Being a rapper never crossed Monaleo’s mind. Growing up singing in the church choir, she learned to play both the piano and the flute, but never set her sights on rapping. “I was always musically inclined for sure, but I had no idea that I would be a rapper,” Monaleo explains heartily. “That was the craziest, most far-fetched thing I could’ve ever conjured in my head.”
Fortunately, a classic tale of heartbreak would transform 20-year-old Leondra Gay into Monaleo—a fiery emcee ready and willing to tell her story. Her stage name gleans on the creative appellation of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, but instead of Lisa, she chose her childhood nickname, Leo. She describes her alter-ego as the most exuberant and self-assured version of herself. “She [Monaleo] is the most confident, aggressive, assertive, bad bitch version of myself. Monaleo is the piece of me that’s confident, multiplied times ten.”
Monaleo would get her first taste of rapping by proxy, through her younger brother Young Rampage, after taking him to a recording studio for his birthday in 2019. She recorded her first-ever verse as a favor for her brother, and quickly realized that she had a knack for rapping. In January 2020, grieving a traumatic breakup would be the catalyst to conceive her emphatic debut single, “Beating Down Yo Block,” which has now amassed over 15 million streams. The surefire hit quickly became a Houston staple, sampling Yungstar’s 2000’s anthem, “Knockin Pictures Off Da Wall.” While the song immediately captured the heart of Houstonians, it doubled as a love letter to herself—creating Monaleo was her way of restoring her spirit after heartbreak. While she admittedly says she’s still on her journey to healing, the song has managed to change her life in more ways than one.
She tells Houstonia that while the song has improved her finances, the even bigger win was her shift in mindset. “Up until now, I never had a true sense of confidence,” Monaleo says transparently. “I didn’t have much clarity on who I wanted to be. Especially when you think about women in rap. It takes a lot of confidence.”
Entering an already competitive music industry with a lack of confidence can be intimidating, especially as the current renaissance for women in hip-hop include femcees such as Nicki Minaj, Megan Thee Stallion and KenTheMan. Seeing the virality of “Beating Down Yo Block” showed Monaleo that she could stand alongside some of today’s fierce female rappers. “Receiving that validation from the outside world was the boost of confidence needed at the time. I always knew in my head that it [Beating Down Yo Block] was a great song, and obviously seeing other people taking a liking to it was what I needed,” Monaleo says. “That’s when I knew I could really do this. To see from the outside world that they thought it was a good song, it made me feel good at the time.”
In just nine months, she’s coasted on the success of her breakout hit, and has also released two additional singles, “Girls Outside” and “Suck It Up.” Her meteoric rise to success also landed her a spot in Beyoncé’s latest Ivy Park campaign, which she attributes to her faith in God and her honesty and transparency about her life’s struggles. Having endured homelessness, emotional and physical abuse, she recognized early on that healing isn’t linear—saying she’s always in a state of healing herself. Outside of her musical endeavors you’ll find Monaleo utilizing her platform to champion mental health, starting much needed conversations on depression and anxiety, both of which Monaleo has grappled with herself. “I love being an open book, because I realize that I help a lot more people through my story. I’ve found that people will tell me how I’ve helped them so much, and that’s the most fulfilling part for me,” Monaleo says.
While fans are hungry for more, she’s taking her time with her next move. Monaleo has maintained a busy schedule, as both a college student and an artist. She aspires outside of music and doesn’t see herself rapping for the rest of her life. Either way, her focus is herself. “In the long term, I want more for Leondra. I want more for who I am as a human being. A lot of my childhood and early adulthood, I’ve spent wallowing in self-pity and watching life pass me by. I want to be able to say I made the most out of my life,” Monaleo concludes.