I am less than a year away from turning 30 and I am still learning how to be myself. On most days I feel in tune with who I am and celebrate my passions, abilities, and dispositions. But every now and then, insecurity gets the best of me and I shrink down parts of my identity in order to appease the limited imaginations of others, or to simply get through the day without having to explain myself. Consciously or subconsciously, I'm always searching for a method that will teach me how to be authentic no matter what. In a lot of ways, discovering Mykki Blanco's music has given me the audacity to do just that. The hypnotic throb of "The Initiation," the trill of "Loner," and unshakable urgency of Mykki have taught me that the complexity of our identities and how we define ourselves should never be stifled or static.
For Mykki, who describes herself as "someone who stumbled into being an entertainer," the celebration of selfhood is essential. Early on, Mykki wrote poetry and made noise rock, since then her evolution into hip-hop has been both, each of her EPs and mixtapes challenging the narrow standards of the genre. Mykki, her debut solo album which releases this Friday, is an unapologetic portrait of an artist on her own terms, no one else's.
I spoke with Mykki one morning over the phone about how poetry and no-wave led to hip-hop, why she decided to go public with her HIV diagnosis, and the importance of creating your own audience.
Dianca Potts: Can you talk a bit about how you got into making music?
Mykki Blanco: I didn't start making music until I was 25. It was after I wrote a book of narrative poetry called From the Silence of Duchamp to the Noise Of Boys, which was published by Moran Bondaroff, a gallery in New York. I started doing readings and I was like, I have to find a way to engage people beyond readings because no one listens to poetry. So, sort of inspired by Suicide, this no-wave band from the '70s, and my background in theater, which I did as a kid, I started a band with my friends [Jeff Joyle and Daniel Fisher] called No Fear. It was basically me reciting my poetry over these industrial loops and harsh noise, and that was the first time that I made music. Eventually that project collapsed on itself, but I kept performing and I started producing on my own. I was performing in galleries or organizing shows in weird places, but it wasn't necessarily music.
I had the idea of doing this video art project about a teenage girl who wanted to become a famous female rapper and that was Mykki Blanco. It started out as these artsy comedy videos and then eventually — since Mykki had these dreams of becoming a famous rapper — she started to rap. I started making little loops and different beats in GarageBand and performing with that. People were really responding to it, and saying, "You're actually a good rapper, is this still a joke or are you going to start making music?" It wasn't until Charles Damga, who ended up being my first manager, told me, "You're actually making music even though you don't realize it and maybe I can help you streamline this," that I started taking music seriously and kind of left the art-world context.
I'm genuinely someone who stumbled into being an entertainer. If you told me at 20 that by 30 I was going to be an indie rapper, I would have been like, "No, that's not right, I'm going to be a curator."
DP: How did working on Mykki change your perspective on your past discography?
MB: This album is the first time that I ever actually had time to work on music, and when I say that it's because it's the honest-to-God truth. I had months set aside solely just to make music and do nothing else, and that completely came from working with the label !K7.
When Mykki Blanco came on the scene, I got all this attention and press and I lucked out with getting funding. I realized early on that just relying on the alt-hip-hop market in America to get my message out and create a fan base wasn't going to work, that to establish myself and get my career to a place that I was comfortable with and could survive, I was going to have to get booking agents in different countries, tour, and be kind of old-school in a rock-and-roll way.
The thing that happens when you tour so much and you're contractually bound to these tours is you can't record music. The music on this album as a whole is the best music I've ever made, and I think that comes from the fact that I was focused and I had seven months to create the album. I worked with only two producers, so I was able to actually write a song — not just record it but write it — record it, edit it, come back, record more, and edit it again, to actually have a real creative recording process.
DP: Last year you came out as HIV-positive on Facebook. How did the act of being so open in a public sphere impact your life?
MB: I did it for myself because it was getting painful having to keep this a secret, having to meet guys at parties and then be like, "Oh yeah, guess what? I'm positive, but can you not tell anyone?" Just living my life in this way, like when people would come over to my apartment I would take my medicine out of the bathroom and put it in a hamper, when you start to live like that, this really gross thing happens to you. It infiltrates other parts of your subconscious and you feel like you're constantly on edge. It's like being a communist in your own home. It's not healthy.
The only examples of people being public about being HIV-positive were in the '90s, and people would get shunned, or there would be this outcry of pity, and then everyone would disassociate themselves from the person. I genuinely 100 percent thought that was going to happen to me. I thought that I was going to announce this and even though it might make certain aspects of my life easier, like dating or relationships or things that were really important to me, that career-wise it was just going to be a death sentence because Mykki Blanco is associated with being fun, and talking about HIV is not fun. I was so worried.
So then I announced it and it's 2015 and the world has changed, and it was just so amazing to me [that people were supportive]. I didn't think that it was brave or a brave thing to do. For the most part people don't even talk to me about it. They come to my shows and we party. I think that once I got over the shock of everyone not shunning me, I realized that maybe I just need to continue to make quality work and it won't matter.
DP: Has there ever been a moment where you didn't feel like you could celebrate the complexity of your identity?
MB: When I first started in 2012, people were so homophobic, and so many websites — and I don't need to name them because they're nice now — wouldn't post about my music. It was just this awkward thing of people trying to fit me into the context of the American hip-hop scene. There were people who genuinely believed in me and were trying to find a way for me to fit into this pop and indie-hip-hop structure, but come on, let's be real, indie hip-hop in America, the music industry period in America, is super-homophobic. What had to happen was that me, Le1f, Big Freedia, Zebra Katz, and Cakes [Da Killa], we just had to keep making music, our music, and slowly but surely we created our own audience.
I'd love to pretend that we're post all this shit, but talk to a straight 17-year-old and ask him why he doesn't listen to Mykki Blanco, and he'll most likely say, "I don't listen to gay rap, I don't relate to that," and now because we've been out here making this music, you can ask a 17-year-old gay kid, and they're going to say, "I listen to Mykki Blanco, I listen to Jungle Pussy, I listen to Le1f."
I've always known that it was going to take a while for people to get it. A lot of the shit that's in my music and in my aesthetic has become mainstream, all these things that people were on the fringe about in 2012 quickly became a nuanced dialogue in the public sphere, and I've only benefited from that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Dianca Potts is an assistant at Lenny Letter.