They might have tried to stick Mykki Blanco into the ‘queer rap’ pigeonhole, but as the gender blender tells Conor Behan, he’s got so much more to give.
A cross-dressing, openly gay rapper with a background in performance art, Mykki Blanco may be a brand new face but he’s already in super-high demand. He enraptured the music press last year when beguiling cuts like Waavy arrived, seamlessly providing indie-rap nuts something to play at parties and offering hip-hop a new way to push itself forward. When we grab him for a chat he’s just wrapped an American tour and finished a photo shoot with fashion darlings, Nicola Formichetti and Terry Richardson.
Relaxing in his mother’s house before his tour catapults him across Europe, including an Irish stop at Dublin’s Forbidden Fruit festival, Blanco, aka Michael Quattenbaum, has got plenty on his mind. His persona is undoubtedly a complex one. He regularly cross dresses and is at ease slipping on a pair of heels as he is spitting rhymes. His unique entry into the musical landscape showcases the diverse background he draws from.
Blanco started out writing poetry while studying at college and says the Mykki Blanco persona “started out as a video art project”, which saw him performing videos as a teenage girl. The name he chose was “a direct homage to Lil’ Kim, who had a character on her mixtape called Kimmy Blanco”.
“One of the aspects of Mykki, the video art project character was that she had aspirations to be a female rapper,” Blanco explains. “I started writing raps as part of the character’s videos.” The Youtube clips featuring Mykki were growing in popularity. Soon he began performing live, in character.
“When I performed Mykki live, the energy and the response from the crowd was so great. I found this balance where the Mykki Blanco character wasn’t so much a character anymore. Mykki was really just me.”
That balance also tapped into Blanco’s previous experiences with cross-dressing, harking back to how people reacted to him in his home of New York City. “Strangers on the street would catcall me; they’d tell me I was beautiful,” he remembers. “When you’re a boy, nobody ever tells you you’re pretty. It gave me this new surge of confidence; because it doesn’t matter whether what you’re doing is taboo. What matters is that you feel beautiful because you know that you look good.”
His enjoyment of dressing in female clothes also tapped into something he feels is representative of a different time in New York gay life, when this was “what the city was kind of known for, in the ’70s and the ’80s, having a really flamboyant homosexual culture. I think that people in New York really miss that.”
Of course that willingness to enjoy a spot of dressing up can have drawbacks, especially as Blanco is in the middle of a grueling world tour. Citing the practical side of reapplying a face full of makeup after a show or figuring out what to wear, Blanco reckons he has found a middle ground for how to provoke audiences.
“For some of the rowdier shows, people really like it when I come out and I perform for five songs in full drag. Then I go through this transformation, where I take off the wig, I take off the bra and I become a boy.”
Blanco, alongside a host of emerging rappers like Zebra Katz, Le1f, Angel Haze, and even Azealia Banks, were bracketed into the label ‘queer rap’ early last year, but as each artist has made an individual impression the moniker seems to becoming less and less relevant.
“I don’t mind the label but I kind of already transcended it,” Blanco asserts, clearly used to, and maybe a little tired of dealing with the obligatory queer rap question. “I honestly just want to be the best entertainer I can be. The fact that I have found international success before I’ve released my first album is amazing to me,” he says, noting that he was quick to release some ofmost adventurous tracks to differentiate himself from the pigeonholing that was taking place.
Blanco is more focused on a busy second half of 2013. He’s already signed to open for artists such as Tricky and Björk alongside his own tour. As for his live show, he assures me that Dublin is “going to see a high energy hip-hop, punk, rave, Riot Grrrl performance.”
“There’s a disconnect that people have with me until they see me live,” he says. Blanco spent his teen years devouring the biographies of those involved with the Riot Grrrl movement and along with tomes by the likes of Bette Midler, which has given him a steely sense of creative ambition. “I wasn’t necessarily rebellious,” he says. “I was trying to seek my own truth because I knew that I was different.”
Now, he’s unleashing a second EP, entitled Betty Rubble: The Initiation that will accompany this summer’s tour, reflecting the unique position he’s found himself in. “Six years ago I didn’t know that I wanted to be doing this. I’ve started an alternative pop career that I didn’t know was going to happen.”
With the rest of the year offering plenty for Blanco to focus on, his resolve seems clear. “You always have to work harder and push yourself to excel to be ahead of the pack. And that’s what makes someone exceptional versus mediocre.”
© 2013 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.