By Steve Weinstein
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This idea, that language is meaningless, flies in the face of much of the history of queer and trans rights activism, which insists that language is very powerful indeed. The battle to get an "F" changed to an "M" on a driver's license is, on one level, a battle over language; so is the battle to get civil-rights legislation to include transgender people as a protected class.
But Quattlebaum isn't interested in traditional activism. He says he hates the word "queer"—"I use it only because it exists"—and the field of queer studies along with it. "I have a lot of problems with the academic queer community because it's a community that exists completely removed from reality," he says. "Those kids who are selling their bodies on the West Side Highway, on Christopher Street, they don't even know what the fuck queer theory is."
Mykki Blanco is not a statement, in other words. And while she is something more than a creation for the stage, she's by no means an Identity. Quattlebaum is not, as some have described him, a "trans rapper;" he is a gay man who sometimes dresses as a woman, which is quite a different thing. "I'm not not aware of the advantages that I have that someone who actually is fully transgender does not have," he says, carefully. "I don't want to ever seem as if I am trivializing the transgender community. If I was really living the trans lifestyle that some of the girls that I know in New York have to deal with every day, I would not have the time to be Mykki Blanco. Because every day would be about my survival."
Hip-hop was always on Quattlebaum's radar. "I feel like as an African-American, it just is hand-in-hand," he says. But, as with punk, liking hip-hop is not an uncomplicated proposition for a gay man. Unreconstructed homophobia is not hard to find. Busta Rhymes once walked out of an interview with the words, "With all due respect, what I represent culturally doesn't condone [homosexuality] whatsoever."
But that's not the whole story. For artists, particularly women, willing to live in the glass closet, hip-hop has long offered a measure of toleration. More recently, A$AP Rocky has taken a don't-ask-don't-tell attitude. "Man, if you're gay we can be friends," he told Spinner in February. "As long as you're a great person and, you know, you don't bother me and make me uncomfortable." Less tepid endorsements of gayness are increasingly common. Frank Ocean's coming out was widely covered in the press and praised by stars including Russell Simmons and Beyoncé.
Quattlebaum is a Busta Rhymes fan, homophobia notwithstanding. "You're missing the point," he tells a hypothetical interrogator. "That has nothing to do with his influence on me, or how I digested his creativity and his art. It just doesn't." Mykki Blanco, too, couldn't care less about earnest, '90s-style identity politics. Quattlebaum is not Macklemore. He's a gay, black, half-Jewish transvestite art-school prankster who can rhyme.
"There is a very safe gay attitude toward entertainment," he says. "Which is: Make noise! But not too much noise. Make waves! But don't offend the wrong people. And if you want to really be accepted, you're going to have to tailor your image a little bit to a homogenized, heterosexual mainstream. I am not willing to do any of those things." He pauses. "I'm not going to be some sort of gay political dress-up doll."
In a video posted to Vimeo in 2011, dressed as Mykki with printed leggings, glittery heels, a bomber jacket, and a pink backpack, Quattlebaum finds himself surrounded by a gaggle of teenage girls on 125th Street. They're dressed in school-dress-code khakis; a murmur of disapproval ripples through their group as they take in the spectacle in their midst.
Quattlebaum says he never experienced significant harassment dressed as a woman, except occasionally from groups of teens. But in the video, on the corner of St. Nicholas Avenue, Mykki Blanco decides it's time for a little after-school special ed, and starts to rap a capella. It's a witty battle rap, full of double entendres and threats. "I'm a perm left in too long, you beg it and you wish it for forgiveness," she says. Some of the girls start to laugh, but in recognition, not spite. "These petty girls are steady trying to count all my flaws," Mykki raps, "but I'm gonna have to train these bitches/Get down on your paws." The group whoops with approval.
The video captures the transformation of a potentially hostile group of teens into wide-eyed fans. It's a street-level version of the same act Blanco is attempting to pull within hip-hop: turning a crowd of gawkers into an audience.
Although the Mykki Blanko persona began as a kind of art project, it would be wrong to write Quattlebaum off as a fine artist moonlighting in a popular genre. He is really a rapper, and he is serious about his craft. Charles Damga, Quattlebaum's manager and head of his record label, UNO NYC, sees the diversity of Quattlebaum's influences as a strength. "He's working with hip-hop producers, electronic artists, and DJs," Damga says between takes on the "Kingpinning" shoot. "He's making rap music but not, like, thugging on the block."