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26 Oct

Monaleo’s Smile – Essence

On the tender age of 21 and after only two short years within the music industry, Monaleo is already making waves together 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 greater than a yr. Her most up-to-date 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 may be very aggressive—it’s assertive, it’s powerful,” Monaleo says of her self-assured delivery. “You’re at all times going to feel where I’m coming from. It’s emotional.”  

Monaleo’s Smile
Monaleo photographed by Munachi Osegbu for Sept/Oct 2022 Issue at DUST Studios on Monday, June twenty seventh in Los Angeles, CA produced by The Morrison Group

Photographed by: Munachi Osegbu
Styled by: Miso Dam
Production: The Morrison Group
Hair: JStayReady
Makeup: Caitlan Marsh
Nails: Alex Jachno using Chanel Le Vernis at Opus Beauty

Shot At: LME Studios

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 contained in the booth to idiot around on the mic. Already with a little bit of a following on social media, she posted the clip of herself rapping—and was swarmed with commenters impressed together with her skills. Only 18 on the time, she began to explore the potential of a profession in music, keeping at it until she landed her first viral hit in early 2021. 

Though her tough-as-nails stage persona matches well together with her no-holds-barred braggadocio, there’s a relatable vulnerability bubbling beneath all of it. This draws fans and admirers to Monaleo all of the more, a lot of them stopping her in public to lavish her with hugs, tears and their very own personal tales.  

“It’s been a really interesting transition, because my life prior to being a rapper was the literal exact opposite,” she explains of her newfound fame. “I used to be very introverted. I never left my house for anything. On top of me not leaving my house, I never left my room.” 

Monaleo’s Smile

Greeting fans and meeting latest people is a challenge—though a welcome one for Monaleo, who’s open about affected by 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 prefer it’s oversharing, but I feel prefer it’s therapeutic for me to speak about this stuff,” Monaleo says. “There’s lots of power in solidarity.”  

She experienced that power firsthand while battling one particularly dark bout of depression within the midst of pursuing her rap dreams. While watching interviews from a few of her biggest profession inspirations—Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion—she was moved by the openness with which they disclosed the highs and lows of their very 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 usually— because, at the moment, I used to be very depressed. I used to be coping with suicidal thoughts and questioning, Should I be here? What’s my purpose?” 

Monaleo’s Smile
Monaleo photographed by Munachi Osegbu for Sept/Oct 2022 Issue at DUST Studios on Monday, June twenty seventh in Los Angeles, CA produced by The Morrison Group

Photographed by: Munachi Osegbu
Styled by: Miso Dam
Production: The Morrison Group
Hair: JStayReady
Makeup: Caitlan Marsh
Nails: Alex Jachno using Chanel Le Vernis at Opus Beauty

Shot At: LME Studios

The hard times helped result in her unique position as a mental health advocate. It’s a task 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 really freeing experience for me, since it helps me rationalize lots of the irrational thoughts that swim around in my head,” she says. “It’s literally a verbal journal. A lot of the stuff that I used to simply write down, I’m recording now, and I play it back each time I would like clarity.”  

Monaleo has plans to release a full album that may tell an in-depth, multifaceted story—featuring a few of her verbal journals and vocalizing her tumultuous lived experience. But before she puts out her heavier, more personal fare, the rising star is ensuring to offer fans a tape that highlights the rowdy, raunchy, aggressive trash-talking they’ve come to know and love her for. Her skill and range give her the flexibility to operate in each 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.” 

Photographed by: Munachi Osegbu
Styled by: Miso Dam
Production: The Morrison Group
Hair: JStayReady
Makeup: Caitlan Marsh
Nails: Alex Jachno using Chanel Le Vernis at Opus Beauty
Lighting Technician: John Collazos
Styling Assistant: Christian Jaramillo
Nail Assistant: Bana Jarjour
Shot At: LME Studios

This text appears within the September/October 2022 issue of ESSENCE magazine on newsstands now.

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