Music

After Coming Out as HIV-Positive, Mykki Blanco Is Back to Crushing Stigmas

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It’s past three o’clock in the morning at Palisades, a dank punk club underneath the J train in Bushwick. Someone has just handed feral rapper/poet Mykki Blanco — who is now down to his red Polo briefs — a rainbow flag. “I’m at the edge of the world / Who the fuck can touch me?” he roared earlier in the night on his menacing banger “Moshin’ in the Front.” The words resonated as Blanco waved the flag onstage fourteen hours into living in a country where same-sex marriage was declared legal from coast to coast. “It comes down to waking up knowing that you are not institutionally a second-class citizen,” said Blanco the following day.

Blanco, a/k/a Michael Quattlebaum, Jr., has existed in music for a relatively brief time — it’s been merely three years since his first EP and mixtape were released in 2012. Before music, Quattlebaum was in the art world; before that, he was a child actor. Along the way, the Raleigh, North Carolina native has toured the world three times, dropped out of art school twice, and published one book of poetry.

The personal has always been political for Quattlebaum. As Mykki Blanco, his current performance art persona, he targets stigmas that involve gender, class and race with rhymes that are just as scathing as they are witty. His excellent 2013 EP Betty Rubble: The Initiation begins with an addictive jam about getting high (“Anggry Byrdz”) and ends with the best writing about wasted youth abroad since Henry James wrote Daisy Miller (“Vienna”). Quattlebaum’s career upswing is coming at a good time for pop music, too. His music is a pugnacious answer to songs like “Same Love” or “Born This Way,” safe anthems that allowed a gay context to penetrate the Top 40 by wielding the language of the ally. Blanco is basically the opposite of a safe context. As he puts it on “Wavvy:” “I pimp slap you bitch niggas with my limp wrist, bro.”

On the Saturday night of Pride, Williamsburg’s Wythe Hotel hosted a Pride Ball with Blanco as the main draw. As preppy-looking couples dressed in white hobbled in from the rain, the svelte rapper stood in the lobby, towering like a goth Naomi Campbell in an A-line leather skirt, a tight black Dolce & Gabbana top and a lime-green wig that made his maroon lips pop. Quite a leap, considering the night before his entire outfit consisted of oversize trousers and a baseball cap. “It’s been a while since I dressed up,” Quattlebaum said. “I used to cross-dress every day, but once it felt like a costume I started to change.” Within an hour, Quattlebaum-turned-Blanco was bald again, and brandishing his green wig on “She Gutta” like it was the head of Medusa.

2015 has been a momentous year for the 29-year-old rapper. Five months ago, Quattlebaum was signed to the Berlin-based record label !K7. The label gave Quattlebaum an untraditional record deal including funds to start his own !K7 imprint called Dogfood Music Group. Quattlebaum’s “mini-label” already has three emerging rappers signed on, two of which (Psycho Egyptian and Violence) performed at Palisades with Quattlebaum for their first (and sold out) official showcase. “He’s redefining himself every day,” said !K7 founder and music industry veteran, Horst Weidenmuller, who flew out to watch Quattlebaum perform. Weidenmuller pursued him after reading one of his interviews. “He doesn’t need anyone to tell him what to do. That’s exactly what I’m looking for — artists who find their own way.”

The Wythe’s backstage screening room is bustling with performers cashing in drink tickets. Quattlebaum is bubbly, yet focused. Despite his rocket-speed career trajectory, the last four years have been traced with loneliness. “I didn’t feel pioneering. It felt like a struggle. I was pouring myself into my work, but leading a very loveless life.” Quattlebaum was referring to the crucial status update he posted on his Facebook page two weeks prior, saying he was HIV positive. He had been living with the secret for nearly five years. “It’s time to be as punk as I say I am,” he wrote. Now, Quattlebaum says he feels free. “I think that I’m a nice person. I try to be compassionate. But after I came out, I felt like a good person. There’s a difference. And I hadn’t felt like a good person in a long time.”

When Quattlebaum was diagnosed in 2011, he didn’t tell his mother for two years. For the first year he didn’t tell a soul. “The doctor visits, the medication, everything,” Quattlebaum said. “I did it all alone. I had this thought that if I told anyone, my career would be over.” He embarked on a grueling 15-city European tour and an American haul double that length. “The stigma and the hiding definitely made me an angrier performer.”

During that time, Quattlebaum also met the Emmy-nominated director and photographer Francesco Carrozzini, who bankrolled his first official video in 2012 (“Wavvy”). The son of Italian Vogue Editor-in-Chief, Franca Sozzani, Carrozzini is known for directing the music videos high-profile artists from Lana Del Rey (“Ultraviolence”) to Nicki Minaj (“The Pinkprint”). “That just moved me into an entirely different echelon,” Quattlebaum said. “Then I was being invited to the Black and White Ball and meeting Linda Evangelista, just super glamorous things that took my attention away [from being sick].” That his career unfolded within months of his HIV diagnosis still amazes Quattlebaum. “I feel like God blessed me.”

Quattlebaum is now preparing got his first major full-length release. The plan is to “pull a Beyoncé” and record upwards of 60 songs, pick the best, and have enough left in the arsenal to hit the ground running. He didn’t plan on the HIV announcement. He just woke up, wrote it up and hit “post.” “That’s what I love about [Mykki]” said his manager, Weidenmuller, “He is completely unpredictable.” Quattlebaum’s disclosure was personally moving for Weidenmuller, who lost his younger brother to an HIV-related disease in the early Nineties.

“I almost did as a ‘fuck you,’” Quattlebaum said with a smile, “Because when people are polarized, you really see their true colors. I wanted to know who is going to still be down and who’s not. I’m not a saint. But right now I have nothing to hide and it feels crazy. I feel like a politician or something.”