Performer and activist Michael David Quattlebaum Jr., better known by the stage name Mykki Blanco, created his eccentric female stage persona back in 2010. Mykki, a teenage girl alter ego, came about initially for an art project Quattlebaum published on YouTube. Originally based on rapper Lil’ Kim’s character, Kimmy Blanco, Mykki took on a life of her own. In 2012, she gained attention from critics, releasing the Mykki Blanco and the Mutant Angels EP, prompting Elle to declare her as “hip-hop’s newest queen.” Since then, Mykki has released three mixtapes, two EP’s, and most recently, a solo album, all while maintaining an influential presence in the performance art world.
Growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina, Quattlebaum long dreamt of moving to New York City. When he was 16, he wrote an email to artist Vincent Gallo, telling him that he admired his work and that he was inspired by Gallo’s move to New York as a teenager. Gallo wrote back saying, “Don’t come to New York. You’re an idiot.” However, that didn’t stop Quattlebaum. In 2002, he stole $100 from his mother’s purse and caught a Greyhound bus to New York without telling anyone, and without anywhere to stay. He survived by frequenting gay bars such as The Cock, staying up all night, and crashing at new friends’ apartments. It was during those months that he met Alexander McQueen and Ryan McGinley, among others. After three months, Quattlebaum came back to Raleigh, where he was subsequently grounded.
He returned to New York in 2008, when he was accepted to The Parsons School of Design. Though he ended up dropping out, he stayed in New York and produced the art project that was the beginning of Mykki Blanco. In 2011, Blanco wrote a book of poetry called From the Silence of Duchamp to the Noise of Boys, published by OHWOW Gallery in West Hollywood. During the time the book was published, Blanco started performing the poems and transforming them into rap songs, posting the music videos online. Haze.Boogie.Life, one of the first songs Mykki released, received over half a million views on YouTube, while her breakout song, Wavy, arrived in 2012.
Since then, Blanco has released more popular and critically acclaimed works, her most recent being an eponymous solo album. Her music is primarily classified as rap and hip-hop, but tends to move away from mainstream lyrics and norms. Blanco’s songs explore coming of age and self-realisation with queer reinterpretations and romantic interests. The intimate nature of her music helps to foster a sense of understanding and closeness with her audience. Many of Blanco’s videos also serve on their own as pieces of performance art, featuring experimental graphics, special effects, and spoken word. During her career thus far, Mykki has collaborated with eminent artists including Kanye West and Björk.
In addition to Mykki’s presence in entertainment, Quattlebaum serves as an important activist within the queer community. In 2015, he revealed through a Facebook post that he was diagnosed as HIV positive a few years prior. He has been concertedly involved in the movement for HIV awareness, releasing the song and coinciding music video, Hideaway, exploring the denial of a couple living together where one person is HIV positive, and their partner is not; the video was produced by amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research. In early 2019, Mykki will be going on tour on The West Coast with singer MØ, though it has not yet been disclosed when a new album will be on the way.
On his debut album:
“The people that I probably should’ve never worked with—or that I won’t work with again—are gonna completely remove themselves from anything that ever had to do with me. I’ll never show up on their radar again, and that’s amazing, because that makes room for the people who genuinely champion me. Sometimes I’ve gotten so depressed because I can’t change the fact that mainstream hip-hop may not ever be able to handle a rapper that’s in drag. But having people in the industry support me has given me hope. I think this album is the best music I’ve ever made, and as long as I stay close to the culture and make sure my bars are fire, my music will have the potential to reach a wider audience than it ever has. We’ll see.” – Noisey, 2017
On being Mykki:
“In the beginning I think it would have probably been beneficial if I had just stuck to this very strict script. The first community that embraced me was the fashion community in New York City. In the beginning, I remember, especially in the queer community, people wanted to see Mykki Blanco always in drag. I was doing untraditional drag. I had access to designer clothes. The very first incarnation of Mykki Blanco as an actual musician or entertainer was this very downtown “it” girl thing. But really quickly I started to feel so boxed in. I always had this yearning to know that I was more than that. I remember doing all the fashion stuff first, and playing the opening parties and doing this and doing that. Then I was like, “you know what, if I get boxed into this, people aren’t going to understand that I’m this visceral performer.” I remember the day that I said, “I’m no longer going to be glamorous Mykki.” I’m going to be the mutant.” – The Creative Independent, 2016
On his youth:
“When you’ve been called a faggot every single day since you were six years old, there comes a point where you stop crying and you become quite hard. I used to be so aggressive. So many people feel like they can treat you like shit that, at a certain age, the moment that someone comes for you, you’re picking up a fucking chair and getting restrained. I literally had to go to therapy and chill out. I can’t let what the past has done to me inform who I am as an adult. A lot of queer people are abused and mistreated for years. So, yeah, you’re maybe going to have a chip on your shoulder.” – The Guardian, 2016
Words by Jane Herz | Feature image via @_mykki_