At night, Moogfest is a music festival like many others. A-list beat-slingers throw down on a central mainstage as headsy electronic acts fill a number of rooms throughout downtown Durham, North Carolina. Drone duos fill an old Presbyterian church with sacred ambience; crate-digging DJs splatter old gospel-disco 45s across packed dive bars. It's familiar stuff, a thoughtfully curated take on the city-takeover festival formula. But during the daytime, the event really shines.
Alongside its musical programming, Moogfest enlists a number of its performers—as well as thinkers from across the music industry (this year including the CEO of Ableton and an Afrofuturist collective among so many others)—to give talks on their art and the culture surrounding it. Lots of events offer talks like this, but the sheer volume is absurd. But few other festivals in North America are doing things like booking Animal Collective to talk onstage with Hannibal Buress and a 70s synth great. One of the best talks I saw this year was an unassuming chat in a movie theater with Michael Quattlebaum Jr., the rapper and performance artist best known as Mykki Blanco.
Quattlebaum is a North Carolina native who's seen his career skyrocket in the five years since he's adopted the Mykki persona, all the while making vibrant and chaotic music that draws as much on the the caustic performances of hardcore punk as it does the history of hip-hop. Before a crowd of around 40 festivalgoers, Quattlebaum spoke with Cap Blackard of Consequence of Sound about his career's strange trajectory—including its roots in a performance poetry project and the challenges he's faced in an industry that he openly calls "homophobic." Read on for an edited and condensed transcript of the conversation's best moments.
Cap Blackard, Consequence of Sound: Let's talk about Mykki Blanco the stage persona.
Mykki Blanco: [After a brief silence while texting onstage] I just want you guys to know, I'm not being rude…I left my HIV medication in an Uber. Let me tell the Mykki Blanco story. So in 2010, I had a psychological and sexual revolution. For the first time, I really started to have feelings that I'd never felt before as a gay man. I slowly, naturally began to experiment with my gender and presentation and general being in a way that I never had. For the first time I was living in a community in New York City where I felt freedom…or a feeling bigger than freedom—an openness and acceptance of fluidity that I'd never felt in any other city I'd lived in. One day I put on some makeup. And then I got a wig. And then I posted a picture online. People were like, "God, you're pretty."
When I went outside I started getting looks from men in a way I never had gotten looks as a gay boy before. I remember a man ran across the street to hit on me and I was like, "What in the hell is going on." You can go through life and think you're attractive or whatever but when someone calls you pretty for the first time—especially if you're a boy—something changes in you. Basically at that time was trans-identifying. My pronouns were she. And one day she had an idea.
Performance art and interdisciplinary stuff has always been my background. One day I had this idea to create a video art persona about a teenage girl who wanted to grow up to be a famous rapper. This was around the time that Nicki Minaj and Lil Kim had their all out public feud about who was going to be the queen of rap. I always have to let people know, because it's important to me, that my background isn't in drag. I respect drag as a queer tradition, but I didn't come from a background of being a drag queen. It really was a symbiosis of what I was exploring in my gender identity.
Also in 2011, I had my first piece of work ever published. It was a big deal to me because I'd never had anything published before. I had a book published called From the Silence of Duchamp to the Noise of Boys. It was published by this gallery called Moran Bondaroff. They had a huge fashion publicist…which is so New York. When I published this book, it was everywhere. I was doing stuff with Italian Vogue, all off of a poetry book. When Mykki began, I already had a mini-media machine behind me because of the book. But nobody reads poetry in my peerset really. I was like, fuck, how am I going to get people interested. So I started to perform the poems—I took this from Richard Hell and Patti Smith and that era of New York—in this really punk way.
It was really macho. It was right before Mykki. I was going through this exorcism. Having always been this gay boy who was so tormented and picked on. I was always so feminine as a child. People were really cruel to me. This whole macho punk thing…I was always trying to prove some sort of queer militance. Then Mykki happened and that began my exploration into the divine feminine.
When you debuted as Mykki were you like "I'm a transgender artist?" Or was that a progression?
There have been some younger kids who are like "You shouldn't talk about trans rights because you're a cis gay male." And I'm like, "Actually honey…" Anyone who knew me in New York in that time…every single day I was waking at 7 in the morning doing my makeup. It was not a performance. I was going to transition.
I realized that I wanted to transition for reasons that were not what I would consider the best reasons. I thought that transitioning would fix certain things in my life. Believe it or not, I had this idea—and it is very silly for me to say this now, but I genuinely thought this at the time—I somehow thought that being a woman was easier than being a gay man. That being a woman was a better choice than being an effeminate gay man because as an effeminate gay man I'd been so abused.
There were so many expectations to always be strong. Within the gay community there's a very toxic attitude of being masc enough. Literally this is how I was think about things sometimes. I'm just like, "Fuck these straight people. Fuck the gays. It's easier for me to be a beautiful woman." But it was so cosmetic. The longer I would think about it, I was like, "In my opinion these are not reasons I should transition." This is all so topical. I'm looking for this transition to save something in me, rather than being an owning or blossoming or a divine expression of who I am.
I had also begun escorting for extra money. I was escorting and feminine presenting. That broke the camel's back. I had this sugar daddy and that became really toxic. That pushed me away from presenting as feminine. And then all of a sudden one day I was back to being gay.
How did the audience you had at the time respond to that?
The thing was is that…it's not something that people feel like they can talk to you about. People are way more forthcoming now about having these open dialogues about being genderqueer and transgender and non-binary. Five years ago, gay marriage hadn't even become legal. There are people that even now I have these online discussions with. "How can you say you were trans and now you're not trans?" Well, there are lots of different fish in the sea. I can only be honest about what my truth is and that was my truth. It's not like I switched it off one day. That beautiful moment is what led me to be right here. I didn't deny that moment. I grew in a way personally and I healed in a way personally that I wouldn't have been able to.
When Mykki became a persona, did it become hard to reconcile that with who you are on a day-to-day basis?
There was a period when the persona was becoming a bit much. So the first people that really embraced Mykki were the fashion community. I was doing all these photo shoots, having this "it-girl moment." This was the dream. But I had a moment where I was like…I am not an it-girl.
The more that I made myself into a Barbie, the less people from other communities were attracted to what I was doing. I had a moment where I was like, "You know what? Mykki needs to be more me."
So you're from Raleigh, how did that influence who you are?
I think Raleigh influences my manners. To a certain extent I have Southern manners. When I'm in New York or places where people are a little forgetful…don't always say thank you or snap at a table, I think the more respectful part of me is the Southern part of me.
When I'm in the South though, sometimes it bums me out. I love Raleigh, but I was telling my friend sometimes I come back from being in Europe where I notice sometimes people are culturally less segregated. Like "Oh wow, I didn't notice it when I lived here but this is still segregated in some ways. But people in the South are quite compassionate. Some of the most toxic stuff can come out of a liberal bubble that's condemning other ways of thinking.
You left home early on. Is that something you'd advise artists to do?
I do think that there's something to be said for getting out of your comfort zone. But I realized that the way I left home. The way I handled certain situations in my youth were quite extreme. I ran away when I was 16. But I didn't run away because I had family problems. I ran away because I wanted to get the hell out of North Carolina. I was reading all this anarchist literature and thinking I belong somewhere else. After going back and forth from California and doing all that stuff, I would say I've grown from those experiences, but I wouldn't say it's the only way.
Branching out and experiencing areas outside the United States seems to have been a huge stepping stone for your career.
It's been huge. You have a black guy with a dress wearing lipstick and rapping it's like "Oh my god, how subversive!" Like you didn't have someone like George Clinton or Bootsy Collins or Dennis Rodman or Sylvester or RuPaul. There are people who celebrate my work now, that four years ago were afraid to even post it because of what their audience would think. Like I said, I have not had a career for a long time. But people were not so willing to even give me credibility. Is this a comedic schtick? Is he a YouTuber?
People always try to pinpoint hip-hop as if it's inherently homophobic. But no, pop music is homophobic. R&B is homophobic. Country music is homophobic. The music industry is homophobic. Because the music industry is run by straight people, who are not going to give that major label boost to a queer artist—unless that person has already been [presented as] straight and then comes out. Like a Frank Ocean (who is also insanely talented). There's so much work to be done. I try not to be jaded about certain things. But I have singles, that were big for me, that had I been a straight guy, they'd be on the radio.
How did going outside the United States change that for you?
I was like, "I deserve to not just be marginal." I deserve these things that straight people are getting. I noticed that I was more popular in Europe and that Europeans were more accepting of my music. We're going to do the old switcheroo. We're going to build in international markets, I'm going to make money and then come back to the States. If you're a queer artist the biggest advice I can give you is make as much money outside of the United States as possible. We don't have time to deal with homophobic promoters, with people who want to tokenize you.
What countries in Europe are the most receptive?
I've been to Russia a bunch of times which freaks people out.
How does that work?
I don't go through customs in drag. That's one thing. You know. Like a lot of countries under regimes that aren't reflective of the values of the people, Russian people are so kind and want you to come there and realize they're not the propaganda machine we've been fed. Like we're not Trump, they're not Putin. When I would come there and meet the queer kids there—because it's such a repressive space for LGBT people, for a while I was able to go there and perform under the radar. The last show I performed in Moscow I got a little too much notoriety. There were people picketing and then the show got shut down. I was afraid to leave the hotel. The show got moved to another space. These people are Googling me now and stuff's coming up. Where a few years ago nothing was coming up.
Since that show got shut down, I've not been back to Russia. And I'd performed there five times before that. So it really sucked. Also the thing is, people always used to act like we had to borrow fans from other people, to borrow Gaga's fans or borrow fans from Mariah Carey. This is what used to really annoy me. People used to paint this trajectory like I was struggling in hip-hop for acceptance. No. What me, Big Freedia, Cakes Da Killa, and Le1f did is we created our own fans, our own revenue stream.
That's when people started taking us seriously. People actually come and they're not this one-dimensional pink dollar that you think that this is. That's the thing that most warms my heart. I know that me and Freedia and Perfume Genius, we speak to a person that did not have someone that was so close to their actual experience. The reason I fell in love with Le Tigre and Kathleen Hanna—I thought Beck was cool, I thought the Fugees were cool, I thought the Red Hot Chili Peppers were cool—but Le Tigre was the first time people using gay slang and things that I really understood as a queer teenage boy in music.
When I think about the lyrics to some of my songs and these other queer artists, sometimes I have this a-ha moment of there's 16-year-olds hearing us referencing things that directly reference their life and their experiences in real time now. We did not have that. I think that's how I started taking more responsibility. I used to be anti-responsibility. I was a wild child and then I realized we were touching people. They'd say things like "Your music helped me come out." When people tell me these things, I started to feel a social responsibility to not be messy, to stop having fights on Twitter, to not get arrested in foreign countries for telling cops to fuck off.