‘Fuck performing, fuck entertaining people, fuck trying to be famous’: the rapper talks to us about accepting himself on his debut album Mykki
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Over the course of his career, people have tried to box in Mykki Blanco – he’s the queer rapper, he’s the openly HIV positive artist – but these descriptions neglect that he’s a complex, gracious human being who’s working through his own hardships with the help of his art. “My personal issues with substance abuse and sexual trauma and the things that have happened in my personal life – I really am actively working these things out,” he begins over the phone in a deeply heartfelt tone.
Blanco is here to talk about his long-time-coming debut album Mykki, which is his most direct and personal release to date. The album marks an entirely new chapter for the rapper: where his first two mixtapes, Cosmic Angel: Illuminati Prince/ss and Gay Dog Food, saw Blanco rap candidly about sex and drugs over industrial, noise, and dance music production, Mykki sees Blanco adopt a more pop-focused direction, approaching his lyrics from a place of love and mining emotions from deep within.
Love and romance are common themes on the record, most notably on “Interlude 2”. “How my heart aches, in my soul I have an idea of love, want to be in love,” he states, a swirl of echo wrapping around his words. It’s also a theme that’s immediately present in the video for “High School Never Ends” – directed by Matt Lambert, it reinterprets the Shakespearean tale of Romeo & Juliet with queer anarchists. The album was written over a seven month period between Paris, Chicago, and a cabin in the North Carolina woods. The recording time coincided with a change in lifestyle habits: Blanco wrote a majority of the album sober. “That was a whole new different way of working for me, not just getting high and drinking a lot of whiskey in the studio,” he says.
Mykki is an album that reflects and is forthright about Blanco’s inner self, and ‘honesty’ is the word that most commonly repeats itself during our call. This is the most vulnerable that Blanco has ever positioned himself within his art, and that didn’t come without its uncomfortable moments. On “You Don’t Know Me”, a track written about not being understood, he somberly croons: “I know you don’t know me that well.” With Mykki, hopefully people will begin to.
I feel like with Mykki, we’re getting to see a much more vulnerable side to you. How did you go about writing this record and opening up more about yourself and your feelings?
Mykki Blanco: I was going through some stuff in my personal life, so I was actually sober for a large chunk of writing this album. That wasn’t supposed to coincide (laughs). To be honest, it created a different kind of record. Let me put it like this: it was awkward. There were definitely some super, super awkward moments, thinking, ‘Do I need to have a joint to know if this is good or not?’ Then it was like, let me understand my own self, my actual authentic self, the self that doesn’t need any kind of outward validation, not even from friends. Is this truly good enough? Is this good enough for me? Am I doing my best work? It was honestly a change of lifestyle – I wasn’t on the road, I was in North Carolina. I was literally in the country in the forest for three months writing a majority of the songs. Before that, a lot of the material had been written in Paris, and I wasn’t sober then, but I wasn’t raging. That three-month period at the beginning of 2016, it did have a large influence on what is an undertone to what people hear on this record that even I myself can’t hear yet.
“I got to a point in my personal life where I was like, fuck performing, fuck entertaining people, fuck trying to be famous. I want to have a boyfriend and not have to ask them to keep a secret about my personal life” – Mykki Blanco
Was there an intentional shift towards more accessible sounds with this record?
Mykki Blanco: Honestly, one of the most important things when I began to even create an album was ‘What is the next step that an artist goes through when they want their fans to have a more intimate idea of who they are?’ Because one of the things that I realised was (that with) other artists that I admire and listen to, there comes a point where if you’re really into someone’s work, you want to know more about them and get more than just a party track or a club track. I knew that I had people who really supported and liked Mykki Blanco, and for me to get to the next place that I wanted to be in my artistry and creativity, I needed to come clean. I didn’t know how to do that because I’d never done it before. I didn’t do that on any of my mixtapes. If you listen to any of my work before Mykki, I never talk about myself at all. This was the first time that I was writing about my emotions and romance. It was super uncomfortable at the beginning because I didn’t know how to do it! It was also coming from this place of being afraid that if I did that… I didn’t want to be corny or cheesy.
Did you become more in touch with romance and love in your personal life?
Mykki Blanco: One of the only reasons that the world knows that I’m HIV positive is because of love. I got to a point in my personal life where I was like, fuck performing, fuck entertaining people, fuck trying to be famous. I want to have a boyfriend and not have to ask them to keep a secret about my personal life. Do you know what kind of feeling that is to like someone and immediately ask them if they can keep a secret? That’s no way to live. Quite honestly, I’m not trying to say this to be dramatic – I was willing to risk my career to have a real life.
Your videos always feel really cinematic and surreal, and very intricately created. It feels quite fitting that ‘High School Never Ends’ has these tear-jerking, orchestral strings by Woodkid.
Mykki Blanco: So when (video director) Matt Lambert and I were conceptualising the idea, the song was actually not complete, but it did have its original structure. With all of my videos I try to create a scenario that I feel has never been seen before on film, so one of the first things I said to Matt was, ‘I really want to show queer anarchists on film.’ So that was the base idea. (Because of) Matt’s creativity, and us exchanging ideas over four months, we ended up creating this plot. One of the reasons why I always work with really strong directors is because I really do believe in that collaboration. I definitely like being able to hand over the ingredients to (someone) who has skills in production and direction that I don’t have, who can create these visions that I do have. The aesthetic language to Mykki Blanco is super important – it’s been instrumental in people understanding my music. Also, like I said, it’s been one of the main ways I’ve been able to slowly infiltrate the mainstream with radical queer ideas.
On Cosmic Angel: The Illuminati Prince/ss, you referenced Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation on ‘MB’s First Freestyle’. I know that you said you didn’t identify with mainstream queer culture when you were growing up, but I was wondering how important a figure like Gregg Araki was to you as someone also operating on the fringes.
Mykki Blanco: I didn’t discover Gregg Araki until I was in college – that’s still pretty formative. God, I remember when I first discovered Araki. I felt like my mind was going to explode! Because it was finally seeing these visual representations of queer people that I could relate to, that were like my friends or (people) that I knew. It was this reflection of American queer dystopia that was way more representational of the world that I understood.
The song ‘Loner’ is your first experience making a direct pop song. Has it encouraged you to make more music in that vein?
Mykki Blanco: ‘Loner’ was a hurdle for me because I’d never done anything like that. To be honest, I’m excited. I don’t necessarily want to completely go in a pop direction, but to no longer put limitations on myself. ‘Loner’ has freed me. I’ll be honest about it with people, I didn’t start making music until I was 25. I wasn’t some kid at 18 being like ‘I want to be a rapper,’ so a lot of what I’ve learned creatively in the last four or five years is that I’m a performer who’s really had to learn how to be a musician.
You said that you had difficulties in learning how to sing instead of rap. How was that?
Mykki Blanco: The only reason I sing on this album is because Woodkid made me! I don’t necessarily think it’s the best singing, but I think it works for the songs. I’m glad that I was pushed to do it. One of the things I like the most about my journey – even though sometimes I wish I were further ahead, or that I’ve got the short end of the stick – (is that) everything has always happened organically. Things have happened for me in such an unconventional way. When I first came out in 2012, I got a lot of attention and in a way, it propelled me into the indie world. Then Gay Dog Food hit under the radar, but a lot of my hardcore fans spoke to me about that project. Now it feels like with this album, the establishment is taking notice in a way where it’s more than just an article or a photoshoot. It’s surreal in a way, but also it’s one of those things where I’ve always had to really ground myself in the fact that I’m doing what I dreamed, I’m a working artist who is making a living off of their work. And I think that, more than anything – more than this idea of celebrity – I just want to continue to thrive.
Last year, you said that you might not even be involved with music at all, and you would take up journalism. How did you get from being in that place emotionally from wanting to quit this entirely to the point where you’re at now when you’ve released Mykki?
Mykki Blanco: It was !K7 coming to me and saying ‘Would you like to start your own label?’ Me starting Dogfood Music Group had a lot to do with it, as well as this encouragement from Woodkid. He sent me this email that was so simple but touching. It was like ‘I think you’re too talented to quit being a musician.’ He didn’t even know me well when he wrote that. To be quite honest, after I came out as HIV positive, I felt like, ‘You know what? I want to prove to people that I’m not going to let everything I did before get swallowed up in this diagnosis.’ To a certain extent, I still feel like I’m having to prove that I’m more than that diagnosis. The first part of my career was proving that I wasn’t just this gay rapper and was actually an artist with integrity that could create a visual language that would speak to people and that was way more than just some queer rap title. Now I’m proving to people that I’m so much more than some HIV diagnosis.
“I know that I want to really get to a place where my notoriety can create a dialogue in my community to make change. I can see myself opening an LGBT centre one day” – Mykki Blanco
I definitely get the impression with Mykki that you want people to be talking about the music and that experience.
Mykki Blanco: One of the things that I’ve had to accept is that when you enter the public eye, you don’t get to pick and choose your perception anymore. As much as I think that I’ve been good at being in control of my narrative, I know that I want to really get to a place where my notoriety can create a dialogue in my community to make change. I can see myself opening an LGBT centre one day and doing all of these things to help people. I know that it’s going to get to a point where I can’t go on Grindr! People are going to create their own narratives. To be quite honest, I always thought I was an okay person with good morals, but with the increased notoriety, I should live nice. I would want to be an example. I want to not be a cliché of someone who wasted it all.
Have you thought of any kind of plans yet to establish anything like an LGBT centre?
Mykki Blanco: Give me like… 20 million pounds and then it’ll happen (laughs). These are the kind of things that I see myself doing – an LGBT centre, creating local work programmes for trans people so they don’t have to engage in sex work. I’m not trying to make generalisations – these are communities that I’ve lived through and have been a part of.