If you don't get Monaleo, she says you're not listening: ‘It really gets under my skin’

Naledi Ushe
Monaleo gets vulnerable with rap and r&b in her debut album.

NEW YORK — "Body Bag" artist Monaleo has been killing the game. The rapper has more than 1.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify, earned spotlights in Billboard and Teen Vogue and received recognition from peers Flo Milli and Lil Nas X just two years into her career.

Now, she's showing a more vulnerable side with her debut album "Where the Flowers Don't Die."

With her album, out Friday, Monaleo says she wanted to answer the question, "What does it mean to be somewhere where the flowers don't die?"

The existential question was raised for the 22-year-old born Leondra Roshawn Gay during the creative process of collaborating with rapper NoCap for their 2022 single "Miss U Already." NoCap (born: Kobe Vidal Crawford Jr.) discussed his late friend's afterlife as being where the flowers don't die, she recalls.

For Monaleo, it means being in a harmonious world and "being in touch with all the sides of my emotions," which she poured into her first full-length project.

Monaleo shows 'solidarity' with the Black women in her life in 'Where the Flowers Don't Die'

The album is multifaceted, with no holds barred tracks like her recently released single "Ass Kickin'" to soulful R&B song "Miss Understood."

The latter song is in an ode to Black women, specifically her grandmother, mom and her boyfriend Stunna 4 Vegas' (born: Khalik Antonio Caldwell) mom. Black women are often in a state of "feeling the need to be strong or stronger than what they actually feel, taking a lot of stuff to the chin and having to put on this Superwoman cape to save the world when in reality they're really just vulnerable women who have longed to be loved without having to accept different things they don’t feel comfortable with," she says.

"I'm standing in solidarity with them," Monaleo adds. "I wanted them to know that somebody saw them as a human being outside of being a super strong woman. I see the vulnerability. I see the little girl in them."

Monaleo, who will soon be a mom herself, nourished her inner child with her album.

Monaleo's cover for new album "Where the Flowers Don't Die."

'Where the Flowers Don't Die' isn't for everybody and Monaleo is OK with that

The tracks on "Where the Flowers Don't Die" vary in sound and the messages they convey, so the rapper doesn't expect each song to be a fit for every fan.

"I want people to be able to receive what they need from the project, whether it's good or bad," Monaleo says. "If I move and impact one person or 1,000 people or 10,000 people or whatever, I'm completely content as long as it gets to somebody."

The Houston rapper has quickly gained traction from her debut single "Beating Down Yo Block" in 2021 to her follow-ups "We Not Humpin'" and "Ridgemont Baby." Monaleo has collaborated with Flo Milli, joining her on tour last year, and Beyoncé for an Ivy Park campaign in 2021. She also stepped onto one of the biggest festival stages for Rolling Loud Miami last summer.

Monaleo on how she found her voice while facing anxiety

It's important for Monaleo to validate her fan's emotions through her music. Growing up, she "struggled with anxiety" and people interpreted her behavior as "mean or rude." Some still think she's "aggressive" when in reality, the singer is "very sensitive and very empathetic," she says.

"That's one of my biggest pet peeves: not being understood," she continues. "It really gets under my skin because I feel like I'm so articulate and I'm so clear most of the time about what it is that I want and need, who I am, what I represent, what I stand for, what I don't stand for."

The artist would practice how to up her confidence in the mirror by holding conversations with herself to better articulate how she was feeling. Out of those pep talks she created an alter ego through her stage name, a combination of Mona Lisa and her name Leondra. "Monaleo was born as a result of people misunderstanding me. To represent a more powerful, outspoken, stronger version of myself," the artist says.

Monaleo on her excitement and goals for motherhood

Her approach to music is similar to how she hopes to tackle parenthood. "I can only imagine the type of human being that I would have been with the correct cultivation and validation. I feel like I'm a really great person, but I'm really flawed in a lot of ways because of the way that I was brought up. That's no disrespect to my parents because I think they did the best they could," she shares.

"The thing that I'm excited about when it comes to motherhood and being a mother and being in charge of cultivating a human being is giving them the love and support and space to be themselves and be creative and express themselves."

Monaleo tackles colorism following controversial interview: 'The proof is in the pudding'

Monaleo speaks in poetry, but she's quick to clear up any confusion. She would rather overexplain than have her words misconstrued.

The singer stirred up controversy in January while talking about colorism on "The Hollywood Group Chat" podcast with host and former "Bad Girls Club" star Mehgan James.

"Do you believe in colorism and do you feel like it's easier as a female rapper to make it big when you have a lighter complexion?" James asked, adding that she has been "battling" with people about this question as a lighter-complected Black woman who was bullied in school over her features.

"I said, 'Yeah, I do,' because it's true," Monaleo recalls.

Monaleo believes colorism impacts the music industry, but does not think James' experience falls under the umbrella of colorism because the "Bad Girls Club" star has a lighter skin tone. By definition, colorism is "prejudice or discrimination, especially within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin."

The rapper did acknowledge comments the host received in school were probably "traumatic."

That fallout from the interview subjected the rapper to "verbal abuse from people online who didn't understand what I was saying."

Her statement wasn't meant to "discredit" Black artists with lighter complexions. "I feel like I'm the biggest advocate and supporter when it comes to women in general," she adds.

However, on the topic of colorism, Monaleo says, "The proof is in the pudding. We see these dark-skinned artists who worked their asses off and are extremely talented — some of the most talented women I have ever seen in my life — and they have to work twice as hard for half the recognition."

Monaleo performs during "RapCaviar Presents James Harden & Friends" at Bayou Music Center on August 28, 2021, in Houston, Texas.

Monaleo also clears up that she didn't mean to imply she experiences the worst of colorism based on European beauty standards. "What I should have said at the time was the closer you are in proximity to being white, the more privilege you have," she says.

"This relates to colorism, (hair) texturism, all different types of things. It’s a spectrum," the rapper continues. "I fall somewhere in between. Because even I feel like I have more privilege than some of my other counterparts."

Monaleo hates being misunderstood. At only 22 years old, she knows exactly who she is and she's not afraid to say how she feels: the good, the bad, the controversial.

"I've been this unhinged since (I was) a little girl," she says with a laugh.

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