Just a few years ago Mykki Blanco, otherwise known as Michael David Quattlebaum, Jr., was working in an artsy skateboard/ bookshop in downtown New York and interning at art galleries. Around this time, aged 25, he began creating music. What started as a small art project on Facebook migrated to the stage and Blanco low-key became a celebrated performer in New York’s underground club scene. One day his then manager approached him after a show and said, “Would you consider making music for a living?” Fast forward six years and here we are in Geneva, thousands of miles away from New York, sitting before the man who is now an international performer as he’s about to take the stage during the Anti-Gel festival.
“My first manager actually helped me see that I could really create an album and create songs,” he says reminiscing. Back then, like any newcomer he had doubts about his career but a certainty that it was what he wanted to do. “Mykki Blanco wanted to be a rapper, as I was creating these songs I realised that it was actually becoming a real thing,” he adds.
Referring to himself in the third person is in no way a symptom of some egomaniacal tendency. Quattlebaum is in fact surprisingly and refreshingly humble for someone with such talent and vision – in addition to his exploits in the domain of music and performance art he is also a published poet. He explains, “Mykki Blanco is a stage name. I identify as a gay man but when I started Mykki Blanco, [in] 2010, 2011, I was cross-dressing and living like a transgendered woman. That’s why in a lot of my press releases and a lot of things you will see people use she as my predominant pronoun. But now I don’t correct them or anything, Mykki Blanco is a female character, Mykki Blanco is a female stage name, you can still say she, but it does confuse the hell out of a lot of people. I’m a gay man for two years lived as transgender. Personally you can say he, if you wanted to write about Mykki Blanco.”
When did you begin making music?
I didn’t start doing music until I was 25. It was honestly was just a new interest because Mykki Blanco started as a video art project using Facebook and then it kind of just grew into a performance character in the underground scene in NY in clubs and diff parties and stuff. This party called ghetto gothic I used to perform at a lot. I basically had a manager who introduced himself to me after one of my shows and asked would you consider doing this for a living. Basically I was becoming a performer but I wasn’t realising it. Thing is Mykki Blanco wanted to be a rapper, but when I was creating these little lo-fi songs, I was realising that it was actually becoming a real thing. My original manager actually really helped me see that I could really create an album and create songs. I have never come out with a proper album I am just coming out with it this year and everything that happened with Mykki Blanco was just two mixtapes, one EP, and then singles. So until this year I have worked outside of any music industry structure.
You are respected as an activist for the way you live and the way you voice your opinion, shining light on important issues especially in the LGBTQ community. Can you tell us a bit about your work as an activist?
I know that my music is all-inclusive but I know that my biggest fan base is the LGBT community. I feel like there are certain things that need to be talked about, so I post things that need to be talked about. What I really want to start doing, even if it’s one weekend out of the month, is just volunteering in any way. When you volunteer, you are giving up yourself for free, you are doing a service- and even if you volunteer to help sort clothes in a donation centre or help with the homeless. A lot of people when it comes to social justice, feel that if they’re protesting they’re being an activist. Protests are really important but we need to remember that any time you can give, any time you can do something for free for someone else is helping the community. My family and I volunteered for thanksgiving. My uncle does things for his church and I want to volunteer with him more regularly.
What’s your creation process like?
A lot of my insecurity when I was younger came with feeling that I was creating in a vacuum. Not knowing if my music was reaching other people. I also used to think that a lot of things were important that I don’t think are important now.
Now I am living in the rural south. A long time ago I felt like I had to be in a big city, networking constantly. I could be in an igloo and if I create really good music and I put it out and I am consistent with it it doesn’t matter whether I’m at Fashion Week, if I’m photographed with this person or that person. It doesn’t matter if this person endorses me if I continue to execute that’s what’s most important. That has given me a lot of self-confidence.
Obviously I am doing shows and touring, but I am not doing any crazy big tours. I used to tour and be on the road for five months at a time. Now I’m going to tour for a month and then cut back and record.
If I had done what I am doing now two years ago I would be more successful now. Now that I know that there is no way that I am ever going to cut out recording for long periods of time. The lure of making money is good but when you have more fire songs out you get paid more for those shows you are doing. Touring so much gave me my fan base but now I need to be a traditional hip hop artist where I record more than I tour. Maybe by 2017 I can do another.
What were the inspirations for your latest album?
My inspirations for the album that’s coming out, for a long time I just never listened to the fans wanted, I always just did what I wanted. A lot of people argue that’s what you always do. To a certain extent my album is really going to be a return to a comfort zone for me. I am trying to do so many things outside my comfort zone. Because I am really into storytelling. A lot of original track music has so many elements of story telling, Pimp C, Kevin Gates, Bun B, Little Boosie. I like the formula of the language that’s used. I will always rap about my own life, my community where I come from. As far as a storytelling goes, I am inspired by old school Southern hip hop music. It’s the complete opposite: very hyperfeminine comedy like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, movies like Waiting to Exhale, TV shows like Girlfriends, Living Single, Sex in the City. Combining feminine elements with Southern hip-hop story telling and I’m writing over this electro, hip-hop beat.
Can we expect any collaborations on the new album?
My strategy for this year is because I am still at this stage where I am considered as an underground artist. Rather than drive myself crazy trying to get all these collaborations on my album, I’m going to just make my album and continue to record. Obviously I am doing shows and touring, but I am not doing any crazy big tours. I’m going to really be coming home a lot so that I can record. I want there to be a mixtape after the album. Say you make a song and it’s fire and it missed the deadline for your album? That song should still come out as a single.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Five years from now I want to be in movies, I want to be doing theatre in London, I want to be doing musicals on Broadway. I would have to work towards being a leading man, even if it’s Fast and Furious 11, I want to be in movies. I want to be hosting things. I want Mykki Blanco to be an entertainment entity. [He laughs]
I used to think that was a really big crazy thing but now I know I can have that. Most people on TV and in movies are middle-aged. Most people who act are middle-aged. You have Viola Davis who had her big break at almost 50, Bradley Cooper’s 46, Oscar Isaac’s 36. These are people who are winning awards now and I realize- wait a minute, in movies people who are really recognised are middle-aged. Minus Jennifer Lawrence. In music it’s different.
And this is perhaps completely out of the blue, but do you have a favourite film?
My favourite movie is Interview with a Vampire. Any time that movie is on I will stop everything and watch it.