Michael Quattlebaum Jr. isn't happy. It's three days after his Labor Day weekend set at Union, where he performed as his alter ego, fierce female rapper Mykki Blanco. By Quattlebaum's account, it did not go well.
Security was rude. The show was under-promoted and booked by a group of “clueless straight guys” who didn't understand Blanco's persona and billed her among acts with whom she did not belong. While the audience was great, Quattlebaum says, he should have gotten “someone queer, or someone of color, or a woman” to handle his business.
“For me now,” he says, “I can't have these straight guys booking my shows in key cities and fucking it up.”
At this crucial moment in the trajectory of Mykki Blanco, Quattlebaum's frustration feels warranted. On Sept. 16, Blanco's debut studio album, Mykki, was released by the venerable Berlin-based electronic label !K7. A culmination of several years' worth of well-received EPs and mixtapes, the new full-length fuses Blanco's brooding, romantic punk sensibilities with beats both ominously spare and lushly woozy. Simultaneously confessional and tongue-in-cheek, Mykki is Blanco's best and most accessible work to date.
Quattlebaum just hopes it brings him the cultural ubiquity he believes is inevitable.
Lounging at the Wi Spa in Koreatown, Quattlebaum talks in elliptical rapid-fire, jumping from topics including the hip-hop subgenre in which he has often been lumped (“I think the term 'queer rap' is silly and homophobic”), the art of aging gracefully (“Stay cute as long as you can”) and his evolution from a gay black man raised in North Carolina and the Bay Area, to a bicoastal, genderqueer, HIV-positive rapper/poet/performance artist who is only now entering the prime of her career.
The foundation of this new era is Mykki. Produced by Woodkid and Jeremiah Meece, the album features 13 tracks including two interludes of Blanco reciting poetry as sweetly plaintive as her raps are intensely unhinged. The LP was recorded in New York and L.A. over the course of three months, during which Quattlebaum was sober — not the standard state of being for an artist who made a name for Mykki Blanco in nightclubs and after-hours where it was often easier to get high than to be himself.
“The substance abuse came from me having to wear drug culture as a beard,” he says, “because if you're around straight guys and you're the gay rapper and you have nothing to talk about — or they think they're so different from you and that they can't relate — well, everybody can pop a pill together.”
The perpetual intoxication also was a function of the shadow life Quattlebaum cultivated in response to his HIV-positive status, a diagnosis he received in 2011 and announced via Facebook last year. This public admission, in conjunction with the period of clean living, was for him artistically, emotionally and spiritually revelatory. It grounded him, and from this focused place came new music that mines his personal life via themes of bad love, good drugs and God.
Quattlebaum launched himself into nightlife as a teenager after running away from his single mother's home in North Carolina. He landed in New York, where he became a scenester darling, despite the fact that he often only had $20 to his name. By 2012, The New York Times had profiled him and his “glamazon alter ego” Mykki. He went out constantly, interned at V Magazine and, during this period, began identifying as trans and presenting himself as a woman. He considered gender reassignment surgery but ultimately decided against it.
“That was a sexual revolution for me. It changed my life,” Quattlebaum says of this period. “There are things you will never know as a gay man, as a man, when you're occupying a male-identified body. When you start presenting the other way, the world treats you a completely different way.”
“I deserve to be here
His early artistic output existed largely in the literary and visual realms; he thought he'd become the next Laurie Anderson. Instead, at 25, Quattlebaum started making music. Realizing his flair for performance, he developed his Mykki Blanco persona and started rapping. He opened for artists including Björk, Death Grips and Major Lazer, and collaborated with trip-hop legend Tricky and punk feminist icon Kathleen Hanna, among many others. Despite the 2012-era swell of LGBTQ hip-hop including Big Freedia, Le1f and Cakes da Killa, industry execs often were unsure how to sell Mykki Blanco's more complex persona.
Quattlebaum's fan base grew as his flow improved, but as an indie artist, he couldn't afford to make an album. After meetings with Capitol Records and XL Recordings stalled (“They were like, 'You're so talented,' then they passed on signing me”), Quattlebaum sank into a depression during which he considered quitting music altogether.
“Sometimes it can be really hard for me because — and this is going to sound really arrogant, but it's just how I feel — I know I'm very talented,” he says. “I know I have really good ideas. I know that if a straight male artist had come out with some of the singles and videos that I have, [the media] would have heralded them.”
He wonders about his creative direction now that he's 30 and his musicianship is getting stronger as his personal life becomes less messy. “A lot of what I talk about in my music — taking molly and running in a field at 6 a.m. with a bunch of people — that part of my life isn't over, but that's not what it's about for me anymore.”
One gets the sense that continued self-actualization is on the horizon. Quattlebaum mentions the importance of spirituality and healthy living several times. He loves being outside. Over the summer, he visited a secret southern United States commune for queer and transgender people, an experience that left him in tears.
“I felt like I was E.T., some lost alien who rejoined this rainbow underground network of the real-deal gay, trans-fam, queer and genderqueer, nonbinary people living in America. It made me realize that all the friends I had in nightlife, even though that's the world Mykki Blanco came up in, that's not really reflective of the world of Michael. I'm kind of a big, crusty hippie.”
While Quattlebaum now more than ever yearns for the “patriarchal dream” of monogamy and family and aspires to start an organic farm, he loves the jet-set lifestyle — swimming in the Mediterranean, buying expensive towels, drinking good wine — that his hard work has earned him. For him these are not just luxuries but political statements.
“That glamorous side of Mykki Blanco, it's not all me wanting to be this capitalist imperialist, but it's that I deserve to be here, and people like me deserve to be here. I didn't think it would be possible to be an HIV-positive drag-rap showgirl and actually have a fan base and do the damn thing and be part of these celebrity circles and have people in the industry respect me.”
Quattlebaum's hope now is to become as ubiquitous as hip-hop's marquee names, and there's a chance he might. Pop culture has never been better primed to celebrate Mykki Blanco, and Quattlebaum has never been as emotionally and artistically well-equipped to be her.
“I am in the first phase of what would be considered the mainstreaming of Mykki Blanco. I know this,” Quattlebaum declares, almost as though he's attempting to convince himself. “I know it. I feel it.”