Zebra Katz’s contagious zero-degree hip hop

The performance artist is steering mainstream music into rarified territory and is turning ears, from Document's Fall/Winter 2012 issue.

Dark and sinister, cutting and clever, the single “Ima Read,” and its accompanying video, spread across Facebook timelines and G-chat windows in a flurry less than a year ago. Merging minimal beats with lyrics which address schooling of both the academic and dance floor varieties, “Ima Read” suddenly brought the performance artist Zebra Katz to international attention.

Much to Katz’s surprise, the five-year-old “Ima Read” had found its audience.  With it, Katz discovered his work featured in Rick Owens’s Fall/Winter 2012  runway show and released by Diplo’s Mad Decent imprint Jeffree’s; he was commissioned by the Museum of Arts and Design to create new work and opening gigs for Lana Del Rey.

Finally, the Florida born performance artist could quit his day job and approach his work full time, even if that meant a slightly more rough-and-tumble lifestyle.

“After studying performance in college and then in London, I moved to NYC to try to make my work; honestly, like everyone else. I was working full time and on my own stuff. I’ve been at it for a few years, and suddenly, this all happened.”

Speaking via cellphone as he runs from a photoshoot back to his apartment to email high-res press photos to another commitment, Katz adds, “It’s not like I have a publicist or manager. I’m doing everything on my own.” 

“All I want to do is get back into the studio.  It’s time to start making the next thing.”

Echoing a reality shared by many emerging artists today, Katz is a jack-of-all-trades. Although not a new practice the collapse of the music industry in the early 2000s dramatically shifted the ability of younger artists to find the economic support to expand their practice. The days of limos, multi-album six-figure deals, and all the other rock star accoutrements were over.

With this new reality, the shadow cast by the stadium-filling musical act continues to cause many to attempt similar success, a level that no longer is possible without the influx of record sales. But others, like Katz, pause to reflect on this short-lived industry revolution and what they can learn from it. 

A century ago, musical acts were nearly entirely relegated to live performances. Making their living from club acts and tours, the archetypical musician was a no good, broke scoundrel traveling from town to town.

However, our new landscape of economic rubble does have a silver lining. Crisis has shattered old models.  Fragments in hand, many emerging performance artists are building new possibilities. Today, they must find new ways to create, promote, and distribute their work, even if it means struggling with the small budgets seen before the days of six figure recording contracts.

“Its funny,” Katz continues, “people keep coming up to me after shows and telling me what I should and shouldn’t do. Everyone has advice for me.  Especially complete strangers. There is a part of me that is flattered by it because it means they are really into what I do and want to see me succeed. But then, there is another part of me that wants to say, leave me alone, let me do it my way.”

“It’s not like I have a publicist or manager. I’m doing everything on my own.” 

So far, Zebra Katz’s way of doing things has been working. The image of the super villain, a powerful, and dark force, has been resonating, even if it draws connections that Katz did not intend.

Continually explained in the context of vogue balls and the seminal documentary “Paris is Burning,” Katz finds himself paralleled to other gender-bending black artists like Grace Jones. 

“I mean, I love that stuff.  But it wasn’t the inspiration for any of the work I am doing. Balls, reading, it’s all on the table.  The song isn’t about balls, but it is a touchstone.  I can understand that people will use those touchstones to understand the work.” Pausing to consider his words for a moment, Katz adds, “It’s not that I’m completely against it.  I mean, it means everyone can take something out of the work, and that is great. But it is still limiting.  Not so much for myself. I am still going to do what I want to do, but for the audience.”

Quickly, Katz continues, “I can understand it because I’m young, black, and different. Aggressive lyrics with minimal beats. Is that hip-hop? Is it queer music? No.  But it’s different, and there is no blueprint for this sort of thing. I remember years ago, telling my friends that I was a performance artist. They would ask, what’s that?”

With his training in performance and background in fine art, Zebra Katz continues a lineage of other progressive musical acts to emerge from an arts education.  David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, and others, all utilized their art training to tackle live performance in fresh ways. In doing so, they laid the foundation  for the counter culture rock star rebel and opened exciting avenues for creating and consuming music.

Both this training and a keen eye on the current landscape of music and culture gives Zebra Katz a leg up.

“I know interviews, like this one, are important and fun.  But right now, all I want to do is get back into the studio.  It’s time to start making the next thing.”

With his rising success and sharp instincts, Katz is poised to break new ground for both himself and the audiences accustomed to music and performance of the past. 

Make Up Kate Lee at Starworks Artists using Chanel. Hair Shin Arima using Redken for Frank Reps. Manicure by Dawn Sterling at Starworks Artists using Chanel.