At the tender age of 21 and after only two short years in the music industry, Monaleo is already making waves with her brazen bars, slight southern drawl and cool-girl swag.
With sexually liberated, take-his-money rap reigning supreme on the airwaves, Monaleo stands out with a truculent tone and an unabashed attitude. Her single “Beating Down Yo’ Block,” an homage to fellow Houston rapper Yungstar’s hit 2000 single “Knocking Pictures Off the Wall,” has been going strong for more than a year. Her most recent hit, a collab remix with Flo Milli titled “We Not Humping,” makes it clear that with Monaleo on a track, the dukes are up.
“My sound is very aggressive—it’s assertive, it’s powerful,” Monaleo says of her self-assured delivery. “You’re always going to feel where I’m coming from. It’s emotional.”
Born Leondra Roshawn Gay and raised in Texas, Monaleo (her name is an amalgamation of Mona Lisa and her nickname, Leo) got her start in hip-hop by pure happenstance. Accompanying her younger brother to a studio session she had gifted him as a birthday present, she ended up hopping inside the booth to fool around on the mic. Already with a bit of a following on social media, she posted the clip of herself rapping—and was swarmed with commenters impressed with her skills. Only 18 at the time, she started to explore the possibility of a career in music, keeping at it until she landed her first viral hit in early 2021.
Though her tough-as-nails stage persona matches well with her no-holds-barred braggadocio, there’s a relatable vulnerability bubbling beneath it all. This draws fans and admirers to Monaleo all the more, many of them stopping her in public to lavish her with hugs, tears and their own personal tales.
“It’s been a very interesting transition, because my life prior to being a rapper was the literal complete opposite,” she explains of her newfound fame. “I was very introverted. I never left my house for anything. On top of me not leaving my house, I never left my room.”
Greeting fans and meeting new people is a challenge—though a welcome one for Monaleo, who is open about suffering from severe anxiety and depression. Monaleo also identifies as a suicide survivor and has bravely gone on record about having made multiple attempts to take her life. These continued through her childhood and into her late teens—starting as early as fourth grade, with the last as late as March 2020. In mid-May, she received an outpouring of support and well-wishes from fans on Twitter after revealing a recent pregnancy loss, her struggle with ovarian cysts and her feelings of being disregarded by a non-Black health care provider throughout the ordeal.
“Some people might feel like it’s oversharing, but I feel like it’s therapeutic for me to talk about these things,” Monaleo says. “There is a lot of power in solidarity.”
She experienced that power firsthand while battling one particularly dark bout of depression in the midst of pursuing her rap dreams. While watching interviews from some of her biggest career inspirations—Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion—she was moved by the openness with which they disclosed the highs and lows of their own journeys.
“It made me feel seen, it made me feel heard, it made me feel recognized,” she explains. “It restored my hope and my faith in life in general— because, at that time, I was very depressed. I was dealing with suicidal thoughts and questioning, Should I be here? What’s my purpose?”
The hard times helped lead to her unique position as a mental health advocate. It’s a role she’s been informally filling for her fans and followers on social for years, but she is now also exploring it in her recordings. “It’s a very freeing experience for me, because it helps me rationalize a lot of the irrational thoughts that swim around in my head,” she says. “It’s literally a verbal journal. Most of the stuff that I used to just write down, I’m recording now, and I play it back whenever I need clarity.”
Monaleo has plans to release a full album that will tell an in-depth, multifaceted story—featuring some of her verbal journals and vocalizing her tumultuous lived experience. But before she puts out her heavier, more personal fare, the rising star is making sure to give fans a tape that highlights the rowdy, raunchy, aggressive trash-talking they have come to know and love her for. Her skill and range give her the ability to operate in both lanes, in her own way, on her own time. “I’ve been through real sh-t and real life,” she sums up. “I’m grateful for all those experiences.”
This article appears in the September/October 2022 issue of ESSENCE magazine on newsstands now.
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