Screencap via YouTube
“You’re in Sherman right now. This is the heart of my fucking neighborhood. When you go outside in my alley, this is it. I grew up in this house. My whole family is from Sherman. This is where motherfuckers get shot, stabbed—right here.”
Leafar Seyer is casually drilling holes through me with his eyes. His arms and head are covered in gang tattoos. There’s a matching swastika and Star of David on his neck. But he’s also wearing cowboy boots, black nail polish, and has a crucifix earring dangling from one ear. We’re in Sherman Heights: Gangland, San Diego. Seyer—a.k.a. Rafael Reyes, whose stage name is his real name backwards—is the frontman of Prayers, the (accurately) self-described “cholo goth” duo he formed with beat-master and Tijuana native Dave Parley just over a year ago. In that short time, Prayers have released a full-length (SD Killwave), an EP (Gothic Summer), and a string of provocative black-and-white videos for infectious goth bangers “From Dog to God,” “Gothic Summer,” and “Ready to Bleed.” Equal parts Pet Shop Boys, Christian Death, and American Me, Prayers were handpicked by the Cult’s frontman Ian Astbury to open four California dates on the legendary rock band’s US tour last year. Prayers were practically unknown at the time, but that’s about to change: Seyer and Parley are currently finishing up a new EP, Young Gods, with Travis Barker from blink-182 on drums.
But it could all end at any minute. A lifelong gangbanger and member of the Sherman Grant Hill Park 27 gang, Seyer served six months in prison for assault back in 2010—an incident for which he caught two strikes under California’s draconian Three Strikes Law. If he catches another, he could wind up in prison for life. Seyer is vividly aware of this reality: His cousin Wicked—to whom the song “Gothic Summer” is dedicated—is currently serving a life sentence in Pelican Bay.
Today, Seyer and Parley are back home after a successful show in New York. Seyer is hand-painting the Prayers logo on the back of a leather jacket. A few of his other paintings—of gender-bending pop icon David Bowie and famed occultist Aleister Crowley—line the walls of Seyer’s pad. The jacket is for fellow artist Harif Guzman, who took Prayers under his wing while they were in New York. Seyer’s previous two trips to NYC resulted in an arrest and a court appearance—evidence disappeared, charges dismissed—but the city was good to him this time. “We fucking destroyed it,” he says. “It was like 9/11 all over again. We were tearing buildings down with our music, our presence.”
NOISEY: You’ve always preferred industrial and goth music. You must have caught shit for that coming up as a gang member.
Leafar Seyer: Of course I did. I fought to be who I am. I got into physical fights to be able to dress like this. People around here wanted me to conform to look like what they consider to be a gangster. My homies would be like “What the fuck?” But I’m not part of that hip-hop culture. I grew up listening to industrial and death rock—Christian Death, Joy Division, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys—bands like that. So I’ve always stayed true to my roots even though I’m a gang member. I never jumped around when it came to music because that’s the sound that always spoke to me. That’s the sound I identified with, even though the neighborhood I grew up in was completely the opposite of that. So I fought and fought and fought until I won and they finally gave up. Man, I’ve been shot; I’ve been stabbed. I got stabbed right here in my forehead [points to scar]. That’s a gang knife right there.
Is that what you’re talking about in the song “Gothic Summer”?
Yeah, exactly. “They caught me slippin’, so they cut me in the face.” And then Wicked, my cousin… this is all real shit. That’s why I don’t even listen to gangsta rap. I am gangsta rap.
You’re bringing gang culture and a street mentality to a type of music that never had it before.
I’ve been breaking stereotypes in so many different ways, especially with the help of David. I’m a gothic cholo. People don’t understand that there’s two different sides to the Chicano coin. There’s the Mexicans from Mexico and there’s the Mexicans from America. Chicano culture is a minority within a minority. David and I were born in Mexico. We’re not liked in the United States, and we’re not liked in Mexico. People like me, gang members, are frowned upon in Mexico. They don’t like us there.
Because you’re giving them a bad name here in the States.
Exactly. David is a Mexicano from Tijuana. So him being into this music, what he represents is also rare. So it only makes sense that me and him would come together to create this sound that can only really be done by him and I. It won’t exist without him and I. There’s already copycats out there, but you know what? The copycats don’t have Dave Parley. And the copycats aren’t real gang members who have experienced this life.
So no one around here bothers you about your music or your style anymore?
My homies still like to crack jokes when they get drunk. But that’s okay—I clown them on their weight or whatever the fuck I feel fit to clown them on. I’m a grown man and I know that what I represent is a lot bigger than what other people have lived or will even get to experience in their fucking life. Perfect example: I’ve only been doing music for three years. I’ve only been doing Prayers for 14 months. And a lot of people that didn’t wanna fuck with me in this city, who thought I was a poser, who thought I was fuckin’ joke—not only do they try to be like me now, they try to belittle me by saying, “Oh, hard work pays off.” I say, “No, motherfucker. It’s not hard work. It’s because I’m fuckin’ special. You’ve been doing music for 20 years. You can play every fuckin’ instrument under the sun, and where are you? Not even close to where I’m fuckin’ at.” So it’s not hard work. I’m fuckin’ special. I’m unique. I’m a rare gem. That’s the fuckin’ difference. So don’t try to belittle my magic and my ability to become who I was meant to be this entire time by saying, “Hard work pays off.”
In the “From Dog to God” video, you’re putting on lipstick. That seems like a pretty ballsy move for a known gang member. Has there been any backlash?
Many gang members have accepted me, and they fight for me because they know a lot of people talk shit about me, calling me this and that. These hardcore machismo dudes see me put my finger in my mouth, and they think I’m gay, but listen: I’ve dated a lot of makeup artists. You put your finger in your mouth so you don’t get lipstick on your teeth. What these dudes don’t understand is that I’ve been with some of the hottest women in San Diego—I’ve been with supermodels. These guys who are calling me names have never even been with the type of women I’ve been with. But that’s just my ego and my pride talking. Let’s get down to business: The reality is that I don’t give a fuck.
I do what I want. That’s my power and my strength. If people think I’m gay because I wear makeup, they don’t understand me. I’m the one who wanted to be filmed putting on makeup, because that’s me putting on my war paint. It’s a ritual—it’s me invoking [Christian Death vocalist] Rozz Williams and that kind of energy. That’s me getting ready go do business and fuck shit up onstage. But I also want to fuck with people, too. I want people to question their own machismo, their own sexuality. I don’t have no problem with people who are gay. People inspire me. And I want to inspire others to be who the fuck they wanna be. Don’t let people saying you’re this or that keep you from doing what you wanna do with yourself. And sometimes the only way to do that is by doing things that others fear.
I’m a cholo goth—I’m the first of my kind, so I gotta represent hella hard for those who are coming up and wanna be part of this new culture. We live in different times now. Everything’s a hybrid. I’m a fuckin’ hybrid. Mexicans are hybrids—we’re crossed with indigenous blood and Spanish blood. It’s the same thing with the music I’m creating. So for me, I gotta go hard. When I put on makeup, it’s my badge of honor. Because other people can’t do it.
You’re 40 years old, but you’ve only been playing music for three years. What took so long?
I was caught up in self-destruction. I was caught up in self-exploration, trying to become liberated, trying to become worthy of my kingdom to come. I had to finally believe in myself, because everyone was against me—including my loved ones. Everybody thinks of me as this Satanist. No one understands me. So I had to finally give up on them and find enough love to fuel my inner fire. I taught myself to play the piano because nobody would fuck with me. I would ask people for fucking beats and they would laugh at me and say, “Oh, I can’t put my name on that.” Now they wanna be my fuckin’ roadies. They wanna suck my dick. But it’s too late. You gotta pay me to suck my dick now. You can’t suck my dick for free. My dick is like a magic wand that could give you power! My staff gives live. And now I’m gonna be like just spilling my seed on the unworthy, on those who didn’t believe in me? I was always a king amongst thieves. But now I get my power because I acknowledge the god in me. I’m aware of who the fuck I am.
It seems like all the life experience you had before you started playing music is very necessary to Prayers. Do you see the two as intertwined?
Yes. This life has many faces. I’m like a diamond. There’s different cuts to me—gang life, music, art—all the things that make Leafar Seyer, without having to be disloyal to one or the other. The cholos have a hard time accepting me because of the part of me that’s gothic. The death-rockers and the goth kids have a hard time accepting me because I’m a cholo. So I have to find my own reality. The answer is that I’m the type of person who lives multiple realities simultaneously. We all have different sides to us—the way you behave with your lover, the way you behave with your mother, the way you might behave when you’re in front of a police office or a doctor or a teacher or a child. You’re gonna adapt or change according to their wavelength or personality, and that doesn’t mean that you’re a different person or you’re not being true to yourself. You’re just adapting to the person in front of you. We all do that. I’m just adapting like we do as humans. When I’m out on the streets thugging, I’m not pretending. When I’m at a show enjoying music, I’m not pretending. If people were to dig deep within themselves, they would realize they do the same. If you’re a gangbanger, you’re not gonna go home and gangbang on your mom, you know?
You’re a two-striker, and you could catch a third just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Does that make you nervous when you’re out traveling and performing or even just hanging around here.
I used to be very, very intimidated and scared by it—to the point where I didn’t wanna leave my house. And I still do things that keep me from putting myself in a predicament. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I’ve been sober for ten years, and part of that is because I’m a two-striker. When I drink, I’m wild. I’m a beast. I’m gonna fuck your girlfriend; I’m gonna beat you up. I’m a different person. So I can’t be drinking and I can’t be taking drugs because I love myself and I love my life and I love my freedom more than I do drugs or alcohol. But at the same time, I’m a violent person. I actually had to go to hypnosis to help me with it. Now I have triggers installed in my mind so I don’t fly off the handle so fast and I can chill myself out. I disarmed pride and ego, so the only time I will fight now is in self-defense. But at the same time, people do know my face. My management doesn’t want me living in San Diego no more. They don’t even want me to be in California no more because they feel the more popular we become, someone might wanna put a hit out on me. Enemies could come after me.
Being in Prayers makes you a trophy for rival gangs.
Exactly. I’ve become a trophy. It becomes, “Fuck, let’s kill their star.” But we were actually playing in San Jose recently. Now, I’m a Sureño, you know? From the South of California. So a lot of people were afraid that I was gonna go play in San Jose, because they’re Norteños up there. They’re North 14. They represent the red. I represent the blue. A lot of my gang member friends didn’t want me to go to San Jose because they thought I might get shot or stabbed by the Norteños. But you know, I’m in touch with my inner spirit. Especially now that I’ve been sober for so long, I’m really connected to my inner self. I can really sense when I should and shouldn’t be somewhere. So I said, “Nah, man—I’m gonna fuckin’ go.” And something happened that I don’t think any Sureño or Norteño has ever experienced or might ever experience. I showed up, and there was a bunch of Norteños there. The main Norteño came up to me and said, “We know who you are and what you represent. But you know what? We fuckin’ love your music and we love that you’re holding it down for our people, for the Mexican culture. Because of that, you’re at home tonight. Nobody’s gonna say shit. Nobody’s gonna touch you. And if anyone does, I’ll be the first one to have your back and fuck them up. Go onstage, do your thing, and represent our people.” It was insane. That has never happened. I broke a barrier. And that’s what it’s all about.
J. Bennett is not a gang member.