Interview With Houston Rapper Monaleo
Photo by Chinedu Chukuka  

When Monoleo Raps, You Want Her to Win

The 20-year-old emcee and mental health advocate from Missouri City, Texas is healing herself through her raps.
Ashwin Rodrigues
Brooklyn, US

Just two years ago, the Houston rapper Monaleo thought she’d be a funeral director. For a moment in college, she studied mortuary science. “I was always just fascinated by death and fascinated by funerals,” she says. 

Leo, born Leondra Roshawn Gay, traces this interest back to her childhood, when she was maybe six or seven years old. “I just thought it was bizarre, that this person that I once saw walking around full of life, full of color, is now laying in this box,” she says, thinking back to memorial services she’d attended as a child. 


Her pursuit of this coursework only lasted about six months. Shadowing a funeral director, she’d relate each incoming corpse she saw to a living relative—or herself–which was overwhelming. 

“It made me face my own mortality and the mortality of people around me,” she says. 

That feeling of dread was a familiar one to Leo. When she was growing up in Greater Houston’s Missouri City, her grandmother convinced her to join the children’s choir at a local church. It was a small service, with 25 or 30 people in attendance. But singing before an audience would fill Leo with so much fear that she would sometimes cry before performing, especially if it was a solo. 

“That's when I realized something is off,” she says. “I just knew that it was bigger than just being shy. Like, why am I up here shivering as if my clothes are soaking wet in like 10 degree weather?’” Though she didn’t know the name for that feeling in Evangelist’s Chapel yet, it was anxiety, something she still deals with before performing today. 

You wouldn’t know any of this from listening to her music. On the mic, she is the headstrong and fast-talking Monaleo—the name, she says, is a combination of Leondra and Mona Lisa—effortlessly slipping between church choir-polished vocals and snarling lyrical threats.


"He want to trap me and make me a parent, I told him I'm not Lindsay Lohan,” she raps on a remix of Pooh Shiesty’s “7.62 God,” ricocheting through a series of references ranging from The Parent Trap, to a late-night TV show, to Call of Duty. “He wanna kiss and do late-night talks, he must had thought I was Conan / pack-a-punch guns, I'm riding with Mustang and Sally, I'm shooting with both hands.” 

She puffs her chest at critics, with lines like “How you mad at a bitch who can't get in the club legally,” making her a new standout entrant to what publications like The New York Times and NPR have hailed as the “Female Rapper Renaissance,” alongside artists like Saweetie, City Girls, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. The 20-year-old rapper isn’t signed yet—she’s only released a handful songs to date—but has partnered with Cash App Studios, which allows her to retain ownership of her work while receiving financial backing from the payment platform.

It’s a modern arrangement for an artist who is as brash in the booth as she is earnest and soft-spoken outside of it. When we connect for our first interview, she doesn’t tiptoe around stories about her ex, or her experience as a suicide survivor (in case you’re sensitive to this topic: she discusses suicide throughout this story, along with a reference to domestic abuse), but also keeps her laptop camera off.


“I'm just a very reserved person,” she says. To hear Leo explain it, it’s her ability to push past that shyness to vent that makes her music so cathartic—not just for listeners, but also for Leo.

“I really tap into the most broken, battered part of myself and as an effort to try and rebuild,” she says.

Leo was having the most difficulty, by her own account, more recently than fans might expect. Earlier this year, she celebrated a milestone: eight months without a suicide attempt. Now she is an advocate for people who deal with depression and anxiety, most recently appearing on her childhood radio station, 97.9 The Box, to speak about her experiences for Suicide Awareness Month. 

Mental health is an important topic for Leo: It comes up in her candid and transparent songs, posts, and Instagram Lives, where she has been known to discuss issues ranging from mental health to barring abusers from her shows. Sometimes it gets her in trouble—people have accused her of speaking about her trauma “for clout,” she says. But she makes a point of stressing during our interview that none of this is “trendy” for her.

“This is my everyday life,” she says. “I really struggle with depression, and I really have struggled with depression and I still am currently struggling with anxiety, body dysmorphia. It's my life.”


Part of that sensitivity to mental health, and desire to help others who are struggling, comes from an experience working at a crisis intervention call center as a teen. The pace could be overwhelming—she remembers having to type quickly, move quickly, and think quickly, while always showing empathy. “I always tried to get very personal, even though we weren’t supposed to,” she says. 

When she looks back at that time, she remembers the “quiet room” staff used to decompress after tough calls. She remembers older coworkers telling her not to take the day’s work home with her. And then there are the calls that she still thinks about to this day. 

“You hear things that normal everyday human beings don't hear,” she says. “You don't [usually] hear about someone being alive and then taking their lives on the phone. Inevitably, there were things that I ended up taking home with me, but I think that I really helped a lot of people.” 

Though she’d continued singing at church for many years and eventually joined her school choir as well, it wasn’t until 2016, when she was in high school, that she started channeling her own experiences into song. 

She made her first attempts at rapping, by her recollection, after she heard Made in Tokyo’s “Uber Everywhere,” drawn to the song’s sparse, thumping beat. At the time, though, she says she was mostly focused on trying to put on her younger brother, who raps under the name Yung Rampage. “He's the reason I started rapping in the first place,” she says. 


In 2017, after a Yung Rampage video she posted on Twitter went viral, she decided to test the waters with a song of her own: “Beating Down Yo Block.” It’s a song that sounds ready for the club, even if she wasn’t old enough to go when she wrote it; over booming 808s, she unloads bars about a previous relationship, stealing your man, and squabbling up with anyone who has any issues about it. The beat—created by Houston producer Merion Krazy, sampling the DJ-Screw produced 2000 Yungstar anthem “Knocking Pictures Off da Wall”—was a clear homage to the city she called home. 

The first time she dropped a snippet of the song, it went viral—just like the footage of her brother rapping, but bigger. Unfortunately, she didn’t know how to clear the Yungstar sample, which limited where she could upload the track. After she hired a manager to help clear the sample, though, the song took off on streaming, recently cracking over 5 million plays on YouTube.

Though “Beating Down To Block” and its accompanying video feel celebratory and boastful, Leo recorded it shortly after a rough breakup. “Don't ask me bout my ex, let's just pretend that ni**a died,” she spits. This relationship, which she says was abusive, would end up resurfacing on subsequent releases. “I still love your mom, just wished she raised a better man,” she croons on this year’s “Girls Outside,” a flip of the soulful and thunderous “Outside” by the late Dallas rapper MO3 and OG Bobby Billions. 


When Monaleo’s ex and his child’s mother voiced their frustration on the internet, she responded, once again, in song. A taunting freestyle over a frantic Detroit-inspired beat, “Suck It Up” included a line that was unsubtle, even for Monoleo: “Bitches only tough online, though / It's really your baby daddy fault, not mine, hoe.”

The subliminals and not-so-subliminals, she says, haven’t gone unnoticed by those on the receiving end of her lyrics. “It's a really risky thing to do, but it's more important for me to share my story,” she says. “If you were concerned about how you were being portrayed, then maybe you should have done the right thing.”

Though the drama has clearly had an effect on her, Monoleo says the success of “Beating Down Yo Block” was an affirmation that she was on the right path. And that feeling of vindication is one she wants to share. “I want everybody to feel that mental freedom,” she says. 

Leo is adamant about helping others who might be at their lowest—whether that be through her music, or by sharing her experience on social media. “I never imagined myself with depression not being on the forefront,” she says. “From as early as I can remember, literally my earliest suicide attempt was in fourth grade, probably before then. That's fucking insane.”


Leo sees her stage persona as a vehicle for healing, for laying claim to her experiences with a brashness and directness that she would not employ outside of the booth. To be clear, though, Monoleo is not a fictional character. Rather, she’s a part of Leo—the “most aggressive, souped-up” version. “I never try to think of myself as, ‘Oh yeah, I'm that bitch for real,’ she says. “I say it in my music to help me through my healing process, and to help me feel adequate.”

That doesn’t mean that Monoleo can’t back up her lyrics. “Not to say that I'm not cut like that, because I'm for sure still cut like that,” she says. 

As a kid, one of Monoleo’s first loves was the little pink radio in her bedroom—more often that not, it was tuned in to 97.9 The Box, a popular hip-hop station in Houston. As she got older, she got into Prince, Jagged Edge, Brian McKnight, and whatever else her mom had on her computer, plus Drake, Wayne, Nicki Minaj, and Beyoncé. 

As her own star has risen, she’s connected voices from the radio to faces she’s interacted with in real life. In October, Houston rap heavyweight Maxo Kream tapped her for a verse on the frantic and low-end heavy “CEE CEE”; “I am that bitch / but I feel like the man now,” she raps. And in June, Monaleo participated in a campaign for Ivy Park, Beyoncé’s clothing line, at one point coming face-to-face with the mogul herself. 


“Seeing her work ethic, her willingness, her drive, it just made me realize that I'm not working nearly as hard as I thought I was,” Leo says. “Her whole aura, her presence, is so powerful. Even if you don't see her, you know that she's there, because it's just a change in energy.”

As much as music industry nods mean to Leo, one recent encounter stands out most of all. 

This year, after sharing her experience with sexual abuse on social media, Leo said she received a message from Tarana J. Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement. “For her to reach out to me in solidarity was one of the most fulfilling things I have ever experienced in my life,” Leo says.

As Leo’s circumstances change, Monaleo will change, too. “Beating Down Yo Block” is just one journal entry, she explains. On one unreleased track, Monaleo reflects on a lost loved one, accompanied by an acoustic guitar. On another, she talks about being stuck in bed because of her depression. Sometimes her interview persona and artistic voice sound like inverses of each other. Other times, they’re exactly the same.

In October 2019, Leo recorded a video. She’s standing before a bathroom Mirror, speaking positive affirmations to herself, telling herself that she knows she’ll feel better eventually. The person in the mirror is raw and vulnerable. But as she assures herself that she’s going to be ok, we catch a glimpse of the confidence that fans would come to love in Monoleo.

“Something came over me and I just knew,” she told VICE. “I just knew that it just was going to turn around in a way that was unimaginable.” 

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741, or visit for more information. 

If you are experiencing anxiety and are in need of crisis support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090. 

If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).