Photos by M. Sharkey
Nobody knows Mykki Blanco is in New York. She’s hiding out in a press room when I reach her by phone two days before she’s set to celebrate her debut studio album, Mykki, at a release show in Brooklyn. After that, she’ll cross the Atlantic, go to France, tour Europe, and play some festivals and club dates for the far-flung fans she’s gathered over the past five years. But for now, she’s in New York, hiding.
The performance persona of Michael Quattlebaum Jr. was born in New York, where Quattlebaum first developed Blanco as a video-art character and then brought her to the stage. Since 2011, Blanco has built a discography of vividly idiosyncratic hip-hop, rapping over acid-house beats and dueting with riot grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna. As a queer performer with some layers — Blanco is the feminine persona of the cis- and gay-identified Quattlebaum — her music tends toward the impolite, the messy, and the unabashedly alive.
Born in Orange County, California, Quattlebaum turned 30 this year and has lived in a lot of big cities: Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Berlin. After releasing her first EP in 2012, Blanco found that touring supplied the most immediate way of making a living while making music. For four years, she worked without a label, releasing EPs and mixtapes and dynamic, ecstatic, beautiful music videos in collaboration with different directors — videos that now provide a living record of where she started and how she’s evolved as a performer, from the strung-out “Wavvy” to the lushly romantic “High School Never Ends.” “My music videos completely aesthetically chart my journey from start to finish, all these decisions I had to make,” she says.
“I had no label, I had no infrastructure,” Blanco notes. “When you don’t have those things, you always have to hustle, constantly, to get money — touring to be able to record.”
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Without label support, Blanco found the hustle draining, and by 2015, she was ready to quit. In a public Facebook post, she wrote that she was about to move from music into investigative journalism, to tell the stories of queer people around the world. She remembers thinking: Maybe this whole Mykki Blanco thing was a cute little idea but maybe now it’s time for me to go back to college, pursue journalism, delete the Instagram, start a new chapter. “I was so there. I was looking at Hampshire College and other places, like, Oh, I could get a scholarship there. I was just so thinking that I could not be who I am and still do this.”
She’d been in talks with a few well-regarded labels before, but all of them had praised her artistry and then turned her down. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, she got an offer from !K7, the independent label that hosts the DJ-Kicks mix series. “Just when I thought all of these doors were about to close, all of these doors open,” she said.
Before they opened for her, Blanco had to open a big door herself. In June 2015, she revealed publicly for the first time that she was HIV positive. “2015 was just me traversing so much personal darkness and depression, and also hitting this wall,” she remembers. She knew, eventually, that she would have to escape what she describes as a “shadow life.” “The shadow life is being a gay man who’s not out, who’s positive. It’s not a good place to be. I knew that I wanted to get that energy away from me.”
Assuming disclosing her status would hurt her music career, Blanco made the choice to move away from music but live transparently in the public eye. She disclosed, and then did an in-depth interview with HIV Plus Magazine in October 2015. She was then, and is still, the only prominent hip-hop artist publicly living with HIV.
But rather than hurt her career, Blanco’s disclosure boosted it. “I didn’t realize that me being honest about something really personal would resonate with so many people,” she says. “I’ve had some people say to me, ‘Did you do that as a publicity stunt?' Who does that as a publicity stunt? This is my real fucking life. My reaaaalll life. Now, when I meet a guy, he knows. We can still have a conversation about it, but it’s a completely different atmosphere than being ashamed and hiding.”
That openness, and its subsequent relief, emanates from Mykki. The album is softer than anything Blanco has released before. She sings for the first time on it, and her new songs embrace an openhearted beauty unlike anything on her harsher, rough-edged mixtapes and EPs. “Whether I was trying to make acid-house, gothic hip-hop music, or feminist, grunge-punk music, all of those things were always contexts outside of myself,” she says. “With this album, I wanted the only concept to be me, to be Michael.”
At one point, long before Blanco started writing it, the album was going to be called Michael. She moved away from that title after she started unraveling the politics of it: The idea that her masculine birth name was somehow more authentic than her feminine performance name seemed to manifest everything harmful about the cultural conception of gender. “With that motif, I was buying into a moment of bullshit,” she says. She’s been asked before, by journalists and listeners, if she would ever perform out of drag, without the stage name, as “herself.” "I’m thinking, Why are you asking me this? What you’re trying to get to is the fact that somehow looking like a guy makes this more authentic or more real or more honest, and that is so gross and patriarchal and heteronormative and homophobic.”
She notes that questions of authenticity are especially barbed when leveled at black artists. No one calls for a roundtable when Bradford Cox wears a dress onstage, but the cover of Young Thug’s recent tape, Jeffery, was read as a weighty political statement — a double-standard that Blanco says is “so racist.” “That’s just the world we live in,” she says. “And this is why artists have to continue dismantling and doing whatever the fuck they want.”
She gets questions about her authenticity from queer people, too. Since she first started performing, the dialogue around trans identities has blossomed, but not without conflict. “I’ve had some people in the genderqueer community say to me, ‘You’re a cis gay male, stop trying to tell a trans woman’s story,’” she says. “And I’ve had to say, ‘Honey, anybody who’s known me since 2010, 2011, anybody who knew me in New York City knew that I was cross-dressing, that I was feminine trans-identified, living my life escorting out in these streets. I wasn’t in a college classroom learning about genderqueer.’
“I understand now where that misunderstanding comes from, but I always have to tell people Mykki Blanco did not start as a drag character,” she continues. “Mykki Blanco started as a video-art project when I was already trans-identified. I was already going by ‘she.’”
Quattlebaum himself ultimately decided not to transition medically or socially, but he still lives through, and with, and as Mykki Blanco. “I realized, wait a minute, just because I change my gender, that’s not going to get rid of my problems. That’s not going to change the psychological and personal problems that I have. I realized this was more of a psychological and sexual exploration that changed my life for the better. I don’t regret it at all, because it allowed me to see a whole entire other world through this feminine identity that I experienced.”
Just because Quattlebaum and Blanco are discrete parts of the same person doesn’t mean that one is realer than the other. Blanco is as real and fully inhabited as any artistic persona, and on Mykki, Blanco is very much herself: playful and fun, but introspective and yearning, too. She does some gender play on “My Nene,” where she raps alternately in a cartoonish falsetto and a deep, breathy register. But mostly, she uses the album to wonder about love. “Why do we need love? Who fucking needs love?” she sings on the single “The Plug Won’t.” “Why don’t you just delete me?” she pleads on the stunning multipart suite “High School Never Ends.” On “Interlude 2,” she reads one of her own journal entries over a groggy beat: “In my soul, I have an idea of love, want to be in love, want to know intimacy. This desire burns in me so deeply, deeper than my desire to act or entertain or become prosperous or famous or successful. It’s a burning deep in my core just to be loved.”
These moments of romanticism come buoyed by dense, intricate production, most notably on “High School Never Ends,” which employs strings and a choir toward its climax. Other emotional notes, like the alienation displayed on “Loner,” are offset by more energetic backing. Blanco notes that that song’s effervescent beat is what got her to try singing in the first place: She couldn’t see herself rapping over it, but she loved it too much to send it back to her producer. “Then all of a sudden I found myself starting to sing-rap. That’s not anything I’ve ever done before.”
The lushness and detail on the album resulted from disciplined recording sessions unlike any Blanco had previously undertaken. She had no regimen for making music before Mykki — no deadlines, no studio hours. “Before this album, I didn’t have a recording process,” she explains. “Some people, they’ve always wanted to be a musician, they’ve been doing it since they were 20 or 17 or something like that. I didn’t. It took me a while to get it together.” This time, working with producers Woodkid and Jeremiah Meece, she found herself on a strict schedule that enabled her to find more creative freedom than ever. “When I started working with Woodkid, we would meet every day at 9 a.m. to work until about 9 p.m. It was the first time that I ever had someone say, ‘Hey, meet me at the studio at this time. We’re going to be on this structured schedule. We’re going to get shit done. We’re going to experiment. We’re going to work organically. We’re not going to be robots, but we’re going to keep a real work schedule.’”
Part of that discipline included moving away from parts of the lifestyle that characterized much of Blanco’s twenties. “I was actually sober for most of the time that I wrote the album,” she says. “I had gone through some personal issues with substance abuse and I just needed to clean my act up and get a hold on where my life was going, what I was doing, just making sure that I had my shit together so I could really not waste these blessings, these opportunities that were coming my way. So I went sober for about three or four months, and in those months was where I wrote a large chunk of the album.”
Returning to New York after recording in Chicago and Paris now feels a little strange. She has roots here, and some ghosts. “I navigate the city in a different way. I don’t live here because I feel like at this point right now in my life, I’m trying to maintain a certain level of focus,” Blanco tells me. “There’s certain kinds of bad habits and ways of being that I picked up right before I left New York City, before I started touring so much as Mykki Blanco. I can’t really hang in the city for too long. I just feel like I have a lot of issues to work through when it comes to being in this city and knowing what’s here around the corner.”
Sobriety and the support of a new label allowed Blanco to spend plenty of time in the studio, and to build a creative momentum that she sees flowing well into next year. “I will have new music out by spring 2017,” she promises. “If I’m releasing this album in September, I want to have my next album out by November of 2017. That’s just where my head is at. I always wanted the leverage just to be able to execute. It’s kind of surreal, because now I have it. I really can’t fuck it up.”
Blanco sees Mykki as the first chapter in a kind of rebirth. The fact that she began a new decade this year isn’t lost on her symbolically, either. “I just don’t want any part of my twenties to characterize my thirties,” she says. “I’m really looking at the next decade as this clean slate to get right everything I didn’t get right before. To really thrive.”