Photographs by LYDIA GARNETT and LUKE TUDOR GRIFFITHS
Words by AMELIA ABRAHAM
It’s Saturday night in Kemptown, Brighton, and Mykki Blanco, a 6ft 2in 31-year-old rapper wearing a pastel blue corset, is sitting in the backroom of a chapel. The church’s foyer is filled with a crowd of mostly queer and gender-queer people. Soon Mykki will burst on stage, wearing his trademark wig, and rap about the loneliness of being a HIV-positive man with a drag aesthetic who is grappling with the expectations of black masculinity. But before that he pours himself a Jack Daniel’s — and holds forth about the world according to Mykki Blanco.
So, how do you like Brighton?
London’s always felt a bit dark to me and Brighton’s always felt more warm. If I knew more people in Brighton I would really like it. I’m from California and when you walk around there’s the same kind of colourful houses here as there are in San Francisco. It feels kind of like home.
Where are you living right now?
I’m living in Portugal, in Lisbon. My boyfriend lives there. It’s more inexpensive right now than other places, unfortunately because of the economy. I haven’t lived in New York for about six years now. Before, in between shows, I was in Paris. People know who I am in Lisbon, but it’s not like there’s any real big Mykki Blanco following there, so I have this sense of normality.
What would you be doing if this were a regular Saturday night in Lisbon?
I’d be with my boyfriend and probably go to dinner and drinks with friends in the evening. In Portugal it’s always dinner that leads into drinks that leads into more drinks and then we end up deciding which party to go to. It’s like a big village, there’s only one mega club to go to that plays techno, called Lux. If you’re gonna go to a party it’s a more underground thing, otherwise it’s Lux.
You’re in your thirties now, what did you do for your 30th birthday?
When was that? Shit, what did I do last year? I was in Paris. My friends did a little house thing. I think I passed out after I burnt my nose on poppers. I remember that happening on my 30th.
Do you feel mature?
I don’t feel mature. But I feel like I know now certain things to stay super vigilant with, like my health and my mental health. I'm really trying not to let anyone fuck with my mental health. One of the greatest things about ageing is you start to figure out what your triggers are.
It’s not about going through life every step of the way being like “this is gonna prevent this” or “this is gonna prevent that”, but really learning “oh, I’ve had enough experience that I should know better”, or how to strive to put myself in healthy situations with healthy people.
You’ve said before that you didn’t always want to be a rapper, but a journalist…
You know the journalist past comes from being a writer and I was always encouraged that I was a good writer. And actually it’s funny because this summer with i-D I’m about to host a travel series where we go to Johannesburg in South Africa and I’m gonna be interviewing queer creatives that are thriving and making really important work right now. So that half of the equation is finally being realised and I’m really excited about it because people are only capable of knowing what you do when you do it. I want to balance things of that nature with the music, with the entertainment, and sometimes when I talk about that it feels kind of obnoxious because I’ve achieved certain levels of success. And I do think my career is really thriving — because I’ve worked towards it — but no, I did not want be a rapper.
So would you have believed someone if they told you at 15 years old that you’d be a rapper one day?
I wouldn’t have believed them. I was not a little black boy saying, “I’m gonna be a rapper when I grow up’’. I did not start rapping until I was 25. I stumbled into it. I had the idea to rap as part of a video art project. So I was always this artsy kid. I liked hip hop, but I was like “I’m gonna be a performance artist or a conceptual artist”. I always just thought that was cooler. And then, after about a year of doing the Mykki Blanco thing I realised I could still use the platform for that… I didn’t have to abide or be stereotypical, I could do these performance art ideas, or look to someone like Bowie, someone like Marc Bolan or Prince. Although Prince is way more of a musical genius. I realised as a performance artist I could use music. I think it’s cool things ended up this way but it’s an unexpected part of my story.
Would you describe yourself as an activist? What does activism mean to you?
You know, what I would say is this: I think people have put the term “activist” on me. I am vocal about issues and I’ve realised my social media has been a really important place for queer people or gender-queer people to have debates or public dialogues about nuanced issues that are grazed over in think pieces. I realise that’s why I’ve been called an activist. But I think an activist is someone who is out there on the front lines, not necessarily at protests, but physically there. I’ve not physically been there, even if I have tried to be a voice within my own community.
Does it get tiring talking about queerness? Or do you feel a duty to talk about it?
I don’t feel like it’s a duty. I get asked about a lot of things. It’s funny because I’m not a celebrity, but I have been in the public eye for about five years and I did not have to come out as HIV-positive in public, but that was such an intrinsic part of my personal life and was already starting to heavily effect me. Unless you go away and live on a farm or work in a restaurant and decide you’re not gonna do music any more or perform any more — which is something that you love — you realise it’s just gonna be healthy to be open and talk about these things over the hiding or the living in the shadows. It’s like: how could I have a boyfriend that I would also be happy to keep a secret?
What changed after coming out as HIV-positive?
I realised after I came out about that, that it’s always going to be tied to my name. It’s not a chip on my shoulder, but I do know you really have to do interesting stuff to get people to see past it. And I’m aware that it’s something I’ll always have to talk about because I made it public. But I’m a healthier person for making it public. It’s about owning it. That’s also what I’ve had to do with some of the issues I’ve had about substance abuse. There are times I’ve been in public, around people, when I’ve had full-on spirals, and to not come forward about it — about my recovery or the journey that recovery is. That allows people to gossip about you, or to exaggerate or create a false narrative that you have no control over. I’ve made a decision to be in the public eye and I would rather own my fuck-ups and publicly talk about the things I would rather not have people whisper about in the shadows.
How linked do you think your queerness, HIV-positivity and substance abuse are?
I think they are very linked. I think it’s kind of unfortunate how linked they are. I think one begets the other. Especially when I found out I was HIV-positive because I was ashamed and trying to hide it. I had substance issues because it was to do with trauma that was unresolved. I think that when you come forward [publicly as positive] it’s no longer this pity party, it’s like “I’m dealing with my shit”. And when I make music videos and do things that make you pay attention to me, well you also have to pay attention to my shit. I’d rather you not pay attention to my shit, but I’d also rather own the shit.
Last year you were on a plane and the person next to you called the cops because they said you made them feel uncomfortable. You called it out as homophobia. Does stuff like that happen often?
I realised that I learnt from this experience. It’s like racism — at first you don’t know what’s going on and then after a few minutes, it clicks. It’s not like the 1950s when someone shouts the N word at you or calls you a faggot. I mean, that does happen, but now it’s more subtle. At first you’re like “Why are these interactions weird? What is going on? And then you’re like, ‘Oh it’s homophobia or racism’”.
How do you feel about your gender identity now?
When I first started performing I was trans-identified. That was my own personal spiritual gender exploration. I was in this position twice; I was a gay male who thought I was a transgender woman and then I came back to being a gay man. I think when I tell people it sounds crazy, but as an effeminate gay man who was fully picked on and harassed I think at certain points I felt becoming a woman would be so much easier. I genuinely thought that for a while and then I realised my truth. And then I took a look at myself and thought, “You know what, maybe I’m more gender-fluid. I don’t have to go all the way as me part of liking myself.”
My final question is, if you could have dinner with three people, who would they be?
It would be the writer and philosopher Audre Lorde. Because of the groundwork she laid out in feminism, activism and queer theory. I just think she’s groundbreaking, you know what I mean? I think Oprah. And then…. Iggy Pop. I swam next to him in Miami Beach once but we didn’t talk. I model so much of my live performance off of him and I knew I could not afford back-up dancers or a showy stage show, so when I first started out I would watch a lot of videos of Iggy Pop. I would have a talk with him about how when he started out there were no other role models for letting go or having that sense of abandon he has on stage. I’d ask what allowed him to do that.