going in for the kill
“One of the things they tell you in entertainment is that you always want to be what people don’t know they want yet, you always want to fill a space that’s not been filled,” Mykki Blanco tells me over the phone. It’s a motto that’s seen the fearless, radically progressive artist remain two steps ahead of the cultural curve. There have been right-wing bigots who’ve wanted to intimidate him, narrow-minded journalists who’ve tried to pigeon-hole him, but Blanco is too strong to be deterred. And while he’s primarily known as a rapper, you could make the case that Mykki Blanco is a punk rocker in the truest sense.
Late last year, Blanco dropped his latest release – the raw, intense and sharply witty Gay Dog Food mixtape. Inspired by the inhibition-eroding impact of his live shows and time on the road with the semi-defunct noise-rap outfit Death Grips, the tape saw Blanco spit, sing and scream over crunchy, lo-fi electro beats. While Gay Dog Food featured some of Blanco’s most ferocious rapping to date (“I fear no man nigga, fuck your judgement / hatin’ ass bitch, yeah I fucked your husband,” he declared in the opening bars of Moshin’ In The Front), this time round Blanco’s vocal experiments were harder to define. There was some eye-catching collaborations on there too, including the deliciously-titled, yet-to-be- heard bonus track Solange in the Elevator with Chicago drill MC Katie Got Bandz and A Moment With Kathleen – a conceptual track featuring the perpetually-inspiring Riot Grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna.
Hanna’s work as the frontwoman of Bikini Kill, Le Tigre and now The Julie Ruin has seen her embrace music as a progressive, empowering form, so it’s no surprise that she’s struck up a bond with Mykki Blanco. And as an artist who’s spent a couple of decades dealing with an industry disproportionately dominated by white, heterosexual males, Hanna recognises some of the obstacles Blanco has faced from her own career. In an email exchange, I asked Hanna why she thinks Blanco plays an important role in the context of the contemporary music industry. “I think Mykki is valuable in terms of contemporary art more than ‘the music industry’,” she replied. “Though she has clearly busted down some barriers in that world, she also went out on the fucking street and confronted a bunch of homophobic teens by freestyle rapping them out of their silly slumber. That’s art. That’s someone who is talented, who gives a shit, and who was born to be creative.”
While Mykki is a gifted rapper, he’s equally a poet, a performance artist, a radical style icon. And despite hip-hop – with its confidence-enhancing braggadocio – might seem like the natural medium for Blanco to execute his swag, he insists that rap was a second choice. “I never wanted to be a rapper, I wanted to be a conceptual artist! I’ve wanted to be in that world, but you have to be an ass-kisser and you also have to be a little boring,” he claims, letting out a mischievous chuckle. “Well, maybe not boring. But, like, if I’m going to be fake, I want to be entertainer fake, you don’t have to have some 30 minute conversation about a sculpture you don’t actually care about. It’s like in the art world you have to form all these long term ‘relationships’, I don’t have time for that shit,” he says, laughing again. But whether or not Blanco is cut out for the schmoozy chin-stroking of the white wall galleries, he’s always been synonymous with the art world. And the story of Michael David Quattlebaum Jr.’s evolution from creative North Carolina teenager to cross- dressing, gender-bending underground star is one that’s punctuated by encounters with New York’s cultural trailblazers. After running away from home at the age of 16, Quattlebaum took a Greyhound coach to New York, where he’d explore his sexual identity at East Village bar The Cock and meet the likes of Alexander McQueen and photographer Ryan McGinley. After returning home for a brief period and flunking a degree at the Art Institute of Chicago, Quattlebaum returned to New York in 2008 to enrol at Parsons The New School for Design. While he only completed one semester, Quattlebaum had already established a network of art dealers, publishers and gallery owners, and began performing a confrontational spoken-word project called No Fear. So how did this act become, as Blanco once described it, “a mixture of Riot Grrrl and ghetto fabulousness”?
“I just had this idea right around the time Nicki Minaj and Lil Kim were having that famous beef, to start this video-art character of a female rapper in high school,” he tells me. With ideas generated by his book of poetry published by the OHWOW gallery, Quattlebaum first performed as Mykki Blanco at one of the trend-starting, mythologised Ghe20G0th1k parties in downtown New York. “When I combined the performance art style I’d been doing with No Fear with Mykki Blanco raps, that’s when it became actually interesting,” he recalls. “Because doing this punk performance as a guy, that had already been done before, you knew what to expect. But when you start rapping in drag, people are kind of surprised by it.”
In January, Mykki was shot for Italian fashion house Iceberg’s SS15 campaign alongside Kim Gordon, and also modelled for Hood By Air’s subversive collection at the Pitti Uomo menswear trade show in Florence. That trip saw him roam the grandiose Fattoria di Maiano estate with HBA’s Shayne Oliver, Venus X, singer Ian Isiah, Fade To Mind producer/DJ Total Freedom and Arca – who crafted the menacing beat for Blanco’s early track Join My Militia (Nas Gave Me a Perm) long before Kanye, FKA twigs or Björk’s teams had him booked in for sessions. “Xen is an amazing album, and [Arca] was obviously always going to be a breakout star, and twigs is now a fucking superstar!” he says with affection. “It’s crazy how many people in our friend circle have literally skyrocketed.”
Following the 2012 breakout of his club banger Wavy, Mykki Blanco has released the excellent Betty Rubble: The Initiation EP (which spawned some mind-blowing music videos) and a cluster of singles. But you could argue that in the last two years, a major focus of his mission has been his life on the road. Blanco claims to have spent around nine months touring in 2013, and a major chunk of 2014 was spent taking his intense, lascivious show around the globe. During our correspondence, Mykki’s fluctuating schedule involves him travelling to Moscow, performing across South America, modelling for HBA in Florence, then giving a university lecture in Denver, Colorado before moving to LA. As you can imagine, pinning him down for a photo shoot becomes a logistical nightmare. Known to document his adventures on social media, Blanco shares intimate photos and notes about his wild, debauched and beautiful experiences with his followers. And, of course, he doesn’t hesitate to report on the battles he faces either.
"Mykki went out on the fucking street and confronted a bunch of homophobic teens by freestyle rapping them out of their silly slumber. That's art" - Kathleen Hanna
In May 2014, Blanco posted images of the inside of a Portuguese jailhouse, where he was arrested after apparently telling a brazenly homophobic and discriminatory policeman to ‘go fuck himself’. In November that year, Blanco embarked on a tour with producer and frequent collaborator Gobby which saw them play in Israel, Austria, Italy, Poland and Russia. The latter two countries presented challenges. “We went to Poland on literally the worst day we could be there,” Blanco recalls. “Our show was on 11 November, which is Independence Day, it brings out all these fucking neo-Nazis and right-wing nationalists. We kind of had to stay in the hotel the entire day because they were marching down the street and parading in Warsaw, that even affected the type of people who came to my concert.”
And on the day of the Moscow gig, a group – either private security officers hired by the authorities or anti-LBGT activists, depending on reports – shut down the Solyanka club where the show was scheduled to take place. Dimitry Enteo, the leader of extremist group God’s Will (who’ve been linked to harassment of LGBT protesters and supporters of Pussy Riot), later tweeted his praise of the club’s closure: “The perverts of Solyanka thought they can get away with everything? It’s important for everyone to understand that without respecting Eastern Orthodox faith and the family, you cannot work in Russia.”
Mykki Blanco’s immediate reaction was to downplay the direct link between his show and the Solyanka’s closure, suggesting that, as something of a countercultural hub in Moscow, the club already had a troubled relationship with right-wing groups and the authorities. Alongside this, Blanco posted a series of various photo albums and video clips documenting happier times he’s enjoyed in Russia on Facebook alongside a lengthy, heartfelt note which expressed his love for the country without shying away from the cultural tensions he’d experienced. Since the country’s federal law banning the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships to minors” was passed in 2013, the Western media has heightened its interest in the prevalent intolerance towards LGBT communities. I ask Blanco if his Facebook note was partially motivated to prevent Western fans developing stigmatising perceptions. “I just feel like the more educated people become about [Russia], the more they’ll understand that it’s not some like crazy villainous place,” he tells me. “People don’t know shit about Russia, and they’ll be like [adopts condescending voice] ‘Oh, you stay safe out there’. It’s like, safe from what? What are you talking about? Save me from these horrible Soviets who’re gonna have some data chip that’s gonna know I’m gay and shoot me with 12 rounds in the back? What are these situations that you’ve created in your head that are not real?
“But as I said in what I wrote about Russia, I’m not gonna pretend that this country is a fucking walk in the park,” he continues. “A lot of these places, I’m going to because of my male privilege, I’m going because I can be a guy there. These people would not be so accepting if I was more outwardly queer or cross-dressing in the street there.” And while Blanco appeared unfazed by the Solyanka shutdown, announcing the gig’s new venue alongside a picture of himself pouting in a long blonde wig and smudged, pink lipstick, anxiety still loomed that evening. “The people in this other club were just not into the kind of people who were at my show. And the security were giving me crazy dirty looks and shit,” he says.
“Honestly, from this last trip in Russia … it’s like I kind of don’t fuck with Moscow,” he admits. “Like, I fuck with Russia, St. Petersburg and all the other places I’ve been to, I don’t think I’ll have any reservations of going to any other part of Russia. But Moscow? They’re a liiittle too hung up for me. The fact that the government’s there means that they are just so much more conservative. And it’s funny because it’s such a big city but everybody’s kind of watching their back … I’ve had so many good experiences with Russian people and Russian culture, but now that I’ve experienced that, I’m like ‘OK, Moscow – I’m going to keep you at arm’s length.’”
But despite all the negativity, all the hateful energy that threatens to restrict his creativity, Mykki Blanco remains as one of the most defiant and free-spirited music artists working today. And while he’s understandably tired of critics ignoring his art to analyse the specifics of his identity (in particular, the ‘queer rap’ tag applied to him, Le1f and Cakes Da Killa back in 2012 seemed pretty reductive), he accepts that a lot of his fans will probably always be fascinated by it. “I used to kind of try and shift the narrative around that. But honestly? I think with me, people are always going to try and include that in the storyline because it makes it so much more interesting for them, and I think that’s fine … But, like, if a song bangs and you can turn up to it, why do you have to write some stupid review which starts with the words ‘queer icon’?”
"If a song bangs and you can turn up to it why do you have to write some stupid review which starts with the word queer icon?"
With the recent announcement that he’s signed with !K7 Records, Mykki Blanco hopes to release his debut studio album in 2015. The quality of Blanco’s previous two EPs have seen him improve as a rapper and Gay Dog Food proved just how wildly experimental he can be. And yet, he feels his definitive statement is yet to be made. “You know what it is? I’ve been out here for two years, switching up my styles, but I still haven’t really told people what the real deal is with Mykki. And that’s why my album is so important. There’s an honesty that I still haven’t conveyed to a lot of people and that’s definitely what I’m going to do with this next batch of music. It’s like no one wants to make angry music, but at the same time, certain shit needs to be said.”
At this point, he’s won a legion of fans and an endless barrage of haters. He’s established a certified cult status but still has a lot to prove. So, comes my final question: does this feel like a good time to be Mykki Blanco? “Oh my god, are you kidding me? This actually might be the best stage yet. Because now I feel like I have an audience, I have attention. And now that people finally realise the things I’m not, I can really swag the fuck out.”
Mykki Blanco is playing Love Saves the Day at Eastville Park, Bristol, 27 and 28 May