Mykki Blanco: ‘I didn’t want to be a rapper. I wanted to be Yoko Ono’

Last year, the performance artist-turned-rapper announced he was HIV-positive. But instead of ending his career, it marked a turning point – which has now been capped with a debut album

On 12 June last year, Mykki Blanco was convinced he was about to commit career suicide.

It had been three years since he had transformed himself from a New York performance artist into the indie rapper du jour. He toured with Björk, recorded with Tricky and Basement Jaxx, released a flood of videos and mixtapes, and attracted an army of celebrity fans, ranging from the expected (Grimes, Jean-Paul Gaultier) to the surprising (Flea, Florence Welch). Alongside Le1f and Zebra Katz, he established “queer rap” as a viable sub-genre. It’s hard to create an entirely new persona in hip-hop, but a 6ft 2in gay man who performed quickfire rhymes in a bra and blonde wig? That was new.

By 2015, however, the buzz had cooled off and Blanco was stuck. He couldn’t get a record deal and he could only sustain himself independently through constant international touring, which left him without enough time to make the official debut album he had been publicly promising for a long time. He was seriously thinking about quitting music in order to go to college and study investigative journalism. He was, he says now, “at the end of my rope”.

The reason Blanco felt that he couldn’t move forward as an artist was because he was keeping a secret. In 2011, before he had released his first single, he had been diagnosed HIV positive, but he had told very few people and was tired of having the same awkward conversation every time he hooked up with a guy. His love life was as paralysed as his career. “The psychosis of secrets starts to make you crazy,” he says. “I was a very unhappy person. It’s funny now for me to look back, because I consider that I love myself, but during this period I was so turned off by myself.”

So, last June, Blanco decided to go public via a brief Facebook post. If being the first out HIV-positive rapper since the late Eazy-E 20 years earlier would cost him his career, so be it. “I thought when I came out that was going to be the end,” he says. “Mykki Blanco is fun. Talking about HIV is not fun. How could I be fun and have HIV?”

As it turned out, the reaction was the opposite of what he expected: he was flooded with good wishes and support. “It surprised the fuck out of me!” he says. “It allowed me to see how humane people are. It made me realise I had a much more jaded view of humanity than I realised.” His eyes moisten and he sniffs. “I’m so emotional today. I think it’s astrological. There’s a new moon in Leo or something. I’m really sensitive to stuff like that.”

A Mykki Blanco interview is a non-stop performance. I ask him one question and he answers three. Opinions and revelations spill out of him like treats from a piñata. “I’ve always been a little bit in-your-face,” he says. We’re sitting in the basement of a gay pub in Dalston, east London, talking about that long-awaited debut album, the fierce, frank and emotionally affecting Mykki. Blanco, 30, has close-cropped hair (better for wigs), silver eyeshadow and a lean torso decorated with tattoos. Now signed to Berlin-based !K7 Records, he’s planning to settle down in London for a while after a long period of being “glamorously homeless”.

Blanco has always enjoyed being on the move. “I like to be fluid,” he says. Growing up in North Carolina as Michael Quattlebaum Jr, he loved his family but hated his neighbourhood, so when he was 16 he emailed actor/director Vincent Gallo to seek his advice about running away to New York. “Don’t come to New York,” Gallo replied. “You’re an idiot.” Blanco did it anyway, living on his wits for three months before his mother tracked him down and, demonstrating remarkable understanding, gave him money for a hostel so he could intern at Elle magazine. Later, he won scholarships to two prestigious art colleges, but dropped out of both. He was, he says, a very volatile young man.

Mykki Blanco at the Yo Sissy festival in Berlin in July.
Mykki Blanco at the Yo Sissy festival in Berlin in July. Photograph: Santiago Felipe/Redferns

“When you’ve been called a faggot every single day since you were six years old, there comes a point where you stop crying and you become quite hard,” he says. “I used to be so aggressive. So many people feel like they can treat you like shit that, at a certain age, the moment that someone comes for you, you’re picking up a fucking chair and getting restrained. I literally had to go to therapy and chill out. I can’t let what the past has done to me inform who I am as an adult.” He doesn’t think that was unusual. “A lot of queer people are abused and mistreated for years. So, yeah, you’re maybe going to have a chip on your shoulder.”

You can hear a more focused version of that anger in the ferocious club tracks that launched Blanco as a rapper: “I pimp-slap you bitch niggas with my limp wrist, bro / What the fuck I gotta prove to a room full of dudes who ain’t listening to my words cuz they staring at my shoes?” he snapped on his 2012 viral hit Wavvy. A fearless performer, he released a video diary showing himself freestyling on street corners and subway cars around New York City in full drag. But, he says, hip-hop was never the plan. “I didn’t want to be a rapper. I wanted to be Yoko Ono. I wanted to be an installation artist.”

Blanco liked dandyish MCs such as Outkast’s André 3000, but his teenage heroes were people such as Laurie Anderson, Le Tigre and genderqueer performance artist Vaginal Davis, and he didn’t start making music until he was 25. He had already tried painting, photography and performance poetry – publishing an acclaimed verse collection, From the Silence of Duchamp to the Noise of Boys – before he created Mykki Blanco in 2010 as a teenage female alter ego for a video art project. He was surprised to discover, once the concept evolved into gorgeous, audacious rap videos, that people actually liked his music in its own right. He wasn’t just a performance artist who rapped; he was a rapper.

Around that time, Blanco spent two years identifying as trans and using female pronouns. He eventually decided not to transition but it was a life-changing experience. “When you’re a trans person but you still have very masculine features, people think they can frown and snarl and look at you as if, ‘How dare you exist?’” he says. “That period allowed me to see just how wonderful people can be and just how horrible people can be. I went through this period of hiding my eyes and being ashamed and then I was like, ‘What am I doing? I have a right to be on this earth as much as all these other assholes!’ It gave me a whole lot of inner strength.”

Blanco decided to make each of his independent releases as different as possible, from the “unlistenable noise shit” of 2012’s Mykki Blanco & the Mutant Angels to the “feminist punk hip-hop” of 2014’s Gay Dog Food (featuring Le Tigre’s Kathleen Hanna), so people couldn’t pin him down. “The heterosexual community was like, ‘Is this comedy? He’s in drag,’” he says with a grimace. “Like, forget David Bowie, forget Marc Bolan, forget the 80s, forget Prince, forget all of these straight men who wore makeup and wigs! Every project was strategic because it had to be. I had to get people to understand that this is not a gimmick. I am not RuPaul. I am not Marilyn Manson.” He struggled with the term “queer rap” (“I’ve grown to accept it”) and would get angry when interviewers asked him about homophobia in hip-hop. “I’d say, ‘Excuse me, let’s not be racist and target hip-hop! Why is the music business in general so homophobic?’”

These days, he feels like his fans get where he’s coming from (“They’re smarter, they’re younger, they’re sharper”), but still thinks that he has unwanted baggage. With straight artists, he says, “There’s less of this conversation about being political or making a point. You’re just an artist and people accept your music for what it is.”

It might seem as if Blanco has a lot of grievances, but it comes across as the understandable frustration of someone who has constantly been asked to explain, and justify, who he is. Otherwise, he’s feeling pretty upbeat. He has his first serious boyfriend in a long time (“I guess we’re, like, falling in love”) and, at last, a bona fide debut album. When Blanco was at his lowest ebb, the French musician Woodkid invited him to Paris to make some tracks and encouraged him to write more personal songs than the ones on his concept-heavy independent releases. “My album needs to be about my life: not just Mykki Blanco as a persona, but actually me,” he says. “I talk about romance on four songs here. I talk about my emotions.”

That being said, he also has a song called For the Cunts. “That’s a blatant gay club anthem,” he says. “I didn’t really have a song that’s that gay.”

Mykki may be at least two years overdue, but Blanco thinks the delay has worked in its favour. “Queer rap, queer rights, the trans movement have become so much more mainstream,” he says. “These are things we couldn’t have predicted. I know that my music reaches people at a broader level because the world has changed.”

Blanco doesn’t crave celebrity (“I have too much anxiety for that”), but he wants just enough fame to be able to make a difference. It turns out he does want to make political points after all. “Notoriety is power, and through that power you can influence social attitudes,” he says. “Think about what Beyoncé has done this year. She’s the biggest celebrity in the world and now that she’s said just a few political things the whole world is freaking out. Imagine if Frank Ocean or Ellen DeGeneres dared to say something a little radical that didn’t play it so safe. It would create a tidal wave of people thinking differently. I want to use my notoriety in the best way possible, because what else would it be for? Nobody’s following around an HIV-positive queer rapper like he’s Justin Bieber.”

To get the necessary amount of fame, he has a plan. “I have to play it a little Hollywood, a little nice,” he explains with a conspiratorial smile. “Chill for a bit. Make people feel safe.”

After an hour in his intoxicating, overwhelming company, I find it hard to imagine what the unchilled version of Mykki Blanco is like.

• Mykki is released on 16 September on Dogfood Music Group/!K7


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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