Track: Ima Read | Artist: Zebra Katz, ft. Njena Reddd Foxxx | Album: Single

Kotaku Soundtrack is a selection of the stuff we're listening to - and gaming to - at the moment.


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Yannick LeJacq

So in addition to this just being an awesome song, I was reminded of it recently as I started to acquaint myself with the practice of "reading" as it's performed by competitive Smash players. In the Smash Bros. scene, "reading" refers to the process of analyzing an opponent's play style and using that to predict what they're going to do next (see a great example in that Diddy Kong KO compilation I just posted).

I'm a total newbie when it comes to Smash. But I found it hilarious that there's an established practice of "reading," because the first time I became acquainted with "reading" was when I learned what it meant for drag queens and the larger LGBT community.

Zebra Katz (real name Ojay Morgan) spoke about reading at length, and how he brought it into this breakout single, in an excellent 2012 Pitchfork story on the queer rap scene. A relevant (but lengthy) excerpt for anyone who's interested:

The song and video have earned praise from a long line of cultural higher-ups including big-name, Goth-inspired designer Rick Owens, who used it during a runway show in Paris, along with the Roots' ?uestlove and Saul Williams, among others. When Azealia Banks performed at Karl Lagerfeld's house in Paris, she played his guests "Ima Read" before doing her own set. Not bad exposure for a rapper who worked at a catering company until a few weeks ago.

Like Mykki Blanco, Zebra Katz is a rap character who blossomed from a performance-art background. "Zebra Katz's story is that he was a Chippendale dancer who quit working at Chippendale's and moved to New York and then started working in sanitation," says the man born Ojay Morgan, sitting in his Brooklyn apartment. "It just came to me one day. I really liked the play on the Jewish last name."

But while Zebra Katz and "Ima Read" are conceptual and performative in some of the same ways as the work of Quattlebaum of House of Ladosha, Morgan's explorations of sexuality in his raps are intentionally understated. "Ima Read" is lyrically abstract— the lines could be rapped by someone of any gender or sexual preference, and Morgan doesn't cross-dress.

"It's a fine line that I'm playing here. I'm trying to see how cleverly I can walk a tightrope," he explains, detailing how a more nuanced approach might appeal to broader swaths of listeners. "You have [fans from] the ball culture," he says. "And then you have hip-hop heads who are gonna say this is hard because it's very minimal and to-the-point. And we're talking about bitches and bitches and bitches and bitches."

The "ball culture" Morgan refers to is New York's legendary vogue-ball scene, a vital source of inspiration that this current crop of rappers draw from heavily. Most people are probably familiar with the culture as it's depicted in Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, which chronicles the experiences of the gay black and Latino drag queens or transgendered people who lived it. The roots of these scenes extend back decades, but exploded in the late-1980s, when they migrated to downtown Manhattan from Harlem.

Central to the balls are extravagant pageantry and voguing— a form of angular, improvisational and competitive dancing that can be compared to breaking— which reached mainstream visibility as filtered through Madonna's 1990 hit "Vogue". Today, the debate lingers as to whether people like Madonna and Livingston were important ambassadors for gay Latino and black men within the ballroom scene, or merely opportunists who pilfered the culture for their own benefit and moved on.

To the average listener, "Ima Read" comes off as a twisted pro-education anthem— in some ways it is, according to Morgan— but ultimately it's a bow to this ballroom culture, a reference to the vogue slang "reading," i.e., verbally insulting an opponent on the dance floor. Sometimes the ballroom references made by this wave of rappers are as blatant and simple as naming a song "Ima Read" or tagging SoundCloud uploads with "vogue" and "cunty." But there are deeper and more understated roots that connect to a lineage of communal cultural experiences shared by gay black and Latinos in New York City.

"When I first found out about voguing as a teenager, it was an eye-opening experience because it felt like an innate way of moving. And a lot of my music is made with the intentions of movement and dance," says Le1f, aka Khalif Diouf, the wunderkind rapper and producer who crafted the beat for Das Racist's breakout hit "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" and contributed to Spank Rock's newest album while still an undergraduate at Wesleyan. "But it's the cultural side— the experience of being at a ball— that's affected what I rap about. The fact that there's a scene that's existed for so long with such a rich history, and is ceremonial, is really nice."

"It's also just a community of people who are so liberal and devoted to making good art, often collaboratively," he adds. "There are straight white guys who are just as awesome as the gay black women."