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Monaleo Talks Willow Smith Making Her Feel Seen, Advocating For Mental Health, And Wanting To See Safer Spaces For Trans-People

Monaleo dressed in a outfit with long sleeves, standing against a backdrop
Gilbert Flores / Billboard via Getty Images

Don't let those wild song lyrics fool you, "Beating Down Yo Block" rapper Monaleo is probably one of the sweetest people you'll ever meet. Monaleo, whose real name is Leondra Roshawn Gay, has had a special connection with music ever since she was a young girl singing in church, but she didn't always know what to do with that passion — until one day she decided to bet on herself.This H-Town Hottie has since dropped multiple hits (including some that went viral on TikTok), has been co-signed by big names like Flo Milli and Latto, and was honored by Femme it Forward just for being her authentic self in a public way. Now, as she's simultaneously building her music career, Monaleo is on a personal mission to help others live up to their fullest potential through mental health advocacy.

For BuzzFeed's Black, Out & Proud series, I sat down with Monaleo to discuss her rise to fame, using her past trauma as motivation to help others, coming out to her mother, her hopes for LGBTQ+ youth, and more.

Editor's note: This interview mentions discussions of suicide and mental health. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Monaleo posing with peace sign in a sparkling mini dress with feather details, at the femme it forward event
Lila Seeley / Getty Images

BuzzFeed: How did music become your creative outlet for releasing your emotions? How has your relationship with music changed over the years?

Monaleo: Initially, music for me was a way that I could create a persona that I knew was inside of me. I had a really difficult time tapping into that part of myself, just because I was always a little more easygoing than I would have liked to have been. It kind of put me in a lot of compromising situations. I was finding myself at the end of my first little heartbreak and I was looking for ways to pour back into myself. It started out as journal entries and then I ended up just turning it into music. Being able to talk about those feelings and emotions out loud was really pivotal in my healing process because if I wasn't able to vent those frustrations that I had, I wouldn't be where I am now.My relationship with music has changed from what it was initially because it was a hobby for me at first, then it became a job. Like any job that you have, you become a little jaded towards it sometimes, because there are pros and cons — there are certain things that I love about being in the music industry and there are certain things that I don't love. I take it all in stride because I'm grateful for the opportunity. Being here is a blessing...a once in a lifetime type of thing, so I'm definitely not complaining.

In a previous interview, you mentioned dropping out of school to pursue your rap career. What was that final push that made you realize it was time to bet on yourself instead of following a “traditional” path to success?

Well, I really didn't have much going on. I would like to say that it was difficult, but [music] was the most promising thing in my life at the time. Even with school, I kept switching back and forth between majors, because I couldn't decide what I wanted to do. I couldn't hear my own inner voice, instead I was listening to other people. I didn't want to go to school, to begin with, but it was something I was trying to do for my family. It was very difficult to navigate. I was always looking for an alternative to school. Even when I was in high school I would count down the time 'til I graduated high school. I kept telling myself, I had this much time to become a singer or else I'd have to go to college. It didn't happen when I wanted it to, but it definitely came on time. I'm grateful for that.

The most difficult part was getting other people on board, because it's a very abstract concept, telling people that you're going to pursue a music career. I am going back to school though, in the spring, to finish what I started. I just want to know I can finish for myself. But overall, it wasn't a difficult decision to make. It was the one I was most excited about. I was having fun going to the studio, recording music, and seeing people's responses. It really fueled me! It only took a few people to say, "Oh my God, this is fire! I love it," for me to say, "Okay, I'm going full throttle with this!"

What do you plan on studying when you return to school?

Mortuary science.

Oh, nice! Wishing you all the best. One of the first breakout singles you released after leaving school was “Beating Down Yo Block.” After seeing how much attention the song received, along with excitement, did you feel any fear or hesitation as you were earning this newfound fame?

Honestly, it was really weird...the progression, at, least for me, anyway. I felt like I was present and experiencing every single milestone. There wasn't a time when I woke up and was like, "Oh, wow, I made it!" Even now, I don't know if that's just like something in me that's just never satisfied or whatever, but I don't remember having a huge moment like that. It was all happening progressively and steadily. There was no dip or wake-up overnight with a million followers — it's been a slow grind. I was putting in my 1,000 hours, going into the studio every day, and something would happen here and something would happen there. We'd reach 100,000 views, 500,000 views, and then a million — I just felt like I was on top of it. I saw every little change in it. It was gradual.

A gradual progression is a perfect way to describe it. You're the one behind the scenes putting in all the work, so you know where you started and how you climbed your way up. But for people on the outside looking in, new and old fans alike, it can be easy to confuse that with overnight success.

Right, exactly! I didn't skip any steps. Even if I went up those steps relatively quickly, I touched every single step. It was a climb. Sometimes I wish I could be somebody else, just to see what my career development looks like from the outside.

What has been the most surprising and the most challenging thing you’ve learned about fame?

The most challenging is staying consistent and not getting discouraged. You have to have a lot of self-discipline because this is a self-governance type of occupation. You kind of have to be your own boss a lot of the time. If you're lazy your career is going to reflect it. Public opinion has a lot to do with the way that your career goes, but if you're consistently working at your craft, eventually you're going to become really good...undeniably good. You have to build and chip away at it every day, which I find to be the most challenging part because, again, some days I just don't feel like it — I'm just not in the mood. Sometimes you do have the luxury of saying, "I don't want to do this today," but you're gonna pay for it.

I'm just trying to find a balance because, naturally, you have to take breaks with something like this. After all, it's so demanding, emotionally and physically, due to the long hours on video shoots, being subjected to scrutiny on the internet, and people bringing up your biggest insecurities and trying to tear you down. It takes a toll on you, but if you don't show up enough in your career, you'll fall off. But, yeah, finding that balance is the most difficult. The most surprising has been meeting people that you only previously saw online or on TV. I never had the courage to tell those people, in the moment, how much they meant to me, but I'm going to start. People should get their flowers while they can smell them.

Monaleo in a one-shoulder metallic dress at an event with a "Give Her Flowers" backdrop
Jerritt Clark / Getty Images for Femme It Forward/Give Her FlowHERS

At the end of the day, you're human. Understandably, you'd have days where you felt like doing nothing or felt like complaining. You can complain and still be grateful for all of the blessings that come your way.

All my life I've heard, "What are you complaining about? What are you complaining for?" Most of the time it was coming from Black parents...Black moms, but they don't believe in being moody. A lot of them don't believe in depression, anxiety, or any of that. I've heard enough of that, so I'm trying to be more careful with what I say these days.

In a past HypeBeast interview, you mentioned feeling like an outcast growing up. What has your experience been like since officially entering the rap game? Did you feel welcome?

I'm sure people were very welcoming, but in the back of my mind, I was dealing with imposter syndrome. They're not the reason for that experience — that's my own personal shit that I have to get out of my head. I'm moving into a more open and honest phase in my life and really just identifying shit. So, again, my perception of shit has always been warped, but I'm pretty sure that people were receptive to me. There are definitely a couple of people, especially Flo Milli, who really opened up to me and allowed me to open up to them. But even if everybody didn't do what Flo did, that still doesn't mean that they didn't accept me or weren't welcoming. Everybody has a guard up to a certain degree because we all have a public image to maintain, so you don't want to have a bad day around people. For the most part, anybody that I've met and exchanged energies with has always been a pleasant experience.

You mentioned entering a more honest phase in your life, but you're already widely known and celebrated within your fanbase for being extremely transparent, particularly when it comes to your battles with depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideations. What encouraged you to share those personal moments in such a public way?

I wear my emotions on my sleeve, so if I'm having a bad day, you're gonna see it, unfortunately. I feel 10 times better when I just get it off my chest instead of trying to hide it. It can get exhausting and I don't always have the capacity for it. But I do have the capacity to talk about things that are troubling me or plaguing me. People respect the honesty and vulnerability. I imagine when I get older, I'm going to be a lot more reserved, and I'm okay with that. So, I'm just kind of purging and letting it all out now, and handing it back to the universe because I don't want to carry this shit anymore.

Not only do you share that vulnerability through open discussions on social media, but you also do it through song. R&B has been an outlet for you as well. After dropping “Miss You Already” you hinted at getting into your R&B bag a little more. Is that still something you’re looking to pursue?

Definitely! I have church roots. I started in church, the Baptist Church to be specific, so there was a whole lot of singing — it was damn near a musical. I love singing, I love harmonies, I love instrumentation — that's where my heart is. Those types of songs are more like my passion projects because that's not what people want to hear from me, specifically. They want to hear rowdy shit, I already know this. Anytime I do R&B, I always really love it because I'm super passionate and talk openly and candidly in a way that matches my vibe. I can rap about feeling a certain way, but when I rap, that's for me to toughen up. I'm not looking to merge the two...I'm not looking to rap about sad shit. It just doesn't add up for me in my mind, creatively. But I will always make R&B music. That's where my heart is...I like to sing.

Wait, why do you feel like people don't want to hear R&B music from you?

Because they don't. Realistically speaking, my demographic knows Monaleo to be an aggressive artist and they appreciate how outlandish she is in her music. There was a period of time where I was trying to completely rebel against that, which is stupid because [I] can't just completely derail everybody like, "Fuck it, I'm not rapping anymore. I'm only singing!" In the rap space, Monaleo can pick people's moods up and turn their whole day around, and that's something that I respect. So, even if I don't always like writing rap music, I'll still continue to do it because of who I've become in people's lives.

As an advocate, you created an organization called Stay One More Day to help raise mental health awareness and provide resources and coping mechanisms for anyone struggling. Can you tell me how that came about and what the feedback has been like?

I've always been an advocate for mental health. It's the life that I've always lived. For the majority of my life, I was chronically depressed, super morbid, super pessimistic, and very difficult to be around. That was the direction my life started going after different traumatic experiences, abuse, and all that shit. I met a lot of people on my mental health journey — I was hospitalized a bunch of different times and each time I met a lot of good people who had really good stories to tell. We had a lot of shared experiences, like feeling like an outcast or being deeply misunderstood. We all needed somebody to advocate for us in a way that made sense because a lot of us have trouble verbalizing what we're feeling.

I've seen a lot of things. I've seen a lot of people lose their lives — people who might've benefited from having a little bit more information about what life could be. A lot of people in my family have died by suicide because [mental health battles] run in my family. My grandmother has depression, my mother has depression and bipolar disorder, my brother has ADHD, and I have depression and anxiety. I just felt like maybe if they had a different conversation that day — and I'm speaking from personal experience, because I've been talked off the ledge, by people who don't even know me. They weren't even necessarily full conversations, but something they said was really impactful and stuck with me. Sometimes that's really all it takes.

I tell myself all the time that I'm very glad that I was able to stay to experience what my life is now. like and Imagine if I would've, sold myself short. A lot of people miss out on their potential because of temporary emotions and temporary situations. They just need the proper tools and to hear certain things. Once I realized that, that started becoming part of my identity before I was ever a rapper. When I gave a speech at my high school graduation, I was talking about mental health. I remember my principal read my speech ahead of graduation and told me to take out parts where I mentioned mental health and suicide because it was too "touchy." But I got up to that podium and read my entire original speech. I know she was fuming, but it didn't matter because I had already graduated at that point.

Monaleo in a outfit with a large bow, posing at an event
Prince Williams / WireImage / Getty Images

Ha, I love that! Have you ever done any professional work with mental health outside of the organization you created?

I worked as a crisis intervention hotline responder, so I've talked to a lot of people who've struggled with mental health and I've talked a lot of people off that ledge. Some people just need to know that you hear them, you see them, and that you acknowledge that they exist outside of their trauma and past experiences. Not everybody has the courage to speak up, so I felt like I had a duty to uphold. At the beginning of my rap career, I was on Instagram Live and I was just talking about my life and my story and you know, and then at the end of the Live, I just kept saying, "Stay one more day. Stay one more day." I knew that I wanted to carry that into a part of who I am because it's simple yet effective and powerful. Stay one more day and continue to stay another day until you feel better about the days ahead of you.

Along with your mental health, you've been very open about your bisexuality. I'm bisexual as well, gang gang [laughs]. With homosexuality and LGBTQ+ related topics being so controversial in hip hop, was there any hesitation on your end to publicly come out?

No, no hesitation. Anything that's true and authentic about myself, I'm sure that I want to do. I'm not going to sit up here and act like me coming out to people was gonna be a big thing, because people already sexualize women liking other women. But a man can't like another man? They just get really weird. I'd be a damn fool and a liar if I said I was hesitant about [coming out as bisexual]. It's just a part of me. I was really looking for my tribe. Anytime I share anything personal about myself, I'm looking for my demographic...for my people.

What’s the biggest lesson you've learned about yourself when you decided to live authentically in the industry?

I'm talented. Seriously, I'm undoubtably talented. It takes talent to get to this point, and obviously, talent is subjective, but it takes a special type of skill to be able to maintain and be a figure that people are able to see and recognize. It's very difficult to get to this point, especially as a Black woman. I could put out songs tomorrow and nobody has to like it, but that doesn't change the way that I feel about my artistry, and that feels good.

You are talented! And I love your mindset. I hope you hold onto that confidence because it's a beautiful thing to have...especially working in this industry. Last year was a big year for you, from sold-out shows on your tour and your XXL freestyle to being honored with the Self Love Award by Femme it Forward and becoming a first-time mom. What were some of your favorite moments from last year and what are you excited about for 2024?

I had my son last year so that definitely trumps everything! That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Then, like you said, the tour. That was an amazing experience. I got to meet people and I cried at every single show. Last year was also a super hard year for me, so anytime that I was able to show up for myself, [it] was an accomplishment. It was very difficult to get out of bed last year, but I did a lot of cool shit and I met a lot of really cool people. I learned a lot about myself and my strength, what I can endure and how persistent I can be, and how tenacious I can be even in the face of adversity.

In hindsight, 2023 was one of my toughest years physically, obviously, but also emotionally because I was dealing with the random spikes in my hormones, body dysmorphia, and postpartum. Honestly, it was challenging and hard to talk about, and hard to make sense to other people who haven't lived it. Also postpartum is different for everybody. so you have to literally be inside of my body to understand what was going on with me. But, oftentimes, people don't possess real empathy and understanding so they find it hard to step outside of themselves.

But I did have a good year. A lot of really big things happened for me last year and I'm excited to see what 2024 brings me. I'm moving into a space of receptiveness, gratitude, and openness...whatever that looks like. This year I want to be more present.

Let's speak that into existence: 2024 is going to be a great year! Okay, I want to get into a few questions about your experience as a Black bisexual woman, both in life and in your career. Who was your first queer crush?

I always thought women were really beautiful my whole life. I don't know who was first [laughs]. I feel like it's changed and evolved.

Who was your first Black queer fashion icon?

These are really good questions! I don't even think about this type of stuff. I'm not particularly into fashion, I will put on a fucking sweatpants and a hoodie, but I will probably say Willow Smith. I really looked up to her. I have pictures of me when I started to experiment with my image and Willow Smith was on my mood board. I was like, eight or nine or something like that, but she was definitely on my mood board. I loved her hair. I love how bright and colorful she was allowed to be. And I would always tell my parents, "Look at Willow Smith, her parents let her get pink hair and long braids." I wanted all of that. I thought it was cool to see that from her. She was definitely my inspiration and the earliest representation of just being a Black girl, experimenting, and being yourself out loud. I can't believe I haven't said this more often. It's probably the trauma response — when you go through enough shit, you just forget certain periods in your life. But I definitely remember her being my idol.

SZA performing on stage, wearing a form-fitting sleeveless dress, with a microphone in hand
Jason Koerner / Getty Images

Willow was and still is an inspiration! When was the first time you realized your sexuality wasn't a phase?

I realized very early on because I had home girls and I thought they were cute. I knew in my mind I was trying to figure out what that meant and just how to express myself. Then there was this time I was in eighth grade, I had an episode, whatever, and I had to be hospitalized. My mom went through my phone and she saw that I was dating a girl named Gio. We were Gio and Leo. Super cute, right [laughs]? When I got out of the hospital she asked me, "Are you gay?" And I was like, "Um, why are you asking me that?" She was like, "I went through your phone. Who is Gio?" I was like, "That's my girlfriend and I don't care!" My mom told me it was a phase and I told her it wasn't. It was like a whole thing. I knew having the courage to have that conversation with my mom the same day that I was getting out of the hospital was my way of making sure that she knew this was not a phase.

What advice would you give to young Black queer people?

Love and be proud of yourself and do things that you can be proud of. This is the only life that we get to live. We can't switch bodies with anybody else, we have to make the most of our experiences while we have been afforded the opportunity to live. Sometimes we take being alive for granted. I wasted a lot of time being ashamed of who I was and what I went through. I can never get that time back. Not to be morbid, but we could die tomorrow. I would hate to have spent my last days or all my years on Earth being ashamed of who I was. I'm me, and I can only be me, and nobody else can be me better than I can. You don't have time to waste. Be proud of yourselves today.

Speaking of being proud, what has been your proudest moment, being Black and queer?

When I felt like I could be myself. On top of feeling like I could be myself, I actually grew a liking for myself. I'm really proud that I was able to sort through those really big feelings and big emotions that people don't really sort through with you. I was proud for getting through those tough days. I'm proud to be showing up as myself unapologetically...more authentically every single day. Hopefully, that inspires people to also take the time to be more intentional with themselves. So, I'm just proud to be here. That's my proudest moment. Every day I get up and try, I'm proud.

closeup of her in a halter neck dress with cut-outs and a pearl choker necklace
Maury Phillips / Getty Images

Was there ever a time when you felt like there needed to be more representation on-screen, in the music industry, or in life in general?

There's always a need for more representation. There should be somebody for everybody. I'm really excited about all of these subcategories that are popping up. People aren't getting really fucking specific about who they are and really finding their tribe. I'm looking to find my tribe of people too. I'm talking to my really specific, niche experiences, and when I meet people who can relate, it's a true bonding experience. So, no, I don't think there's ever enough representation.

How much do you think we've progressed as Black LGBTQ+ people in society?

I think we've made a lot of progress. With that being said, there's still a lot more work to be done, especially in the Black community — Black families, Black churches, and Black spaces that aren't LGBTQ+-centered. In general, people should just be able to go wherever they want, freely, without being judged or criticized. I feel like churches are coming around to it slowly, but it's still not really a safe place for trans people. I don't feel like most places are safe for trans people, where they're continuously seen, heard, listened to, advocated for, and able to integrate into without it being a whole thing. But we're moving in the right direction, slowly but surely. I would like to see it progress a little quicker, but it has less to do with us, and more to do with everybody else who isn't fully comfortable. I think they should unpack why they aren't comfortable around other human beings.

What is your hope for Black LGBTQ+ people in the future?

My hope is for safer spaces and less scrutiny. I've never understood the outrage behind people just wanting to be themselves, even as a young girl. I'm not saying I'm more righteous than anybody, but there was a lot of shit that I was able to identify as wrong. I've always seen people for who they were. I know it's gonna take a while for people to understand, but I just want them to get it through their heads that it should not be that big of a fucking deal. What does it matter what somebody else is doing in their life? Why does it matter how somebody else is living their life? There's just a lot of shit that irks me...it really gets under my skin. But ultimately, I just want there to be safer spaces where people aren't being harassed, murdered, and assaulted.

Monaleo with a microphone performing onstage
Scott Dudelson / Getty Images

Your honesty and vulnerability has been so refreshing! Thank you for chatting with me, Monaleo.

Be sure to check out more Black, Out & Proud interviews here.The National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline is 1-888-950-6264 (NAMI) and provides information and referral services; GoodTherapy.org is an association of mental health professionals from more than 25 countries who support efforts to reduce harm in therapy.The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.orgThe Trevor Project, which provides help and suicide-prevention resources for LGBTQ youth, is 1-866-488-7386.

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