Mykki’s busy. So busy, in fact, he’s taken a short trip to Athens for a break. It hasn’t gone quite to plan, as he confesses over Skype. He’s been having some boy problems. “I showed up to the Airbnb and the owners were like, ‘where’s your partner?’ and I started crying.”
After a night out with friends, he’s feeling a lot better. In his distinctive raspy voice, he speaks in a rapid stream of consciousness, sometimes restarting sentences two or three times as he tries to keep pace with his own thoughts.It would be overwhelming were it not for Mykki’s uncanny ability to make everything sound so effortlessly interesting.
The 30-year-old American rapper, real name Michael Quattlebaum Jr, is on the cusp of dropping his debut album, Mykki. In the last week, he’s completed a mini-tour of European festivals as well as a full diary of press engagements. London is fast becoming his base, both personally and professionally. “I like how, because England is smaller, people are more familial with each other. I think people take close friendships more seriously in London.”
Clearly, Mykki hasn’t stayed here long enough yet for promises of ‘catching up for a pint’ to be made and quickly forgotten (or is it just me who that happens to?). Friendships aside, there are other reasons. He hopes England might serve as a better springboard for success, following the well-trodden path of American artists who expand their fan bases in the UK first before hitting the big time Stateside. The potential move has Mykki reflecting on his journey so far. After running away from home in North Carolina at 16, he spent time studying at universities in California and New York before dropping out. He then established himself as a poet, publishing a collection in 2011.
It wasn’t until 2012, aged 26, that he released his first music: Mykki Blanco and the Mutant Angels EP and the Cosmic Angels mixtape a few months later. They established Mykki as a unique talent among the so-called queer rap movement, his lyrical dexterity matched by his high-energy, theatrical shows.
“I was improvising a lot of lyrics and watching a lot of horror movies from the 70s and that lo-fi horror movie universe found a way into my writing.”
‘Mykki Blanco’ started as a character, a teenage girl with a taste for the savage side of life. She was sinister, antagonistic, transgressive. People are often surprised when they meet him offstage. “For some reason people think I’m going to be bouncing off the walls and talking really loudly and I’m quite a mellow person.I can actually be a bit conservative at times.” I nearly spit out my tea.
“All my really good friends call me the Charlotte [from Sex & The City] of the group.”
Mykki, who often performs in drag, was a confusing proposition for some audiences. But the world might have finally caught up.
“We’ve had all these cultural moments since 2012”, he explains. “Queer culture has become more and more mainstream; through RuPaul’s Drag Race, the passing of Gay Marriage in America, Caitlyn Jenner and this very trans-mainstream moment. A lot of the elements of the aesthetic I was playing with, which people were completely clueless about outside of queer culture, they’re finally getting it. I think it’s almost appropriate that I’m dropping this album, which I feel is the best music I’ve ever made, this year.”
The album retains some of the party-ready beats of his early material (see ‘Wavvy’ and ‘Kingpinning’) but the tone is distinctly more personal. Before recording, Mykki spent two and a half months practicing to find the right words and rhythms to be able to rap about himself effectively. “I had to be really honest with myself. So many people knew me as a superficial party persona. Not superficial in a shallow way but all of my songs have to do with a very specific issue or a topic completely unrelated to myself. It’s like night-time culture, rave-y, parties, drugs or punk, grunge, moshing, feminism, noise-rock, acid-rock, psychedelia and queer power anthems; but none of those things are personal, y’know?”
Before writing sessions began, last summer Mykki decided to go public about being HIV positive. The weight of keeping his status secret had taken its toll – he had depression and had considered quitting music. But the announcement was a turning point, with unexpected consequences to his love life that are laid bare during a spoken word interlude on Mykki.
“It completely changed my life because… whenever I’m anywhere where someone knows who I am and they feel like they are attracted to me, they want to flirt with me, or they want to be intimate with me; they already know. It’s like they are making that choice to engage me romantically already knowing. So that’s one of the best things for someone who is HIV positive to experience because it’s releasing yourself from the stigma.” He recognises that, because of his profile, he has a unique experience in this respect. “I’m realising for thousands, millions of people they don’t get that privilege of saying, ‘hey this is what’s happening and people can comply or not comply with it.’”
Though Mykki still considers himself to be a private person, he hopes to use his notoriety and considerable media profile to continue to push conversations forward (the aftershocks of #GayMediaSoWhite, in which Mykki and other writers critiqued the lack of diversity in gay media, are still being felt). For many he is a queer icon-in-waiting standing next to a wave of diverse LGBTQ voices that are infiltrating the mainstream like Frank Ocean, Tegan and Sara, Christine & The Queens, Olly Alexander and Big Freedia. It’s a movement he’s proud to be a part of.
“It’s sad that we live in a world where money matters [so much, but] with the queer movement, when the mainstream really starts to understand how profitable it is and how profitable some of these artists can be, that’s going to transform everything greatly… it’s extremely important and I’m so excited to be a part of it.”
Photography: Phil Sharp
Styling: Rachel Grace Almeida and Darkwah Kyei-Darkwah
Styling Assistant: Julia Esgate Christmas
Makeup: Zana Moses using OCC Cosmetics.