Stride of Mykki Blanco
Having been an independent artist for the majority of his career, Mykki Blanco has steadily built a global fanbase across five years. Ahead of the release of his debut retail album, here he explains how the expanding of mainstream narratives surrounding queer and trans issues has intersected with his career, reflecting on the merits of consistently challenging pre- conceptions. As told to Jake Hall.
When I first emerged, people would label me a ‘queer rapper’ alongside Cakes Da Killa, Big Freedia, Le1f and Zebra Katz. I realise now that we created a revenue stream. We created an audience and a fanbase that grew and expanded. Now, you have fringe acts and underground artists that feel they can do what we did without being seen as niche – they know it’s possible because they saw us do it.
I have more notoriety now, but people never used to understand what Mykki Blanco was. The interdisciplinary elements of my act have become mainstream, and people feel more comfortable because the world finally fucking caught up. If I had stepped on stage in drag with a guitar, music journalists would have immediately called me the next Prince, or the next Bowie; I would have fit so neatly into a lineage that people could codify and understand. It’s different when it’s hip-hop – internalised racism and homophobia create this blind spot, and people suddenly don’t know what to do.
"What I am trying to do is infiltrate the mainstream with radical queer ideas"
I’m unfiltered about a lot of things on social media; there are people out there that have made me more open. I call it the ‘Kardashian effect’. I can discuss things with my followers because I see it’s mainstream to be blunt and open now. The more people know about me, the closer our connection is, and the more they feel they can understand my work.
One thing I absolutely did for myself was come out as HIV+. That wasn’t a media stunt, or me feeding into ideas surrounding celebrity. I did that because I was tired of psychological warfare. I would meet guys at parties and clubs yet I felt I couldn’t have a boyfriend because I was so afraid of people discovering this secret and turning their backs on me. That was the same year
I announced I would be quitting music; there were so many small things leading up to the event that showed signs of a very unhappy, depressed person. People associated Mykki Blanco with having fun, with this ‘social butterfly’ persona. Talking about HIV is not fun. Being diagnosed with HIV is not fun.
If I had come out as HIV+ in the 90s I would have been shunned. To my surprise, fans of mine rallied around me even more after the announcement. I had taken for granted that people could be so compassionate and so understanding. I think that has a lot to do with the times we’re living in. I can still sell out shows and tour as an HIV+ artist because people understand it isn’t just some death sentence.
That acceptance creatively informs everything I do. When we shot the video for my song <em>High School Never Ends</em>, I made it clear to Matt Lambert, the director, that I wanted to show queer, anarchist punks on film. I’ve never seen gay, trans or queer punks on film, so that was the starting point. I always pride myself on making visuals that people have never seen before. People say to me they’ve never seen a music video with a genderqueer person having realistic sex with a guy, but those were really elements I didn’t even consider.
Ultimately, people think I’m trying to ‘make a statement’ because I’m queer. Nobody would be asking me these questions if I was a heterosexual man or woman.
The truth is, I’m 30 years old. I’m not rebelling against anything. What I am trying to do is infiltrate the mainstream with radical queer ideas that stem from people that I know who live like this – they already exist in networks and communities across the globe. Sometimes an artist doesn’t particularly want to make a statement, but if you portray your social circles and your community it can appear political because a wider audience can’t relate.
I wanted to change the way I write, record and create music, so I really spent time with this debut album. I’m not ashamed that I’ve learnt things throughout my career – I started making music at 25, as someone that clumsily fell into it and decided it was a good performance medium. It just so happened that narratives surrounding trans visibility and gay rights were gaining visibility when I was making music; people are now more accepting than ever, and my profile has risen as a consequence.
Ultimately, I’ve worked over the last few years to develop a platform for myself, and I think it’s important to maintain that visibility. Any success I may experience represents something; it represents something to queer people, to people of colour and to people from a certain social class, and that truly matters to me. I’m not willing to jeopardise that for anybody.
Mykki Blanco’s debut album Mykki is released 16 September via !K7