According to astrology 101, people born under the sign of the lion are famous for their intense personal magnetism. They have a flair for the dramatic, enjoy the spotlight, are boundlessly creative and infamous for sartorial choices that are designed to provoke and turn heads. It makes sense that some of the influential and provocative figures in the worlds of art and fashion have been Leos: Andy Warhol. Marcel Duchamp. Gabrielle Chanel. Yves Saint Laurent.
LaKeith Stanfield is in good company.
There’s an intensity to Stanfield that is impossible to do justice with mere words. Having just landed back in his native Los Angeles from a whirlwind trip to France for Paris Fashion Week where he attended Saint Laurent, you’d think that he’d be maybe a little tired. But no.
Even over the digital expanse of Zoom, Stanfield has a presence. The thoughtful pauses between sentences, the body language and methods of movement. No words are wasted and that may be in part because words are one of many tools that Stanfield uses as an artist to explore the world he lives in.
He is, in his own words, a “vessel of expression”. How this manifests depends on which creative outlet that the 32-year-old multi-hyphenate decides to focus on at any given time. If it’s music, which he shares under the moniker Htiekal (simply his first name spelled backward and pronounced “T–kal”), his delivery ranges from a lyrical free association to the deeply personal. Over the past few years, he has teased fans with singles dropped on Instagram and Spotify. But his debut album, Self Control, still has no firm release date. For any other artist, this might seem like a delay but it’s clear that Stanfield isn’t about to rush anything that doesn’t feel right. It’ll come when it comes and when it does, it’ll be on his terms.
If it’s fashion, it’s the kind of styling that doesn’t so much defy as it does outright reject conventions. His looks have been described as everything from “dopamine dressing” – outré, eclectic and unafraid to stand out – to an extension of his artistic practice. And therein perhaps lies the key Stanfield’s enigmatic persona: everything he does he approaches as an artist. One whose every gesture is a considered act.
Although he might scratch it up to being a Leo.
ICON spoke to Stanfield about how his worlds of performance, music and fashion are all interconnected characters and what drives him to continue to create.
ICON: How was your experience shooting for ICON?
STANFIELD: It was very nice. I really appreciated the creativity and the narrative surrounding the shoot. Photo shoots can be gruelling or they can be fun, and it’s largely contingent upon who you’re doing it with and what their spirits are like. I stay fluid. I stay in movement, and so usually the clothes are looking pretty good. I’m thin, so that helps although sometimes I do try to fatten myself up. I’m on a meal prep program right now just trying to gain. That’s what I’m trying to achieve. But it was super fun!
ICON: Is there a connection between your persona when you’re on stage and when you’re in front of a camera in these kinds of shoots?
STANFIELD: It’s interesting because it’s similar in the sense that, I guess I reach this flow state where you’re not really thinking too much about what’s going on, you’re just in the moment of what’s happening. I feel like you get there with a good photographer who’s able to give you space and also just give you the environment that allows you to feel free. Same thing when you’re on stage. It’s largely environmental and interaction with people that give you that energy to play with; that makes you feel at ease and free enough to tap into a state where now there’s no inhibitions and it’s just live.
ICON: Music is a big part of your artistic output. Growing up, what musicians were shaping your worldview?
STANFIELD: Good question. One of the first songs I remember hearing is Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise”. I remember being really young and it was kind of scary, but I guess that’s part of why it left an impression. But it was also just intriguing. It was this mystery surrounding Coolio’s world and what I imagined that to be at a young age.
And also the Lion King soundtrack, that’s something that I really resonated with, the music there.
“The story of Simba I felt like was going to be my story. I’m a Leo, and I felt like in my family I was the Simba, and that I was going to one day be king. I really identify with that character.”
Nirvana really had a profound effect on me, too. Marilyn Manson was another one. A lot of West Coast stuff too, like Dr. Dre, the Chronic, all that stuff, Ice Cube, NWA, all of those people.
ICON: I was not expecting to hear industrial goth metal on your list of influences. Considering the diversity of those artists, did that play a role in the type of lyrics you wanted to write, or how you thought music should interact with its audience?
STANFIELD: I think groups like Nirvana made me understand the beauty and simplicity of just speaking to more general larger themes that then more intricate meaning could be derived from it. I had so much connection to In Utero and Nevermind. And the songs on there that really made me feel… I felt like Kurt just understood me. It was sometimes really general lyrics that didn’t even really mean anything, but they did mean something. And that’s my approach sometimes when I’m making music, I’m just talking about the general things that are going on, but I know people will understand how they and their narrative fits into a larger narrative. I’ve really been moved by that.
There are more recently, things like Death Grips also appealed to me, but Marilyn Manson, he was somebody that I felt like really trailblazed in the sense of living out an identity that maybe wasn’t acceptable to people at the time, but was something that was loud, abrasive and real to his experience.
And it made me feel seen, that someone who was sort of like the black sheep was seen as a devilish or a bad influence.
But then on the other side, he was just this beautiful exploration and an expression of freedom and the ability to explore things and not be afraid to explore sexuality, anything. He was just brazen.
And that’s also why I identify with Tupac. I feel like he did the same thing. He came through, he was like, “I’m loud. I am who I am, and I’m standing up for something. I believe in it. It’s real, and I’ll die for it.” And I really love that kind of approach to an artist, and those are the kinds of things that stood out to me.
Also, Kurt Cobain had a little bit of that. He was like, “I’m going to do it my way. I’m going to do it my way. I don’t care what anyone thinks, anything about it. It feels good and right to me.” And that’s something that I can appreciate in an artist.
ICON: You poured a lot of your feelings into your early rap music – and then passed these tracks, which were recorded on tapes, onto your peers in drama class in school. Can you tell us a little bit about this time, why you chose the drama kids to taste your lyrics, and what feedback they had?
STANFIELD: Wow, that’s interesting that you know that! I don’t think I’ve shared that in a lot of places. Yeah, I did that because tape was the only thing I had. I had a karaoke machine and you would record the audio from the microphone with whatever exterior music was playing onto the tape. That was my first version of being in the studio. I just had these little tapes and no one had a tape player even back then, but it was all I had. So I used what I had, and that’s what you do. I recorded on these tapes and drama was one of the classes that I felt really seen in, I felt free to be expressive. I felt like I identified with the drama kids, and if anyone was going to be receptive to me trying a new form of art, it would be those people who have to get on stage every day and also be judged at the centre of the stage.
They might be a little bit more understanding in their critiques, so that’s why I chose them. They might be like, “Oh, I get it. I’ve been on the stage before, so I’m going to handle this harsh critique with care.”
That’s why that was my mode of choice. I was just simply afraid. But then I found, as I’ve grown with music, it’s less about how I feel people perceive it and more about what I’m able to do. What catharsis and what fun I’m able to have in making music and how I’m able to connect with the ways that I feel and get engaged in a form of therapy. Whereas sometimes with people, it’s harder for me to sometimes talk about the more intricate and challenging, difficult aspects of life. I live a very private life and sometimes this gets muddled into the public.
“It’s hard to sometimes express some of those harder ideas and music gives me an avenue to just do it, and I get this sort of veil of it’s just an expression, it’s just an expression.”
And sometimes it’s what I truly feel. Sometimes it’s not what I feel at all. Sometimes it’s just what I’m inspired to say or do at any given time. I love it for being that, for me, that channel.
ICON: Can you recall the last time that you were on stage and felt euphoric?
STANFIELD: It was with James Vincent McMorrow on a tour of his a couple of years back, and I was opening up for him. It was really nice to be out in front of those crowds. And at some point, the music and the vibe and the feeling, you get lost in it. And I remember that I was up on stage and I kind of just blacked out. And then when I came to, I was in the audience and I didn’t know what happened, how I got there.
Again, it’s like that flow state kind of thing. You get into this hypnotic state where now you’re transcending the surface-level reality.
ICON: Considering your workload at the moment, how often do you get to sit down and really spar with lyrics these days?
STANFIELD: I think as time goes on, I’ve become a little bit more intentional and methodical with the approach and really just doing a lot of soul–searching and figuring out what it is that I’m feeling at any given time. And getting the chance to do that, to meditate, to stop time is important because there’s so many different things going on in my mind at any given time and all the different responsibilities I have. And you’d be surprised at the emotions that breathing can bring through. And then I just write from there. The best songs that I love, the ones that I’ve written – and I know you’ve probably heard this before – have really been written in under a minute. It’s just boom, boom, boom. Just coming out. This is how I feel. This is the metaphor that I’m hinging these thoughts on.
ICON: What music, and musicians, are you listening to at the moment?
STANFIELD: I took a trip to Berlin recently, and I really fell in love with dub techno. All the kids in all the different pre and post–war buildings, some of which are still damaged, loved the dub techno. And it was something that I didn’t pay much attention to until I went there and found that there’s such a beauty to it. It goes with the heart. It’s almost like it reminds me of African drums. It’s really just a vestigial human kind of thing, those sounds. I love how they resonate. It makes your mind feel like it’s moving in this rhythmic motion like the ocean. I really love that. And the fact that it doesn’t have lyrics gives me a chance to display my own thoughts and feelings in the form of language onto the beat. And now I’m in this creative space, and when I’m doing things, working out, moving, the beat just keeps going. And it’s kind of like the beat of life is moving through you.
I’ve been listening to a lot of the mixes of Black Coffee. That’s been really valuable for me. Jay-Z. I always got Tupac in the rotation. And actually, recently I’ve been really inundating myself in Björk. I love her stuff so much, and her voice is just so resonant and does so many interesting genius things that I really like to listen to her. And obviously, I’m always listening to Death Grips.
ICON: You were just in Paris attending the Saint Laurent show for Fashion Week – how was that?
STANFIELD: Beautiful. Really inspired.
“Fashion week is always something special, isn’t it? But it was quite nice this time. I spent some extra time there, stayed there with family and just enjoyed it a little bit, soaked up a lot of inspiration. I’m really inspired by fashion right now.”
ICON: How did the relationship with Saint Laurent develop?
STANFIELD: We met a few years back and they’d been fans of my work for quite some time. And it seemed that I had some similarities with the brand and Yves Saint Laurent himself, the fact that he was this eclectic character who was young, like 21, when he started out and I was 21 when I started. I loved the brand’s style, still do, love their work and when they reached out I was like I definitely want to build this partnership.
ICON: And Yves was a Leo, like yourself?
STANFIELD: Yeah. It was dope that we had these kinds of similarities. Being a part of his brand and representing it is something really special.
ICON: Do you actually believe in horoscopes and read about your star sign?
STANFIELD: I don’t know as much as I would like to know! But I kind of do know the basics, but I do need to be more informed about it. It makes sense to me that things in the sky might have a symbiotic effect on the things happening on our planet. It seems connected to me. That much at least is known to me but I’m not an astrologer.
ICON: As a fellow Leo myself, I like it when it tells me what I want to hear…
ICON: How do you think the worlds of music and fashion influence each other?
STANFIELD: It’s interesting, music is a soundtrack to so many things in our lives and our lives in general. I don’t think there’s much in life that music could be separate from, you know? Music is just the organisation of noise and fashion is the organisation of fabric.
When you’re showing or expressing something, ushering it in through a medium that is universally enjoyed – music seems like this universal language. And fashion is similar. You look at something and you’re like “wow”. That resonates with me. Typically music associated with fashion shows has this ambiguity, ethereal state almost like a flow state. So when you watch these shows, the models and the music, you can become hypnotised.
ICON: You have a very particular sense of style, and it’s even been described as being “a part of your art”. Could you say a little bit more about your approach to fashion?
STANFIELD: For better or for worse, I’m a vessel for expression.
“I get this inspiration from the environments that I’m in, from the world, from the universe, from God. It just comes through me and I feel I need to be expressive. Clothing is another way to do that, and I find I have a lot of fun with it.”
One of my favourite parts of just being a performer, in general, is what I get to wear and how it brings me into the world and the feeling and the vibe of whatever particular character I’m playing. And I find it quite fun to go on those journeys. Sometimes when I’m getting dressed in the morning, I’m just thinking about, I’m looking in the mirror, “Who could I be today?” And it’s like this fun play that I’ve always had as a kid. What if today I’m like a motorcyclist who is in exile because of something? Or what if today I’m the president? Or what if today I’m a therapist, or today I’m this or that, or I’m a botanist? Or whatever the case may be. And I’m constantly always just thinking about all these amazing people that I could be in my head. Some call it crazy, I call it fun.
Clothes for me represent a chance in creating narratives with what I wear. I would just find getting dressed fun, actually creating and curating and putting together the pieces that I feel like they make sense to me. I’m having fun doing it for others. I’m now curating stuff for my friends, I’m like, “Oh, you wear that,” deeper into the process and thinking more about how I can bring expression to people and how I can have a hand in directing that process.
ICON: Which designers are you loving right now?
STANFIELD: I really like Anthony at Saint Laurent, Jerry Lorenzo (Fear of God), and Dapper Dan is always cool. And I always like Chanel, Chanel is cool.
ICON: If you could have dinner with three people – dead or alive – who would they be?
STANFIELD: Tupac Shakur. Malcolm X. And Yves Saint Laurent. I’d gain so much wisdom from those three. They were all revolutionaries in their own way, people who pushed the boundaries and did something new and brazen in their time. One cool little dinner with them would be great.
Photography: Michael Schwartz
Fashion Direction: Mark Holmes
Grooming: Arnna Bernabe
Fashion Assistant: Raymond Avalos
Photography Assistants: Krystallynne Gonzalez & Kevin Pershin
Digital Technician: DJ Dohar
Location: Milk Studios Los Angeles
Production: Alexey Galetskiy & Ryan Fahey / AGP Productions