Like most millennial success stories, 21-year-old rapper Leaf (born Mikala Leaf McLean) has lined up wins thanks to Instagram. The Brooklyn native was signed to Fool’s Gold Records/ RPM MSC by A-Trak after his brother Dave 1 of Chromeo scrolled through her photo map.
“His brother David found me on Instagram and saw one of my music videos. A-Trak hit me up through Instagram and was like ‘Hey, are you in LA? I want to link up with you. I like your music.’ And I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ I was so shocked,” she recalled of her signing two years ago to Billboard over the phone. “Then we met up and I thought he was just going to ask to put me on to a song or something. And he was like, ‘I want to sign you’ and I was like ‘Let’s do it.'”
Since her 2015 debut EP, Magnet Bitch, Leaf has swapped her closet for real studios to make music and is eliminating all distractions — even breaking up with her boyfriend this past New Year’s Eve — to focus on her career. Whether calling out no-good fellas on “Slick” or staying away from negative vibes on “Drama,” Leaf’s aggressive yet animated delivery makes her a contender for next rap queen.
Leaf also landed a Calvin Klein ad through Instagram (naturally) while her latest single, the get-moola anthem “Money,” was featured in Apple’s WWDC Keynote last month. On the music front, she shot a video for her forthcoming collaboration with Internet rap sensation Lil Yachty called “Nada,” slated for release later this summer as well as on her forthcoming debut album, Trinity.
Here, she reflects on her brokest moment, discusses A-Trak‘s contagious work ethic and campaigns for female empowerment in music and beyond.
When did you fall in love with music?
I’ve been in love with music my entire life. I would say my earliest memory was at five years old dancing in the mirror with my brushes, singing at the top of my lungs to basically anything I could get my hands on that my mom would let me listen to at the time… Kelis, Britney Spears, Prince and Michael Jackson. Anything with music, I loved it.
Who did you grow up idolizing?
It changed throughout the years. When I was six, I wanted to be like Britney Spears. When I turned about 12, 13, I wanted to be Gwen Stefani. Then, as I progressed during my teen years, there was some rock influences and some hip-hop influences but for the most part, Jimi Hendrix is one of my biggest idols. He made me start playing guitar and just inspired my music to this point.
What made you consider becoming an artist?
What I love about all artists is just the freedom. I love how artists use their platform to free people. [It’s] an outlet to feel emotions that they might not be able to feel or express in their everyday life. That’s what made me want to be an artist — just being able to give people that freedom.
When did you decide to pursue music professionally?
Professionally to me was when I stopped recording in closets so I would say about 16, 17. [Laughs] I’ve been recording music since I was about 12, 13 years old just on my own computer and at my friend’s house. I even used to try and insulate [my closet] with pillows around my computer, and make music off Garage Band. We would have little set ups and learn how to DJ. We would just be jamming in people’s houses, which was really cool, especially growing up in New York. I really appreciate that because I don’t know another city like that.
What was the first song you wrote?
The first song I ever recorded was called “Cupcake Kisses.” It was so embarrassing. I was so young but it was basically about how a guy’s lips were like cupcakes. It’s actually a pretty good song. It was so funny at the time. I put it on MySpace for a little, and then I took it down after my music started picking up.
Can you recall a moment where you were broke while on the come-up?
I remember there was one point in my life were I was eating chickpeas and grape fruit juice every single day. I’m into healthy food so I would never be one of those girls that ate off the dollar menu at McDonald’s, but I really had three dollars a day in my budget to eat. I was like, ‘How can I make this last to be able to eat all day and also not gain weight eventually?’ I ate chick peas and grape fruit juice for an entire month. Luckily for me, I sat in my room and made beats the entire month as well. I was just so hungry, not just literally, but also hungry to make good music. That was a year and a half ago, right before I made all this music so it pushed me to the level that I needed to be on.
What inspired your latest song “Money”?
I’m super involved in female empowerment. I have a brand called Money Before Men [previously called the Magnetic Bitch Movement] where I really push women to make their own money, so I wanted to make a song — basically like a money anthem not just for girls, but for anyone in the world who just needs a little bit of motivation to get money in their life. There are so many songs out here that you make you feel like you don’t have enough money or make you feel like you’re going to make the money that these rappers have. I just wanted to give people a song to feel better about themselves and be able to make some money in their lives.
When did you begin to campaign for female empowerment?
I think every woman in my life has made me want to represent female empowerment. When I was 15, 16, I read this feminist book called What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame Free Guide To Sex And Safety by Jaclyn Friedman about sexuality, because I feel like in school they don’t teach you enough about sex education, especially as a female. They pretty much teach you ‘Put on a condom or you’ll get pregnant and die.’ Like Mean Girls. [Laughs] I wanted to take it on myself to learn about sexuality and how I can feel about myself as a woman. I read this book and it changed my entire perspective on just being a woman, how I use my body and how I feel about my body. And if sex is consensual and I feel good about it then it’s always okay to have sex. That’s one thing that I preach to girls all the time. Your body is yours and as along as you feel like you’re respecting yourself and your sexual partners are respecting you as well, you are allowed to do whatever you want with your body.
You’ve been featured in a Calvin Klein ad and “Money” was used at Apple’s WWDC Keynote last month. What do these accomplishments mean to you?
I think it’s just so beautiful how the world works when you put things into the universe and they come back to you. I decided on New Year’s [Eve] that this year was going to be my year. I got so focused, I even dumped my boyfriend. We had no reason to break up but I was like, “I’m sorry. I have to focus.” There is nothing that is going to break my focus and in that way, everything has just fallen into place for me.
What has been the biggest life lesson that A-Trak has bestowed upon you?
A-Trak is just an inspiring person because he has his own label. He has done so much and I aspire to be as talented and as dope as [he is] in the future. I also want to start a label when I have the platform for it. Seeing how hard he works and how he stays connected with people — he is so genuine. I just love everything about being on Fool’s Gold Records. It’s really cool to have people notice you and appreciate your talent.
What kind of vibes can fans expect for the “Nada” video with Lil Yachty?
Super killer vibes. I don’t even know how to explain it. I was almost in tears at how amazing this video came out. I’m just excited for everyone to see it.
You’ve found much success through social media. What’s a pitfall of constantly being connected?
I think that a lot of kids don’t go out anymore because they’d rather stay at home, living these social media lives. It’s cool to have a social media platform and to have a social media life but it’s also very important to have a social life because if you don’t communicate with other people, it can cause depression and bad disorders. I want people to start going out to parties and dancing and having fun again because I grew up with that as well. I remember when I was 14, 15, [the party scene] starting dying down [when I turned] 16, 17. New York used to have this crazy warehouse parties. I feel like there is just not a subculture like that anymore and I wish the subculture would come back.
What can we expect from your new album?
It’s called Trinity. Trinity is one: definitely speaking to females. [The album has] a lot of empowerment songs — songs to cope with emotions that I feel like a lot of girls have. Secondly, it’s a turn-up. There is definitely a lot of turn-up records on there including “Nada” with Yachty, which is going to be really dope. [There is gonna be] songs to turn up with your girlfriends to feel fly. Three, Trinity is about embodying female empowerment, being the queen that you are, just knowing that you’re a creator and God made you a creator to your best ability.
What’s your take on the perception of women in hip-hop?
What needs to be done is that women need to come together. I think there is too much separation. It’s not completely our fault there is also a lot of misogyny in hip-hop — it’s a male dominated industry but I think as women, we need to take a stand and start putting each other on. I know that when I get my own platform, I’m going to get a lot of girls underneath my wing and give them the light. I’m not worried about cattiness or competition because I believe every girl has their own lane and mindset. No one can steer into my lane because no one is me and I am unique. Once you get in the space, there is never a feeling of someone overstepping you, overpowering you or any of that cattiness.