The Multiplicities of Mykki Blanco
Mykki Blanco is the all-encompassing metropolitan artiste—multi-faceted, multi-talented (poet, rapper, actor and author are just some of her varying vocations), and multi-gendered (Mykki is the womanly side of 24-year-old Michael David Quattlebaum Jr.), the enthusiastic entertainer is armed with an aggressive and impressive flow, a sharp fashion sense, and a rare blend of confidence and humility.
The hard-working entertainer/beloved downtown dignitary has already grabbed the attention of many eyeballs and eardrums alike, thanks in large part to collaborations with photographer Terry Richardson (who chose the emerging artist to be a part of the campaign he shot for Happy Socks, along with model Ashley Smith and Harlem lyricist of the moment A$AP Rocky), a book of poetry (From The Silence Of Duchamp To The Noise Of Boys) sold at chic magnets Opening Ceremony and LA’s OHWOW Gallery, as well as opening slots alongside acts like Gang Gang Dance and ARABMUZIK. Mykki’s busy as ever, with two new albums and a one-woman show all set to debut this summer, a fact that should come as no surprise given the cute and candid performer’s track record thus far. Meeting up for a quick bite in NoHo, Interview spoke to the soon-to-be star about her foray into transgendered living, her journey to and through New York City, and her exciting new projects.
ALEX CHAPMAN: So I guess the first thing I’d like to know is where you grew up.
MYKKI BLANCO: I’m originally from San Mateo, California, and Raleigh, North Carolina. I grew up in both equally for eight years—it was kinda scattered. I lived in California as a small child and then moved to North Carolina, but I used spend every summer with my grandparents in California. When I was 16, I ran away to New York and had that experience, and after I was 16 I lived in California until I was 20, and then moved to Chicago to go to the Art Institute.
CHAPMAN: What was it like when you came to New York at such a young age?
BLANCO: When I first came here as a teenager it was 2003 or 2004. Things were very different—the artist exodus and yuppie-fication of things were definitely under way, but things were still way grittier. I just remember the city being a really dark playground. A lot of people don’t know this, but during that time was when I began to cross-dress. I started dressing like a girl during that period, and actually being mistaken for a girl because I was 16. That, I would say, would be the very beginning inklings of my “transgendered life.”
CHAPMAN: Was that life something you discovered when you came to New York, or something you just could never be anywhere else?
BLANCO: Well, I considered myself gay for so long, and it really wasn’t until I started dressing as the opposite sex pretty regularly that I began to see my gender identity shift. To be flat-out honest, it wasn’t until I started sleeping with men as the opposite sex that things started to really change—when I found out men that I found attractive found me attractive as a woman! It literally is a mindfuck to go through life as a guy, and then to dress as a woman and get cat-called on the street, get men running up to you, asking for your phone number, your e-mail address; to meet men online and have them be smokin’ hot. It’s like a whole entire road opened up and in a lot of ways, it made my life so much better.
CHAPMAN: I’m sure that can be pretty empowering.
BLANCO: It was like a flowering. In my heart and my mind, that two-spirit side of myself—all of my feminine energy and power—flowered, and that’s a really mystical and ancient concept that’s mirrored in many cultures, both indigenous western and eastern. I shouldn’t oversimplify it and say just because I received positive sexual attention from men I continue to cross-dress—it was literally all the chakras aligning, and that sexual energy is a part of life.
CHAPMAN: It’s funny that it’s such a point of conversation now, given that only a few decades ago, New York culture’s best audience and innovators were members or intense supporters of the gay and transgender community.
BLANCO: The AIDS epidemic killed out an entire generation of fun and amazing people, and people often forget that New York City, from like the ’20s through ’80s was littered—and I use the word littered for the reason—with transgendered people. Seeing a transvestite on the street was like drinking water—they were everywhere!
CHAPMAN: It seems like artists compromise their work much more now as a result, but that’s obviously something you do not do.
BLANCO: We’re living in a time where the mediocrity of mainstream pop culture is at an all-time high—I don’t need to go into the cultural implications of a Teen Mom phenomenon or a Jersey Shore phenomenon. But when people talk to me about a mainstream crossover, about gays in hip-hop, I address the issue, but it literally defines me the least compared to everything else. You can’t tell me that with Sylvester, the gay disco legend, a millionaire, superstar for his time, RuPaul, or someone I identify with like Marilyn Manson—the anti-Christ superstar of America when he was at his height—you can’t tell me what I’m doing doesn’t have a place. When someone like Big Freedia is out there doing Late Show With Jimmy Kimmel—her fan base is huge. Who gives a fuck [about being mainstream]? I’m not trying to be in the 40/40 Club popping bottles while rappers throw hundred-dollar bills on strippers. I’m just out to make my audience happy, fulfill my creative vision, and be successful on my own terms, which is doable.
CHAPMAN: You certainly haven’t had to change against your own will, or in any way that isn’t you, to do some high-profile stuff.
BLANCO: It’s funny because as an underground artist, I’ve been afraid to talk about the things that I’ve done for fear of seeming boastful or arrogant. But at this point, it’s like “No!” I’m not gonna have these mainstream kids out here ripping people off and taking ideologies. It’s not even really about that, but I’m not gonna have these mainstream kids out here thinking they’re on the come-up when my pedigree is extensive! It’s like, “Don’t play.” [laughs]
CHAPMAN: It’s definitely important for people to know real artists out here, especially when they don’t always get the big-time attention they deserve.
BLANCO: And that’s the thing. Mainstream artists, they have publicists, agents, and marketing outlets—these machines. I only have me, but this is what I’m good at and I have to do it.
CHAPMAN: So when did you start performing?
BLANCO: As a teenager. I came into this life via a performance-art context. My roots are in theater—I was a child actor. I guess I would’ve liked to be in a punk band when I was a teenager, but it was more about my friends and I writing our own little shitty songs and half-heartedly performing them. It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I became really serious about performing music. In 2010, I really discovered I was good at this and it was what my life path was developing into.
CHAPMAN: And what happened to make you take it on as a career?
BLANCO: This is the complete trajectory—I wrote, wrote, wrote, wrote, wrote. I started performing out in the city. June 17, 2011, my first book was published. After that book came out, there was a storm of media attention. The music I’ve made for my first release, which will be Mykki Blanco and The Mutant Angels, some of the songs from that release, the lyrics are the poems in the book. While I was touring and performing the work of the book, Mykki Blanco was just growing and growing. It was an internal thing—it wasn’t something that I had begun to think about as my livelihood. I was living the duality of Mykki, I was cross-dressing everyday and exploring the lifestyle—I had a pretty wild summer, actually! It wasn’t until I began to combine the repertoire of Mykki’s work with the work from the book that things really began to take off.
CHAPMAN: And the whole thing has taken on a really genuine tone, which I’m assuming is because it all comes from you.
BLANCO: I’m not gonna lie—I could use the advance money from a label. Anyone could! But let me put it to you like this: The more noise I keep making, and the more I release quality music, I have no doubt that someone’s gonna try to hit me up. Larger labels, people in high positions who control culture, wanna remain in those positions of controlling culture. When an independent artist starts making too much money or getting a little too much attention, that’s when you start hearing calls from the big fish. But to be as accepted as I have from the music world, the art world, the fashion world—I just had no idea that following your heart could lead you to being so fulfilled and so happy. I haven’t had to kiss ass and social climb, and I’m so lucky for that—I have so many talented friends that, due to the nature of their careers, don’t have that creative freedom. To have that is a blessing and I never take it for granted.
CHAPMAN: So tell me about the music projects you’re working on right now.
BLANCO: These are the three important Mykki Blanco projects: The first release, with UNO NYC, is Mykki Blanco and the Mutant Angels. That is a project I did with DJ Physical Therapy and artist Jeffrey Joyal. We basically created music as a band, but it was a one-time project with my writing.
CHAPMAN: What’s that going to sound like?
BLANCO: That’s my more industrial psych-rock stuff, and it’s coming out late spring. I’m choosing to release that first because everyone’s heard the hip-hop and is waiting for a hip-hop release, but I want people to know the full scope of me. Then, a single from that release is being made into a seven-inch, two-sided record with OHWOW gallery. The second project is Mykki Blanco: Cosmic Angel (The Rebirth of The Showgirl), which is my rap project and will be out this summer. For my third project, I’ll be directing and producing my first musical concert in late May for The Living Theatre, which will have a full-week run.
CHAPMAN: That’s a lot of stuff! Did you plan for it to all smash together?
BLANCO: I didn’t plan for it, but everyday in the morning, for extra energy, I drink a raw garlic smoothie with fruit. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain by working hard. To have this be the beginning of my career and receive this much positive support—I cannot waste a fucking minute, and I’d be a fool to waste a minute.