Up Next is a FIERCE series highlighting rising Latina and Latin American women artists you might not know about but definitely should.
When Leaf dropped her explosive girl power club anthem “Nada” with Lil Yachty in 2016, the media rushed to call her a “feminist rapper.” The truth: the Brooklyn-born, Lower East Side-based Afro-Latina is so much more, a powerhouse who raps, sings and produces tracks of varied styles that, yes, predominately aim to empower women.
“I feel there’s not enough songs that do that,” the 23-year-old mixed Puerto Rican told FIERCE. “…until women feel there is a place for them everywhere, that they are safe and have a voice, until then, I will continue to make music that makes us feel like we are important.”
And Leaf, born Mikala Leaf McLean, doesn’t limit her mission to crush the patriarchy and ensure ladies are living their most honest and loveliest lives through just music. In addition to songs that praise mujeres who own their sexuality and encourage girls to accept themselves as they are, Leaf also has her Magnet Bitch Movement, a lifestyle brand and music label, which she uses to both put on other female-fronted up-and-comers as well as inspire shorties to gain financial independence by becoming their own bosses.
Still, it’s music, the artist tells me, that remains her first love. The great-granddaughter of esteemed saxophonist Jackie McLean, granddaughter of a jazz musician and daughter to a major hip-hop head, melodies run through Leaf’s veins. These days they sound more of island tropics than Atlanta trap, and she’s getting ready to start dropping new airy Caribbean-inspired joints fans can vibe to and feel motivated by. Here, we chat with the versatile mami about new music, the Latin vibes inspiring her, fighting sexism in her everyday life, New York’s one-of-a-kind swag and so much more.
Q: You grew up in a blended African-American-Puerto Rican home in Brooklyn. What sort of music were your raised on and how do you think this has influenced your style as a rapper-singer-producer today?
A: I was raised on a lot of hip-hop and obviously salsa and Spanish music as well, but I think that my music, especially what I’ll be putting out now, is heavily influenced by people like Carlos Santana and Héctor Lavoe, musicians that are Latin and use live instruments. I feel very inspired by that right now.
Q: You come from a musical family, your great-grandfather was famed saxophonist Jackie McLean, and you knew your whole life that you would pursue a career in this industry as well. When did you realize the path you’d take in music?
A: I’m still figuring out the path I’m creating. Being a woman from New York, and at the age I am, being a part of this millennial generation, every day is a new day of finding out about the path I’m taking, the path I feel like I have to lead for women and girls like me. I knew I wanted to be a musician since I was very young, about six years old, but every day I’m finding out more and more what that means to me and how I would like to make my footprints in this.
Q: You started out in the rap game, particularly because you felt there wasn’t enough female voices. Having spoken with several women rappers in the past, I know that many don’t get the attention they feel they deserve due to the sexism of the industry, whether it’s pitting women against each other and only allowing room for one to shine or the very real examples of sexual violence and microaggressions. Have you been confronted with any moments in your career so far where you feel like you were being treated differently because of your gender?
A: I think I’m treated differently every single day because of my gender. It’s not just a rap thing, and it’s not just a music thing. It’s something we fight as women in every single profession and in every place we go. There’s a perception that we are not logical and can’t make logical decisions, and as long as that’s a theory, there won’t be progress made in the world in general. I feel the voices of women have to be heard now. If it hasn’t been in the past, it has to now. To make it just a rap game thing minimizes the problem and its presence in our everyday life. I think we are doing a lot to change this, and I’m very happy with the progression made in the last five years.
Q: In the past, you have been labeled a “feminist rapper” and the “Oprah of rap” because your rhymes often and intentionally uplift and encourage women to love themselves and own their bodies and sexuality. Why is this important for you?
A: It’s important for me to uplift women, but I think I’ve been labeled a feminist rapper instead of an empowering rapper because that wouldn’t be good enough for the media. They have to make it a woman thing, always, so they call you a “female rapper” or a “feminist rapper.” Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take all the labels, because I believe in feminism and am totally for it. But, for me, I just like to uplift women in my music because I feel there’s not enough songs that do that. There is more, but the job isn’t finished until women feel there is a place for them everywhere, that they are safe and have a voice. Until then, I will continue to make music that makes us feel like we are important.
Q: When did your own journey to self-acceptance begin and how do you try to implement self-love and self-care practices into your daily life?
A: I think self-care is a consistent thing. It’s a battle we fight every day, because self-love and self-care never stop. Some days are tiring, some days are amazing and other days it’s like, “I give up and want to sleep all day.” I started to get into self-care around 16. High school was a really hard time for me, and I got into yoga, meditation and figuring out how I feel and taking care of myself. I was just laughing with Charlotte, one of my managers, about how I need to create a savings account for emergency spa days. It’s so important to just take care of yourself when you need to, especially for women because we work so hard. Sometimes we just need a day off to do nothing except love ourselves.
Q: Agreed! I’m in need of one right now. You also created Magnet Bitch Movement, a lifestyle brand and music label, to help put other women on and inspire them to be entrepreneurs and start businesses. Why do you think it’s essential for ladies to be financially independent?
A: I think now more than ever women need to be financially independent because it’s not like the 1800s or 1900s, where you find a man, get married and be damned to hell if you divorce. Divorce rates go up higher and higher every year. More women are single mothers now. It’s important for women to make their own money because it gives them more decisions. You don’t have to rely on a man. If you want to, there’s also nothing wrong with that. You can be a housewife or the woman who takes care of the children. It’s about making choices, and financial independence allows us to do that. It gives us the freedom to use our money how we choose, whether to travel the world, open up your own business or to just give you peace of mind knowing you have it there if you ever need it. It’s important to have that choice and so it’s important to fight for equal pay, health care and education.
Q: Facts! That’s real. I want to get back to your music. While you started in rap, you have recently been doing more singing. Why the shift?
A: I wanted to take a step back, not because I think rap is in the past. I do think I will do more in the future. But I wanted to see the evolution of my music. I really wanted to broaden my range. so I’ve been singing and producing. I’ve produced about 50-to-75 percent of the song I’m doing.
Q: Wow! That’s dope, and very impressive. Your latest single, “New York City,” is an ode to the city that birthed and raised you. Why do this track? What does your ‘hood mean to you?
A: I made the song when I was in LA. I was there for about eight months making music, and I was so sad to be there. It’s just not the place for me. It’s really not. I was crying thinking of arroz con pollo, Puerto Rican food, Dominican food, my family, my people. I was producing the track and thinking about what I wish I was doing at the moment, and it was being home. Every part of me is New York. Wait, there is a part of me that’s in Puerto Rico, where my grandmother is and where I love going because I really appreciate my heritage and people, but I also feel like every ounce of me is New York. I have so much love for this city, and being away from it was like tearing out my heart from my body. I made that song when I was homesick, and it came out better than I expected.
Q: How do you feel you embody the essence of New York, whether in your music, your aesthetic or simply your way of being?
A: It’s my hustle, my attitude, my walk and how I talk with my hands, but it’s also so much more. New York has changed so much from the ‘90s and 2000s, the time of gangsta rap. Now it feels more about fashion, education and really just more worldly than it’s ever been. Obviously it’s being gentrified, which I don’t like, but you see what I’m talking about even in the ‘hoods. Kids are so smart and savvy. It’s something about New York. The innovation, the hustle, the swag are all on a whole other level. People know it when they see it. There’s a lack of judgement, too, here that allows people to be themselves. There’s a quickness that comes with a New York woman that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s sexy. New York women are so sexy.
Q: As a New Yorker-Floridian, I completely agree! What can you tell us about what you’re currently working on and when we can expect to hear or see it?
A: Right now, I’ve been working a lot. I’m currently sitting on about 50 to 100 songs. Some may come out, and some probably won’t. My management hates me, because they’re like, “will you stop making music for one week,” and I’m like, “never!” I have so much music, and there’s just a good message to them. There’s one song, “No Judgement,” which is about what I was just saying about not judging people. There’s “Company of God,” which is about how I’m walking in my own space and doing what I know I have to do based on conversations I have with my creator. I’m not super religious, but I do believe in a higher power. I have songs about being young and having the time of my life but still questioning if what you are doing is right. There are so many powerful messages for girls, too. I’m just waiting for the right time to release them and the right format to do that. I wouldn’t call it an album — that sounds so played out. I would say that I have a ton of playlists, like Drake would say. We’re living in the Internet Age, so I don’t feel like I need a label. I’m getting music to people the best way I can.
Q: Earlier you said you’d be using more live instruments also.
A: Yes! I definitely still have my “Nada” sounds, so there are the fun ones you can turn up to, but I also have a newer sound I’m creating, like a Drake Caribbean feel, though it’s different because it’s my own: New York mixed with Puerto Rico, mixed with my voice, which is very soft and airy. It’s a street feel but also an island feel, which I feel I haven’t given people yet. You do hear it a bit in “New York City,” but this will give people more of that, more of me. People always tell me that they know me but don’t really know me, and so I want to show me in the music I’m working on, so there are no more questions. I’m spilling my whole heart and being as raw as possible.
Q: Love that! I’m excited to hear it. You’re 23 years old, still young in your career. In a few years, what do you hope people can say about Leaf?
A: In a few years, my main goal is to have an arena stadium tour, to say I performed at Madison Square Garden, Barclays, every big arena in the U.S. and the world. Me and my team have been working toward that for a while. It’s a continuous thing. Artists don’t get there till like 5-to-10 years into their career. Every single day I’m working toward that goal. Fashion is also important to me. I’m working on starting an agency right now for females. I can’t say too much about it, but I just want to create a bigger platform to put women on in the workplace. Ultimately, I want to do a lot of charity for women meet my goals in music.