mykki blanco is the most compelling rapper of his generation
As he releases his debut album, Mykki Blanco tells i-D about his career so far - from starting out as a performance artist and the struggle of being unsigned, to his changing relationship with drag, how the stigma of HIV led him to quit music, and why...
Mykki Blanco did not set out to be the most compelling rapper of his generation. Having entered the New York art scene with a book of poetry, delivered live as a noise rock performance, Michael David Quattlebaum Jr. thought of his work as being in the vein of Alan Vega and Martin Rev of Suicide, of filmmaker Caleb Lindsay, and of the legendary 'terrorist drag' artist Vaginal Creme Davis. "'Mykki Blanco' literally started out as a video art project," he says. "I was thinking of myself in this lineage of performance artists who had done things with music and had used that as a basis for performance art. I was trying to think of myself like a Laurie Anderson. This was all art world shit." He was still trying to figure out how to make work that could sell to art collectors when he put out Join My Militia (subtitle: Nas Gave Me A Perm) with Arca, and released the intriguing Wavvy video in 2012, and even when he dropped the Betty Rubble mixtape a year later. He says he had a taste of "that viral, 'Oh, you're a musician, you're a rapper' [hype]," but it wasn't an aspiration he was actively pursuing. "I didn't look for a manager, my manager came to me," he explains. "They asked if music was something I wanted to pursue, if it was something I was thinking about, and I was like, 'I don't know!'."
Attention from the industry and fans ramped up with the release of the more resolutely punk and industrial inflected mixtape Gay Dog Food in 2015, which included collaborations with Cakes da Killa, Ian Isiah and No Bra, as well as the parodic riot grrrl super-fan freak out A Moment With Kathleen, featuring genre icon Kathleen Hanna. Mykki also cemented an early reputation as a visceral and thrillingly unpredictable live performer, embarking on a punishing schedule of three world tours in two years, in a self-conscious bid to become a global indie artist: "I knew that people in America weren't going to understand what I was doing right away, and I just didn't have time to feel inadequate and wait for anyone's acceptance."
But with fans and the industry eagerly awaiting the artist's next move, in 2015, Mykki -- who then identified as a trans woman -- made the shock announcement that she was quitting music, and would become a journalist focusing on gay rights around the world, starting off in Nepal, researching the third gender group known as Meti. Although it made sense that the chameleonic artist might search for new ways of responding to her environment, there was a definite sense that we weren't getting the full picture. "I said a lot of shit that year," Mykki concedes, explaining that, in reality, it was the "psychological warfare" of keeping his HIV positive status private that led to the dramatic announcement and self-imposed industry exile.
When he did come out in a June 2015 Facebook status, Mykki wrote, "I've been HIV Positive since 2011, my entire career. Fuck stigma and hiding in the dark... it's time to actually be as punk as I say I am". Rapidly racking up hundreds of supportive comments and thousands of Likes, to an outside observer it read as a confident, truly punk statement, but Mykki says he was genuinely terrified of what might happen next. "I just thought that so many people were going to turn their back on me. When you think about Mykki Blanco, you think about fun, right?," he says, moved to tears as he recounts the stress. "I thought if I came out as HIV positive, people wouldn't be able to think of me as fun or happy, so it was a big deal." He feared his diagnosis would be all journalists would write about, that he would lose fans who couldn't associate an HIV positive person with having a good time, and that it would end his promising, but still fledgeling career.
Tired from relentless touring in order to make enough money to record and make videos as an independent artist, disillusioned by polite rejections from XL and Capitol Records, and afraid that someone could out him and ruin his career, Mykki says he was totally burnt out and miserable when the indie electronic label !K7 Records came through and offered him a deal. "It took !K7 to be like, 'We believe in what you're doing and we're going to help you' for me to be able to make this album," he says. "It feels so funny to say 'debut album' because of all the mixtapes and music videos," Mykki concedes, though he says anyone who would criticise him for taking so long doesn't understand how hard it is to be an independent artist.
Arriving 16 September, debut album Mykki is unlike anything Mykki Blanco has released before. What's immediately obvious is how much more polished the production is; for example, his R&B storytelling has a string accompaniment on High School Never Ends, and euphoric, balearic synths swirl on club track The Plug Won't. Rather than a conscious effort to make more accessible music, Mykki says this was a product of his decision to only work with only two producers, Woodkid and Jeremiah Meece, as well as allowing himself six months to work on the record. "I've never had a song, finished it, and then been like, 'You know what, what if I change this to make this better, or let me let this sit for a week and a half and come back'. Haze.Boogie.Life, Kingpin and Wavvy, all of those songs I wrote, recorded, released. I don't need to always sit and brew over something, but I wanted to work in a way that I never had before, I wanted to get to know my own music," he says. That included writing some of his most personal lyrics ever. On the atmospheric spoken word piece Interlude 2, Mykki speaks candidly about his burning desiring for love and intimacy in a monogamous relationship. It's clear the person speaking isn't a character or creation, but the real thing -- "the real Mykki Michael," he confirms.
But while the lyrics might be more personal than ever, the accompanying videos are fantastical, narrative driven epics, fuelled by a desire to do something that has never been done before. For High School Never Ends, Mykki says he briefed director Matt Lambert saying, "I want to do a video that shows queer anarchist punks on film. I've never seen gay punks; I've never seen trans punks, so I want to do a video where we're on a commune, we're in a squat, where everyone is a punk, but they're queer". The result is a seven and a half minute long Shakespearean tragedy, complete with forbidden love, warring factions, sex and death. "People tell me it's the first time on camera, not in pornography, that they've ever seen someone who's genderqueer having sex with a man," Mykki notes, rightly proud.
Though he previously identified as a trans woman, Mykki describes his genderqueer music video characters and onstage persona as being in drag. "I do consider it drag, but it did not start out as drag, and I would say that it's definitely not traditional drag," he explains. "It's confusing, because in the beginning, that wasn't so," he continues, "I was cross-dressing as a woman every single day, I only used the 'she' pronoun, because that's where I was at in my personal life, so I was identifying as she. Up until then, I had considered myself a gay man, and I consider myself a gay man now, but during that particular period, that was a psychological and sexual exploration for me".
When he started out, the queer community didn't always know how to place him, Mykki says, because he wasn't always in drag, and when he was, he didn't always present a glamorous, hyper-feminine image. People in the straight world would ask if it was comedy, he adds. "They would say all this shit not taking into account Prince, or Dennis Rodman, Marc Bolan, David Bowie. And you know why?" he asks. "If I had come on stage in drag with a guitar -- oh, that has a place in history, that we can identify with: 'Ok, this guy's like a glam rocker'. So now I'm rapping, you don't know how to place this Mr. Music Journalist? You don't know how to put it in a canon with anything else because I'm not playing a guitar? It exposes not only people's internalised homophobia, but also internalised racism."
Although the industry has embraced the talents of Dev Hynes, Mykki reckons the Blood Orange musician is a rarity in a sea of black artists like Cities Aviv, Chino Amobi, Dreamcrusher and Petit Noir who music journalists can't seem to find the right words for. "A lot of people don't know how to write about an African American, or a black artist unless they're doing hip hop," he says. "You read the reviews and think, well, did you actually listen to this person's music?" To promote the diversity of alternative black music culture, Mykki launched his own imprint at !K7 called Dogfood Music Group in 2015 with C-ORE, an arresting group project with Violence, PsychoEgyptian and Yves Tumor.
Mykki acknowledges that he is part of a group of artists, including Le1f, Big Freedia and Cakes Da Killa, who have carved out a space for queer black artistry, ideas and issues within the mainstream cultural conversation, developing an ever-growing and truly international audience. Although people often think of him as a New York artist, he says he hasn't lived there in four years, having toured constantly across Europe, Asia, South America, Australia and even in Russia, where one show had to be moved because of anti-LGBTQ protesters, and the crew had to run away from their own security when trouble started at the replacement venue.
Although Mykki now has the support of !K7 to fund his recording and music videos, he isn't interested in touring any less. "For me, it's like my lifeblood, it's like my energy -- all the theatricality, all the performance art, all that stuff," he says, explaining that, "So many people over the years have told me, 'I saw your videos, I liked your music, but I didn't really get it until I saw you live. When you're all made up and you're so feminine and then you're so masculine, and then all of a sudden you're swinging from the fucking ceiling, it all makes sense, all the elements'". This time though, he'll know when to stop and record again, aiming to release an EP in 2017 and an second album in 2018, and then get back on the road, "until I become old and my feet fall off and everyone's just like, 'Mykki, sit down!'." Somehow, it's impossible to imagine that ever happening.
Mykki the album is out now. For tour dates, head to mykkiblancoworld.com/tour.
Text Charlotte Gush