like me, and they don’t have nobody like me that they’re getting behind or that they could listen to without having some type of cognitive dissonance. I wanna be that, and I take the responsibility to do that, because I’m loud, and I’m proud as a motherfucker, and I’m strong as a motherfucker, so I feel like, fuck it, I’ma just get the job done.
So you know there are people out there representing that culture, but you’re dissatisfied with how they represent it?
It wasn’t what I wanted to see. They were just either doing hard rap or the regular shit that all the dudes were doing. We all talk about heteronormativity, so let’s just knock all that shit out the window, and let’s just do it the way we want to do it. And that’s what I want to do. I want to inspire people to expand on their identity and be at peace in their identity. I never really was cisgender, because people didn’t see me that way, I just didn’t know that yet. Discovering that I’m nonbinary, it really made me be like, damn, I’m really different—but I’m not different. I’m different compared to our representation, but I’m just like everybody. When I meet these people, they’re just like me.
At Café Istanbul (photo by Benry Fauna)
Which is where that cognitive dissonance comes in.
Yeah, they’re trying to separate themselves a little bit. And I’m like, that shit is not good enough for me. I just want to represent my people and give them something new to hold onto, because shit is hard right now.
How do your fans respond to that?
I get familial love from them. They see me in public and you would think I was their cousin. I mean, fuck, I thought I was they cousin once! People reach out to me with really heartfelt messages, and because I resonate so much with them, it touches me. People hug me long as fuck. I really do appreciate it, because it lets me know I’m touching people.
Is there something about that familial aspect that seems unique to New Orleans?
Yeah. And I feel like we need that shit. If I got that, then that means that we’re about to really change lives. We’re about to make a wave on people, not just our pockets, because I’m not even trying to keep all the money. We really about to touch people and change the way people think about people like me, and the way people like me think about themselves.
You say you’re not trying to keep the money. What would you do with it?
We’re gonna have some pay-what-you-want options [for my brand], so people will be able to support without having to break their pockets. And we’re gonna employ fans, so when it comes down to any events I do in the city, I’ma have my team, but I’ma also look out to my community and see if anybody wants a job. Who needs $200 for the day? Come whoop de woo. And I’m sure we’re gonna have people in the community who need it—and they’re gonna be my people. And I want to do shit like pay for people’s gender-affirming surgeries, I want to help people get meds. And I’ma have enough money to do it all.
So in other words, instead of building your own mountain, you want to raise the ground level all around you.
Fuckin’ right. We’re gonna do it slick so the FBI don’t take my ass out. But we’re gonna do it right and help as many people as we can. We’re going to do that and stay safe, and we’re going to inspire other people to do the same. I just have such a sensitive demographic right now, as far as the times. My demographic is being attacked. Everybody in that bitch suffers.
Queer, Black, female. The majority of my fans are queer and women. And other than that, you got the nerds, people in these niche communities who are shy, neurodivergent people, ‘cause I’m neurodivergent myself, so the way I act is going to attract motherfuckers like me.
So that’s kind of what you mean when you say “join our cult” on social media.
Yeah. I be like, join our cult, ‘cause that’s what it is. When you come here, you committed to this shit.
How does your brand Ghetto Positivity tie into that kind of cult following?
I’ma start throwing more private events for my brand, for people to come get to know it. We’re trying to do a lot of shit that’s communal. When people come around, they feel that shit, and they want to stay around. So I’m like, fuck it, we got a cult! It’s a joke, but it ain’t a joke.
You said what you’re trying to do can be dangerous. Can you elaborate?
I think everybody sees what happens to everybody who stands up for the right thing in this country. Shit happens to them. That’s a risk that you take when you want to be a leader. I could easily just be a rapper who will get this money and be rich, and then die. But if I’ma die, I need to make sure I give as much of this shit that I could’ve kept in a safe out to the people who actually need it.
How is that going so far?
It’s going good. It could be going worse. I could have no motion. I could have zero fuckin’ motion at 28 and have to start figuring out what the fuck I’ma do. But instead, I’m 28, and I’m in a lot of situations that I can’t even speak about because of the sensitivity of them and how big they’re going to impact my life. I know what the rest of my life is going to look like now. A lot of people can’t say that. That’s why I just be happy all the time, and I be chillin’ all the time. I’m good. We just gotta make sure everybody else is good.
Top and bottom photos by Katie Sikora