Mykki Blanco has just moved to Hollywood, and five minutes into our conversation, the 35-year old rapper’s beloved mother calls. “She needs to chill out. Like, I don’t work?” laughs Blanco. “She’s helping me pick out furniture and she’s gone crazy about the whole thing.” There is something pure about one of hip-hop’s most experimental figures having their mother help them decorate. The non-binary musician (who uses the pronouns they/them) has been living outside the US for the past five years, residing mostly in Europe: London and Portugal’s countryside. They also lived in Paris during the city’s second lockdown in late 2020 – an experience Blanco describes as “emotionally distressing”. But now, back living near family and friends, Blanco’s spirits seem high. Their new mini album, Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep, an electric collection of love songs featuring Blood Orange and Jamila Woods, is a fresh beginning. For starters, it’s the first time they have had a record deal.
That may come as a surprise considering Blanco has not only worked with Kanye West, Charli XCX and Madonna, but was also a founding member of “queer rap”, a sub-genre of hip-hop that allowed LGBTQ+ people to express themselves freely. Tattooed and 6ft 2in tall, Blanco has long played with drag and gender presentation, whether donning waist-length braids and a pink corset or a shirt and a shaved head; rapping bluntly over trippy synths, their hyperactive lyrics address sexuality, partying and bravado from a queer perspective. In 2012 Elle magazine declared them “hip-hop’s new queen”, and in the New York Times Michael Schulman enthused about their “glamazon alter ego… a redoubtable presence on the New York downtown art and cabaret scene”. They self-released their 2016 debut album, Mykki, to critical acclaim: it was described by the Observer’s Kitty Empire as “one of the year’s most riveting musical self?portraits”.
For the first time, black people are telling the truth, and not someone else’s version of events
Still, Blanco’s career has been a DIY endeavour. Until recently they’ve been responsible for their own promotion, collaborations have come about organically through friendships, and music videos were funded by money made from international touring. “I’ve never truly been in competition with anybody but myself,” they say. Born Michael David Quattlebaum Jr in 1986 in Orange County to a father who now works as a psychic and a mother who is a paralegal, Blanco began their creative life as a teenage performance artist (their collective won an Independent Spirit award). They ended up attending both the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Parsons School of Design in New York, but later dropped out.
Fast forward to 2012, they ventured into music, and a couple of early mixtapes turned them into a rising star overnight; by the following year, they were opening for Bj?rk. “I literally just started making music, and then six or seven months later, my singles went viral,” they say. “I was thrust into having this platform.” Breakthrough songs Wavvy and Haze.Boogie.Life embodied alternative black culture and represented a new wave of rappers straight-talking over electro-infused beats.
Blanco credits Tumblr and being part of a “queer digital diaspora” for their success, but it was the extensive touring and spellbinding live shows that got them their solid league of supporters. “I was on the road for three years in a row. That’s a very old school, rock’n’roll way of gaining a fanbase.”
Blanco performing in Los Angeles earlier this month. Photograph: David Buchan/Rex/Shutterstock
Blanco has since used their platform to amplify conversations about white supremacy, LGBTQ+ visibility and sexual health. In 2015, they disclosed on Facebook that they had been living with HIV since 2011, becoming one of the first rappers since NWA member Easy E to share their status. “Fuck stigma and hiding in the dark, this is my real life… it’s time to actually be as punk as I say I am,” they wrote. In 2009, they featured in Madonna’s video for Dark Ballet as Joan of Arc, which ended with the following quote by Blanco: “I have walked this Earth, Black, Queer and HIV positive, but no transgression against me has been as powerful as the hope I hold within.”
Blanco is a great lyricist too. The opening song on Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep, Trust a Little Bit, has the cadence and conviction of spoken word: “What you see when you look at me? What you think when you blink and cannot breathe? I cannot leave. The feeling is inconclusive. So elusive. Borderline damn abusive.” Writing is their first love; they even considered giving up music in 2015 to become an investigative journalist, documenting “homosexuality and gay culture in remote corners of the world”. Our FaceTime call is interspersed with Blanco effortlessly spitting bars in between answers: “True love. True love. Can’t beef with you. Take out on the couch – that’s beef with you.” It’s a verse from It’s Not My Choice, a highlight from Broken Hearts. With deeply introspective verses and fearless exploration into new genres such as indie pop, it feels like Blanco just getting started…
How are you feeling about the release of Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep?
I am excited. This is the second chapter of my career, and it’s the one where I feel the most like a musician. I had this epiphany where I realised I’ve put so much emphasis on my live shows, but I thought to myself, have I produced a project yet where from start to finish, someone would say “God, I love that entire album”? I had to be really honest with myself. I don’t think I’ve done that yet.
What impact did the pandemic have on the project?
I recorded a lot of this music in 2018 and 2019, but what the pandemic did was enable me to edit. Blood Orange and Big Freedia did not get added to the project until 2020. I had this new formula: if I thought a song was done, I’d wait another three months. I had never given myself that time before. Also, the biggest thing for me is that I made the decision that I was never going to sample again, I was going to work with live instruments. I wanted to truly know what Mykki Blanco music sounded like.
It’s such a romantic album. What kind of mood were you in when you were making it?
I went through a breakup in 2019. It was painful and sad, but also amicable. After the actual breakup, we lived together for another six months. I wasn’t going into the studio being like, “I had a dream about this fight that we had two months ago, let me write a song,” but I guess it was coming up from my subconscious.
How do you think your sound and style has influenced other artists?
It is not lost on me that even though I was not a mainstream success, I helped pioneer a lot of what I see now as far as new queer artists. Artists like Le1f, Big Freedia – we really laid the blueprint. People sometimes say: “Oh poor so-and-so, they were the first ones to do this and they never got their roses,” but now in this second chapter, I think I’ll be able to enjoy the atmosphere I helped to create.
How do you feel about the landscape of music and “queer rap” today?
Lil Nas X is a black queer pop star: that’s the world I always wanted to exist in. Yves Tumor toured with me for two years before they blew up. Arca produced one of my first songs when they were first freshmen at NYU. I don’t ever want to take responsibility for anyone else’s creativity, but just knowing that there were doors that were closed that I helped to push open, and now other people benefit from that, is a cool feeling.
Watch the video for Free Ride by Mykki Blanco.
What were you like in high school?
I loved Missy Elliott, the Fugees, Eminem, but also 90s trip-hop. I was really into Jamiroquai, Tricky and Massive Attack. When I was 16, I wanted to be a bohemian and make it on my own [laughs]. I stole $100 out of my mom’s wallet and took the bus, nine hours, to New York City. When my mom tells the story, she always says: “I just wish you had taken more money!” I didn’t go home right away. I stayed in New York and ended up getting an internship at a magazine. My mom hired a detective. It was a whole mess [laughs].
You haven’t lived in the US full-time since 2016. How has it been watching political events unfold from afar?
I came back to the US for the first lockdown to be with my family. I was a part of the first wave of protests for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade. When you’re in Europe, it’s not in your face, but being back, it just feels like a constant state of PTSD. It’s horrible. I think cultural theorists have said that people in America are going to have PTSD from Trump for years. The Biden administration is far from perfect, but they’re quiet. I think people forgot what it was like when you’re focusing on your own life and the government didn’t do something every day to trigger you. Trump was a reign of terror.
You came out as HIV positive in 2015 – what do you remember of that time?
When I made that decision, I made it for myself. I was so tired of living in a way that I knew was inauthentic and that was really psychologically hurting me and my health. I thought that my career was going to be over, because I had no examples of anyone ever doing that and it being a successful career move. I was filled with fear and trepidation. But where I’m at now, I realise that people have so much compassion and understanding. I also think there’s an element of people just forgetting.
Do you think the discourse around HIV has changed much since then?
I would love to say that we’re in a better place, but we’re not. The discourse has continued to be positioned and geared towards the queer community, the trans community and POC. There are also hundreds of thousands of cis heterosexual people having sex without condoms. I think public health has failed a lot of society because they refuse to make the conversation universal. People view it almost now as this historical epidemic. I think there’s a lot of politics and factors [around] big pharma and money, [which is] why the public discourse around HIV has not shifted.
What do you love most about being black?
There are so many powerful things that black people and black culture have given to this world. We are actively reclaiming our narratives and our own history. For the first time, we’re telling the truth, and not someone else’s version of events.
Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep is out now on Transgressive Records