Invincible Eyes: What's Beneath Leikeli47's Mask?
The mysterious, masked Brooklyn rapper finally speaks.
Photos by Evan Rodgers
Leikeli47 claims to be ageless, which may be true. In person, the rapper projects a little kid’s brand of infectious energy, where she makes the people around her more enthusiastic. She poses gamely for photos and discusses everything, from the voice memos where she stores song ideas to her Nike FuelBand, with a conspiratorial eagerness. As an artist, she’s already endured a couple waves of internet music trends and somehow come out more on the pulse than ever, a radically positive figure for an era that suddenly demands that. She very well could be living in her own time. She wears a ski mask constantly, so it’s hard to tell.
When we met, Leikeli47 was wearing an orange mask and gray sweats, and she approached me with a giant smile and outstretched hand. She was shorter than I’d expected, and her upbeat attitude caught me off guard, although it shouldn’t have. At first glance, the ski mask thing seems like a kind of outdated relic of certain era of creepy, horror-infused Tumblr rap, increasingly out of place in the radically transparent, Snapchat-friendly world of 2015. But Leikeli47 has avoided the trap of being a short-lived web curiosity because her mask isn’t a statement of what she wants people to focus on: It’s not a hollow effort at intimidation but rather an emblem of what she wants people to ignore. “It distracts from everything that everybody would normally go to,” she explained, “what’s she look like, what’s her shape, her complexion.” The semi-automatic rifles that blanket her visual work are similarly explained away as LKs: “what’s coming out of this gun is love,” she told me. “What’s coming out of that gun is fun music.”
The word “fun” comes up a lot when Leikeli47 (pronounced Leh-kay-lee) describes her music. “It’s the funnest thing ever,” she told me at one point. “It’s like an escape. You hear that boom bap, and you just want more. It’s fun!” She explained her production process, which involves using found sounds and turning her own weird a cappella vocal experiments into beats, as “me just coming up with different creative noises. It’s fun, you know what I mean?” At one point she summarized her mindset to me, saying, “I’m a kid. I’m never growing up, and I don’t care what anyone has to say.”
What people have to say, though, is pretty much all pro-fun. Along with two well-received mixtapes, 2012’s LK-47 and 2014’s LK-47 Pt. II, she quickly attracted a flurry of media attention for her arresting videos despite refusing to do interviews until now. She also found some high-profile fans in Diplo and Skrillex, who invited her to play her first proper show with them this past New Year’s Eve at Madison Square Garden. She’s signed to RCA, which is home to acts like Miley Cyrus, Sia, and A$AP Rocky, and last week she released her self-titled debut project. Her music, which finds her rapping in a machine-gun patter and occasionally singing with naked bravado over colorful, dance-friendly beats, is hypermodern, with a sound that falls somewhere between Azealia Banks, A$AP Ferg, and M.I.A. It’s aggressive but not antagonistic: It bounces along chirpily, and it always makes the listener feel like a cool accomplice and trusted friend. It’s the kind of thing that is—literally, one imagines, for kids who might not feel that kind of presence in their own lives—life affirming.
Leikeli47 grew up as one such kid, without many friends. A self-described loner, she dealt with getting picked on and, due to her shyness, found it hard to connect to other kids who might have had similarly offbeat interests in things like music and skating until she was older (most of her friends now, she said, are also musicians). She grew up in various parts of Brooklyn but mostly in Bed-Stuy, the same neighborhood as her musical idol The Notorious B.I.G. She describes her childhood bouncing between housing projects and apartments of different relatives as one with “a good family” but “some rough times,” adding that her parents are both dead. “People are absent,” she told me, explaining her childhood. “You learn things on your own. You become an adult really fast. I sit here and I tell you I’m a kid, but I’m a mature kid.” One of the ways she found to cope with the challenges she faced was making her own music.
“Just imagine waking up to the things that go on out there,” she said. “You have no way to escape, and you have this beautiful thing called music. It’s just like, man, I’m going to wake up and look out the window and paint that dirty building that everybody looks at, this dusty corner that everybody looks at. I’ma paint this in a way that makes it so beautiful that they’re going to love it. People are going to want to know where I’m from, and they’re going to want to dance to it.”
When Leikeli47 describes making music, she does so as if it’s a compulsion, painting a picture of a mind bursting with ideas. She claims that some of her songs, like “Miss America,” stem from ideas she had in her head for close to a decade before she was able to figure out the technical elements required to make them: “I would always hear different sounds, and I would want to get it out but I had no way.” In the end, she learned to bend the tools at her disposal to her bidding, mostly using her voice and found sounds instead of instruments or presets in programs like ProTools and then manipulating those sounds as needed. It’s not exactly a cappella or beat-boxing—both of which she says she was never particularly interested in—but rather something weirder and more focused on drawing out specific sounds or a specific atmosphere through “a lot of tweaking, grinding, trying to make that sound as sharp as you want, as dull as you want, as warm as you want, soft as you want” with production software.
Much of Leikeli47’s appeal comes from the way she rejects easy narratives. Her music is made with an unconventional approach and spills across genre boundaries. She prefers to categorize her vocal delivery as “communicating” rather than rapping. She doesn’t really subscribe to the idea that an artist in 2015 needs to be active across social media: She doesn’t have a Twitter or an Instagram, choosing instead to interact with her fans mostly through the Ask function on Tumblr (she quipped that if she had a Twitter all she would use it for would be to post Pusha T lyrics). She has an unmistakable Brooklyn swagger, but she’s bored of the New York hip-hop scene’s fixation with bringing New York “back”: “I think you just need to keep pushing it forward versus bringing something back that don’t need to be brought back,” she told me. “It’s like, you know, there’s so many great entertainers that came before. They did it: They put that stamp on the map for us. It’s like, here, take the ring. It’s passing the baton, but no one’s getting it.”
And then there’s the mask. On a creative level, it gives her a measure of anonymity that she says allows her songs to cover more ground and tell stories beside her own. Although her devotion to the mask, which she says she wears at all times (much as she claims to be ageless, her default answer about the mask is to claim she’s not wearing one at all), might seem to border on the extreme, it’s not hard to understand why a female rapper would choose to present herself in a way that de-emphasizes her looks. The music industry is notorious across genres for evaluating female artists on precisely those criteria.
So much of the way music is processed is through extraneous elements and pre-existing stories. If you’re young—especially if you identify, like a young Leikeli47, as a “weirdo”—you have every reason to search out something that flies in the face of these things, that tears down the institutions and assumptions of the past. Leikeli47’s hyper-positive world is a place of radical acceptance, where, the way I see it, it’s possible to be a freak and get lost in the music and be appreciated on exactly your own terms. Thus Leikeli47's discussion of her biography is largely contained to her songs, and she is only sometimes the one under the mask in her videos.
Leikeli47 was insistent that anything I write mention I have dreamy eyes, which I’m happy to do to fan my ego but also because I think speaks to the way she encourages us to look at the world. If you’re wearing a mask, your eyes are one of the only things people can see—incidentally, they are maybe our most honest physical feature, the most suggestive of our interior lives. To look into someone’s eyes is to look at them as they are. It’s no wonder that Leikeli47 would encourage us to do that with a ski mask: It’s not so much a way of hiding her identity as a way of explaining exactly what it is that her music is all about. It’s a great way of looking at the world, and it makes sense that Leikeli47, the sometimes-outcast, would embrace it.
Best of all, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more the mask becomes a lens on the world, the more power it takes on. As Leikeli47 described performing with Diplo and Skrillex, her eyes lit up remembering the moment she watched them pull on their own masks. “Pardon my language,” she said, explaining the mask’s effect, “but it’s like, ‘Nigga I’m here!’ I’ma do me, you know? When you put that mask on, it’s empowering. You feel invincible.”
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.