Rapper or rocker? Provocateur or performance artist? Poet or musician? Activist or entertainer? Well, it turns out Bay Area-raised, New York-based rapper Mykki Blanco is all of these things and so much more.
Born Michael David Quattlebaum Jr., Blanco is a gay man with a gender-fluid onstage character who blends aggressive-yet-witty, rapid-fire rhymes with a punk-rock attitude. (He prefers the pronoun “he” when talking about himself, but uses “she” in reference to his onstage persona, which more often than not sees Quattlebaum wearing colorful wigs, copious lipstick, and super-tiny booty shorts.) Regardless, what’s clear is that Quattlebaum is far from your ordinary, run-of-the-mill musician. Rather, he wears many, many hats.
“I consider myself more of an entertainer above anything,” the 30-year-old says. “I’ve been writing for my entire life, but in 2010, I began writing my first poetry book. That was my first thrust into the New York spotlight. I started performing the poems from that book and decided to make a project out of that body of writing. Mykki Blanco grew out of that. It was originally a video performance art project. I continued to make music along the lines of the Mykki Blanco persona, and then it ended up becoming music on its own.”
At 16, Quattlebaum ran away from home and traveled to New York City, where he remains to this day. He says he prefers the East Coast metropolis because of the people that make up the arts scene, which help him feel at home as an artist.
Thanks to Quattlebaum’s untamed stage presence, not to mention his fabulous and shocking accoutrements, comparisons have been made between him and similarly visually compelling artists, like Marilyn Manson, Lady Gaga, and even the notorious shit-smearing punk musician GG Allin. None of these musicians really hit the mark, though, mainly because none of them are hip-hop artists.
“I haven’t really seen any contemporary performance art in a while that I really resonated with,” Quattlebaum says. “I don’t think that Gaga, for example, is a performance artist. I think she’s a really great entertainer. I think a performance artist is pushing an idea that’s a little more abstract, people who are on the periphery of certain things.”
In 2015, Quattlebaum made public the fact that he’s HIV-positive. He had known for five years prior to that, but decided that the time was right to speak out two years ago, even though he was full of fear that his blossoming career would plummet in the aftermath of the announcement. Luckily, that wasn’t the case.
“I was genuinely so frightened,” Quattlebaum says. “And then to have the opposite happen, I think it really renewed my faith in people. It opened my eyes to this redeeming character in human beings that maybe I didn’t know existed.”
And now that we have a new president, strong voices in the gay community — especially talented artists that can reach wider audiences — might well prove to be more vital than ever before. Quattlebaum was recently the victim of a bizarre homophobic interaction when the man seated next to him on a Delta Airlines flight called the police, apparently appalled that Delta would allow males outside of the mega-macho sphere to board a flight at all. The artist says that the only thing we can do in the face of this hate is to keep a keen eye on what’s going on around us.
“Really, I think it’s important to stay hyper-aware and hyper-vigilant,” Quattlebaum says. “The thing about the Delta thing is, how I present myself in my daily life isn’t how I present myself onstage. But for people who are nonbinary, who can’t control how they present themselves, that situation could very well happen to them. To have that kind of thing happen to someone who is across the gender spectrum — that’s even more scary and relevant than what happened to me.”
It’s all lyrical ammo for Quattlebaum who mines his personal life for creative fodder, weaving tales about the underbelly of New York nightlife and high school homophobia into twisted, genre-bending creations. His debut album, Mykki, released last September, received critical acclaim, with Quattlebaum referring to it as the best body of work he’s produced to date (he put out a number of EPs and mixtapes prior to the album).
At his upcoming shows in Oakland and San Francisco, expect lots of crowd interaction and what Quattlebaum calls his “cabaret showgirl thing.” When his tour concludes at the end of March, Quattlebaum will get to work on a queer travel show that is currently in development, before heading to Europe for a bunch of festivals.
But though major league success beckons for Quattlebaum, it leads one to wonder, ‘How much of this is an act? And how much of it is real life?’
“I’m dressing in drag and presenting [myself] in a feminine way, but I think it’s what people through rock ’n’ roll history have always done,” he says. “Playing with gender roles, it’s always been something that’s been part of entertainment culture. I just did it within the context of the world that I inhabit.”
plays with Cakes Da Killa and MicahTron
at 9 p.m., Friday, March 3, at the New Parish. $16-$18; thenewparish.com
and with Cakes Da Killa
at 9 p.m., Saturday, March 4, at the Independent. $16-$18; theindependentsf.com