riot on the dance floor

NYLON, november 2015

With social justice movements roaring this year, it comes as no surprise that Riot Boi, the debut album from Harlem rapper Le1f (pronounced “leaf”), was informed by a “pro-trans, pro-Black Lives Matter, pro-clean water” agenda. What is unexpected is the means by which he delivers this message: On the surface, the 12-track work employs body-moving beats to chronicle a night out that gets ruined by an unwelcome advance. Beyond that, however, the album unpacks the complexities of fetishization, Eurocentric standards of beauty, preconceived notions about black males, and more. Here, we discuss the inspirations behind Riot Boi (out October 30 via XL Recordings) and the 26-year-old musician’s journey thus far.

How was the process of creating your album different from making mixtapes?

It was so DIY for so long—this is the first time I’ve had someone else in the room to mix and master it. What really has changed in this process is the clarity of the vocals and the level of production.

What made you choose the social issues that you address throughout the album?

I wanted to be in support of people who have the angst that I’ve had with my identity in the past, and make songs for the club that allow marginalized people, like my peers, to also have fun—to have our voices be a little bit more [present] in the world.

Where did the idea for “Grace, Alek, or Naomi” come from?

That was me imagining the super-black, super-futuristic fantasy of the fiercest clique of dark-skinned women. I don’t think people recognize how their beauty is so Afrocentric. There are all these rap songs that are named after girls, like “Girls Love Beyoncé.” I’m like, “Girls love Alek!”

Between Frank Ocean coming out, Mykki Blanco’s first full- length, and your presence, has the hip-hop landscape become more open to homosexuality?

Not really. I find myself being in this weird space of making records that at the end of the day have—my roommate calls it “tears of a queen.” [Laughs] I’ll be in this moment where I want to make a happy song, and then that will be the single because people want to hear my voice in a campy way. 

When you look back at your life as a preteen, how do you feel about how far you’ve come?

When I was in boarding school, I had one gay black friend who was one of the four queer people in the whole school. Even though I did feel like I was in this safe space, it was definitely a white, cis space. I did not know what was going to be my future. I didn’t feel like I was making the connections to have some kind of career. So, it’s kind of amazing to actually be on a label.