The creative output of Michael David Quattlebaum Jr. has taken on multiple forms— he’s worked as a model, a poet, a performance artist. In the the past five years, the multifaceted 30-year-old, better known as Mykki Blanco, has made a name for himself as a sharp-witted rapper with a high-voltage stage show and a penchant for wigs. Politically outspoken and increasingly open about discussing the intimate details of his personal life, the orbit of Blanco is continually expanding.
The backstory of Quattlebaum’s rap career dates back to a performance art video project. Dressed in drag in front of a background meant to look like a teen girl’s bedroom (pictures of Drake and Rihanna on the wall, pink bed sheets), he took on the persona of an 18-year-old high school senior named Mykki Blanco, a name inspired by the notorious beef between Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj. In the videos, the Blanco character tangentially aspired to be a female rapper, something the artist didn’t originally intend to pursue until the project gained popularity. People began to encourage Blanco to actually make music, thus a hip-hop starlet was born.
Predating all this is a poetry book, From the Silence of Duchamp to the Noise of Boys, and a noise-punk performance project called No Fear. Taking stock of Quattlebaum’s history of performance and his eclectic array of influences—Le Tigre and GG Allin; Suicide and Jadakiss—provides deeper context to the varied offerings of Mykki Blanco. From the blown out grittiness of “Join My Militia (Nas Gave Me A Perm)” off 2012’s Mykki Blanco & the Mutant Angels to the neatly distilled pop of “Loner” off the new album Mykki, Blanco has proven himself to be an exceptionally versatile recording artist.
A few days prior to this interview, the artist made headlines for an incident on a Delta flight from Toronto to Detroit. According to a string of tweets from Blanco on February 17, a man on the flight complained that the airline allowed Blanco to board the plane and sit next to him. The man had the police called, who threatened Blanco with jail for asking questions and told Blanco an FBI report would be filed. Blanco described the event as “the most bizarre form of homophobia I have ever encountered.”
Yet, Blanco doesn’t let the negative define him. While his growing list of accomplishments back up his modest self-description as a “working artist,” it should be said that a part of Blanco’s artistry is his ability to prevail over bullshit. Recognized as a performance pioneer as well as a habitual defier of conventions, Blanco’s unfaltering commitment to thwarting oversimplified categorizations is part of his charm.
Currently on a nationwide tour with Cakes Da Killa, I caught up with Blanco to talk about his new album Mykki and his artistic trajectory as a performer.
You’ve been overseas for a while and are now back in the States on a month-and-a-half long tour. I’m wondering if this is the first time you’ve been back to America since Trump’s inauguration and if you feel like the experience of touring has changed in any way as a result of the country’s current political climate.
I actually came back to the country for early voting in October, right before the election. Then I came back again in December. So far, I think that I haven’t necessarily encountered anything different— other than what happened when I was coming from Toronto to Detroit—and I don’t even know if that’s a symptom of the Trump presidency per se. If anything, I’ve noticed that the crowds coming out feel like it’s a really poignant time for Cakes and me to be doing this tour together, for us to be on the road and going to not just the main cities, not just the hipster cities, but really all over. I’ve heard from the audience that they’re really glad, especially considering the early stages of this administration, that we decided to do the tour. No one planned it, though. Like, it wasn’t a political strategy to be touring right now.
Do you find the shows are different in Middle America than on the coasts?
No, because the same kind of audience comes out across the country.
And you’ve played shows on five different continents, right?
I’ve played shows on every continent except for Antarctica and Africa.
You’ve described yourself as “glamorously homeless” with a “jet set lifestyle.” In contrast to this, you spent months in the woods of North Carolina to write your first album, Mykki. How did this level of seclusion affect your creative output?
It was just a really, really constructive time. I hadn’t lived in North Carolina for over 15 years. Once you move all over and live in big cities, that sense of going home, the familiarity and even the boredom, all that stuff can be really constructive. It was really helpful for me to create this album. I needed that level of focus and concentration in a really familiar environment to produce the kind of album that I came out with.
Do you think sobriety informed your artistic process?
I think it did. I think whenever you choose sobriety, it’s because you really need to. I truly think being sober for a part of every year is something to strive for. It allows you to be extremely self-reflective in a very, very pure way.
Mykki is certainly far more intimate than your previous work. How do you think being more open about your personal life changed your music?
I think that what it did was just allow my work to mature, which is what I wanted. I really wanted to grow musically and I wanted to grow lyrically and conceptually, which I think came out of having that pause. The album was written in North Carolina, but it was also recorded and written in Paris and Chicago. So those three places helped me to conceptualize the album and stimulate really focused work periods. Also, the album’s producers [Woodkid and Jeremiah Meece] really contributed to the finished product.
Of all the art you’ve made, why do you think people responded so strongly to the rap?
That itself was something I kind of fell into. Mykki Blanco started out as a performance art video project, and the rap just began as a component of that. Then it ended up spiraling into me finding out that I could work with a manager, then have that manager help me create my first mixtape, then it led to working with booking agents and working as a musician. I think people probably latched onto the rap because it was good, because the content was original, the things I was talking about. I think they liked the politics of my identity at the time. Probably a combination of those things.
You said in a 2012 interview “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.” Now that your career has advanced and you have this apparatus at your disposal, do you feel like you’re positioned closer to the mainstream?
It’s funny because I think that I’ve always had a very odd position in my career. Like early on in my career, I was doing international tours. There’s always been a mainstream element to my career as far as how it’s worked. I think that’s why you know who Mykki Blanco is and you don’t know who some other artists are. I’ve always had a really enterprising pedigree to what I do. To me, it doesn’t matter if I don’t have the infrastructure. If I know how to do something or know how to work with people to do what a mainstream artist is doing, than I’m going to do that. Using every skill in my skill set to get what I want, I think I’ve always been good at that.
I would have never really lasted long in the art world. .. I would rather be indentured to thousands of people who enjoy my music than just one collector.
I think that is something where I don’t know how realistic that world will be for me. I don’t have the thousands of dollars you need to pay radio stations. I don’t have those types of industry connects. It’s really interesting how the world always paints Chance The Rapper as this completely independent artist, because while I think that dude is really talented, he has people in the industry that helped promote his shit from like way early on. You can’t have million dollar endorsements and only be an independent artist. It’s like this wool that people always pull over other people’s eyes, when talking about a “hyper-famous” or “mainstream independent” artist. But you know, never say never. When it comes to charting, that’s a very mainstream world where I’ve never felt completely outside, but I don’t really have the infrastructure to enter that world right now.
Did you see the Chance The Rapper Kit Kat commercial?
Yea. You know, when I talk about Chance, I’m not critiquing his success or whether he’s deserving of it or talented. He obviously is worthy and talented and deserves all of those things. But when people talk about him as this independent artist, like he came from the underground, that’s not entirely true. You don’t just end up where he’s at without knowing people in the industry.
What are your thoughts on the direction of hip-hop being influenced in large part by its consumer base?
To be quite honest, I don’t really think about hip-hop that much. One of my favorite albums that came out last year was from my friend Yves Tumor called Serpent Music. There’s this artist Gaika that I’m super psyched about. I love everything that’s happening with NON Records and my friend Chino Amobi. Total Freedom is one of my favorite DJs. I love Rihanna’s Anti. I think that Lil Uzi Vert is really cool. I like 21 Savage. Lil Yachty is really great at marketing and looking cool and being weird. I’m really happy for everything that’s happened with Migos, to have the mainstream finally get into it. Migos has been making hits for the past five years.
I watched a video of you giving a lecture at an art school, which I found funny considering you’re a two-time art school dropout. In regards to your artistic trajectory, does your decision to leave school hold any special significance?
It doesn’t. I kind of left school because I thought I was a know-it-all and, to a certain extent, I really did know a lot about what I was studying.
It seemed to work out for you.
As an artist, have you experienced any constraints as a result of turning performance into a career?
No, I’ve actually experienced the opposite.
So it was liberating?
Yea, that’s probably why we’re here.
How do your personal experiences differ in the art world versus the music world?
I would have never really lasted long in the art world. Artists have to really kiss these collectors’ asses. It feels like such serfdom. Even though some of these patrons are extremely wealthy, you’re still like an indentured servant to the collector. I would rather be indentured to thousands of people who enjoy my music than just one collector that I have to appease and have some weird stewardship with.
In regards to all the attention you’ve generated throughout your career, what are some ways that you’d like to see media do better?
I think the media should just be fucking smart. Writers should just continue to write honestly about people’s music. It’s really stupid, but still when writers talk about me or any other “queer artists,” they often do it in a really homophobic way.
People have spent a lot of time attempting to label and define you. I’d like to hear how you’d describe yourself.
A working artist. A working artist who’s come out with a first album. And I’m going to start recording my new album this year. My goal is to produce back-to-back albums for 2018 and 2019. And I want to keep branching out into other forms of entertainment. I’ve been talking to an online network about having a travel web series, so that’s in development. For me it’s never been about remaining an indie rapper, I’ve always wanted to be a performer. My background is in acting and theatre. Taking different opportunities and avenues is something I plan to do. It’s exciting. You know, people never know what you’re capable of until you do it. So you just have to do it and then people understand.
Do you see yourself ever slowing down? You seem to be everywhere, always traveling and working.
I just don’t know if I know of any other way to be. This is true of any entertainer that feels like they haven’t reached where they want to go. One thing about entertainment—and I think any career is this way but especially entertainment—it is relentless. You can get tired and you can take breaks, you can rest and take care of yourself, self-care and all that stuff. But to be the kind of entertainer that I know I will be one day, the entertainer that I want to be, using Mykki Blanco as the catalyst that launches me into television or hosting my own show or doing the various other things I know I’m capable of, I will get there by not stopping. You know what I mean? You really have to understand that to be an entertainer is a relentless experience. You’ve got to have the battery for it. Everyone ends up falling along the rungs that work best for them, but I’ve always been extremely ambitious and I don’t think that’s a part of me that’s going to change.
But there was one point where you were considering quitting music and you visited a psychic who told you that you weren’t actually going to quit, right?
Does the occult play a big role in your decision-making process when it comes to your art or life?
There were other things that were going on, other people that told me I was not going to quit.
And after this tour, what’s next?
I’m shooting two music videos. One in New York, another in Germany. And then I do the European festival circuit. Then in August I start recording my next album.
Anything you’d like to add?
I’m looking forward to the New Orleans show. It’s going to be filled with a lot of friends. I think we even have our friend’s band opening for us. And my DJ, Sissy Elliot, is living in New Orleans right now. I’m really excited.
Mykki Blanco plays Gasa Gasa on Friday, March 17 with Cakes Da Killa and Special Interest. For more info, check out mykkiblancoworld.com