The black and white flyers advertising Mykki Blanco’s performance are simple. “MYKKI BLANCO,” they announce in bold capitals, along with the time and location: April 4, 2013 / Terrace Club. After a tour across Europe, the show at Terrace is halfway through Mykki’s “Initiation Tour” of North America. The only graphic on the flyer is a photo of the performer dressed in full drag; Mykki is topless, hands on hips, wearing a long wig with straight bangs and high-waisted shorts that show off toned, tan legs. From afar, it might have been Beyoncé.
Much of the hype building up to that night’s performance centered around Mykki Blanco’s “gender-bending” identity. In an announcement, Terrace called that night the “13.5th Annual Drag Ball” and encouraged attendees to dress in drag, and some did. In a 2012 feature, Pitchfork grouped Mykki into a subgenre it called “Queer Rap,” along with other performance-art based rappers, such as Zebra Katz and Le1F, who explore themes of sexuality and experiment with traditional gender traits. This group of rappers, the next generation of the New York “voguing” scene of the 1980s, is now emerging out of the ballrooms and dancehalls and into the mainstream. Some rappers are resistant to the sexuality-based label. “Let’s not make gay NYC rap a ‘thing,’” said Le1F in the Pitchfork article, “the whole ‘room for one’ mentality is homophobic.” But as a cross-dressing rapper who identifies at different points with either or both genders, what do we call Mykki?
In a text I sent to a Terrace officer, I referred to Mykki in the masculine, asking when he might be available for an interview. He subtly corrected me with a feminine pronoun, responding, “Want me to let you know when she’s a few minutes away?” When talking about Mykki that day, the same question inevitably arose in every conversation: Should we say “he” or “she”? Is the correct term “him” or “her”? People came to see Mykki Blanco both for the music and for an answer.
But the tall, 27 year-old man I meet in an upstairs room of Terrace wears black sweatpants, a black sweatshirt, and black combat boots, and introduces himself as Michael. He isn’t wearing a wig, jewelry, or dramatic makeup. Under a black explorer hat with a chinstrap that hangs in a loose “U” around his neck, he has close-shaven hair dyed a shade somewhere between platinum and straw yellow. I take note of two tattoos on his left arm: one on the bicep that simply says “NATIVE BLOOD” and another on the forearm of a stylized letter “S,” the kind with two rows of three vertical lines that converge to points at the top and bottom that kids draw on their notebooks in middle school. He’s painted one fingernail a pearlescent white and left the rest bare.
Making small talk about computer science with two Terrace officers, he sits forward on a couch with his elbows on his knees and drinks grapefruit juice straight out of the half-gallon jug. It’s clear that this is not Mykki Blanco from the flyers. This is Michael Quattlebaum, of Raleigh, North Carolina and San Mateo, California, hanging out before a show.
We move off the topic of computer science and onto the liberal arts in general. “Liberal arts!” Michael repeats, in a lilting singsong. He describes himself as specialized in his self-education, having taken AP Art History at Stanford starting his sophomore year of high school and deciding on a career in the liberal arts early on. “Truthfully,” he says, “I was awful in science and mathematics, and I was really good at literature.”
At 16, when his family was living in Raleigh, Michael ran away from home to New York. “They were still super mad at me,” he recalls of his parents, “but they paid for me to stay in a hostel and do the rest of the internship.” Michael had gotten an internship as a fashion assistant at Elle Girl, now defunct, but then the largest teen fashion and beauty magazine in the world. After their initial anger passed, Michael’s parents saw the merit in his work and supported him. “They understood why I had run away,” he explains, “and I actually had done something.” The internship wasn’t his ultimate goal, but it was a start. Michael had a mission to do “bigger things”—to become an artist or a fashion designer. At 16, though, he hadn’t made up his mind. “At that age,” he remembers, “I just wanted to be something.”
It was when he stopped interning for other people, though, that Michael’s career as a musician began to take shape. He began by combining poems from book of narrative poetry he published in 2011 with a musical project called No Fear.
“No Fear was, like, really lo-fi,” he explains, “It was me kind of on GarageBand making these really wonky loops…I was tweaking, twerking.” Michael and his collaborators experimented with unconventional instruments—an air-conditioning unit, blenders, an air pump, Michael “screaming a lot.” No Fear was about noise. It was “this whole different, raw thing,” Michael says, whereas Mykki Blanco began as “more polished” from the outset, and “way more theatrical.” If Mykki Blanco was the polished, grown-up project, No Fear was the screaming teenager, struggling through his rebellious years.
It was through experimenting with No Fear that the Mykki Blanco project began to resemble what it is now. “It brought a lot of dimension,” says Michael, “It made this other way for me to think about what I was doing.” With the help of producers and by combining “the punk stuff” and more theatrical techniques with his writing, Michael brought Mykki Blanco to life.
“There was a period in my life,” Michael recalls, “where I was cross-dressing every single day.” That was in 2010. “It was a whole artistic, spiritual—a whole thing,” he says, “It was a beautiful, wonderful thing.”
That was Michael, the performance artist, inhabiting Mykki Blanco. But where does Michael end, and where does Mykki begin? The answer is less a clear dividing line and more a Venn diagram. “It’s one identity, and then a stage name,” Michael explains. “You get all the things that I’m doing as a performer, and that I experience, and I use these devices to aid theatricality.”
Think Eminem and Slim Shady. When asked his opinion on the Eminem/Slim division, Michael construes the alter ego as less of a separate identity and more of a performance tool: “I think creating a mythology of yourself and having nuances…are just devices that good rappers always use.” And the use of a stage name as a theatrical device is not always as apparent as it was in Mykki Blanco’s early stages.
Michael estimates that he hasn’t cross-dressed in about nine months. “I’m not really doing that anymore,” he says, “I still get dressed up, but now with this constant touring, all of that upkeep, you know what I mean?” When I suggest that it’s almost as if he doesn’t need that anymore (“that” being drag as a theatrical device), Michael is quick to come to its defense. “I still like to do it,” he maintains. “But to do it every single day…”
Michael’s dropping the drag look isn’t purely practical; it’s part of an evolution. “In the beginning of the project,” he reflects, “gender was a huge focus for me.” Now, though, he’s ready to move on to a new, androgynous visual aesthetic. Laughing, he admits, “I can’t just be about this, ‘Now it’s a boy! Now it’s a girl!”
Michael never explicitly asks me to use a certain pronoun when referring to Mykki Blanco during our conversation. But in a recent interview with the Village Voice, he cleared up the grammatical confusion surrounding his stage persona: “In all my press releases, I make them use the word ‘her.’ Even if you’re looking at a picture of Mykki Blanco shirtless in baggy pants, you are going to say ‘her,’ because language doesn’t mean anything.”
Michael—now Mykki—keeps her black sweatshirt and sweatpants on during her set. Without a stage and with just one DJ backing her, she becomes part of the crowd, swerving through it as she raps. Her voice is raspy, forceful, and straightforward, and as she warms up she buries her head in the mic. A handful of young men wearing eyeliner dance in a pocket of the nodding crowd. Mykki gestures aggressively, her free hand slamming down the air in front of her with each rhyming syllable. But a careful observer might notice her shift her weight onto one hip and pose for a moment. She cuts through the crowd in a determined prowl, and every now and then she breaks into a half skip. Occasionally she punctuates a line with a high-pitched giggle. Are these traces of Mykki’s influence on Michael? Or is this just Mykki, evolved? Should we even be noting and subconsciously categorizing these behaviors as masculine or feminine? Would we even be asking these questions if Mykki Blanco, the stage persona, didn’t ask them of us? If she didn’t begin and develop as she did?
Despite Mykki’s androgynous yet predominantly masculine appearance during this performance, people still came expecting to see the early Mykki Blanco, the gender-fluid identity. With a new EP and music video releasing soon, though, Michael Quattlebaum finds himself in a similar position as other young and bourgeoning artists. He needs an identity through which to explore his art form and by which to be remembered—at least until his music, not the theatricality of his persona, becomes what people think of when they see “Mykki Blanco” headlining a show.
Additional reporting was contributed by Andrew Sondern.