Hello, this is Mykki Blanco.”
The 31-year-old rapper and LGBT icon from California announces himself like I wasn’t eagerly waiting for his call. Phoning from Lisbon, where he has lived since October, he admits that life in the Portuguese capital and, right now, life in general is great.
“Honestly, I love it. I mean, like, I always have to travel to do work and to work on music and everything, but I really like it because Lisbon is... It’s really interesting, a lot goes on but it’s a smaller city so you can get around easily. It’s really comfortable. Like, I have a good friend here and also I met my boyfriend here, so it’s been going really well,” he says brightly, adding that he also refuses to live in America during Donald Trump’s presidency.
Born Michael David Quattlebaum Jr, in comparison to his sharp-tongued persona on record, Blanco is soft-spoken and warm. With the ‘Mykki project’ in 2010, he identified exclusively as trans, always using the she pronoun – a radical move in the historically homophobic world of hip-hop – but now, almost one year since the release of his debut album Mykki, he’s slowly returning to ‘he’.
“Because of so much trans awareness and so much visibility, I’ve lately kind of been swapping pronouns,” he says, agreeing that the mainstreaming of the trans conversation helped with this decision. “I usually don’t mind when people say ‘she’ or ‘he’, but I guess when people are addressing me as Michael, I’ll tell them that it’s probably more appropriate now to use a male pronoun, just because people are so hyper-aware of pronouns.”
His Facebook page acts as a safe space for his fans to discuss gender and sexuality, but when it came to his own HIV positive diagnosis in 2011, he kept it quiet, fearing that it would ruin his career. Eventually in 2015, for the sake of his mental wellbeing, he let everyone know.
Does he think that there would have been a big difference in his life if he’d come out when he was first diagnosed?
So many people are worried about their image, or worried about what people will think of them, if they associate themselves with an HIV positive artist.
“It’s pretty sad to say, but I don’t think that I would have been as successful. I think there are a lot of people that work with me who would not have continued working with me. I think I made the right choice. I think it’s unfortunate that I felt as if I had to keep it a secret for the years that I did. Society is still very uneducated in places and there’s a huge amount of stigma on people who live with HIV, and especially on entertainers. So many people are worried about their image or what people will think of them if they associate themselves with an HIV positive artist.”
He says that people who are HIV positive write to him all the time and he emphasises that if we speak openly about HIV, it will improve the quality of life for those living with it.
Because of so much trans awareness and so much visibility, I’ve lately kind of been swapping pronouns.
“I always try to tell them that just to try, if you can, have that support network. Just try to talk with your friends, the people that really know you. I always tell people that don’t ever think that you have to put any limitations on who you are inside because of this diagnosis.
“I feel that people have to find a healthy balance for themselves because when you’re keeping secrets, those things really, really affect your energy. They affect the quality of life that you have and people who are positive really deserve to have a really good quality of life, to really learn to take care of themselves and to not deal with the bullshit anymore.”
His work as a performer has reached out to so many people, but the next step for Blanco is journalism. Later this summer, he is going to South Africa as part of a film series he’s hosting with i-D.
“It’s going to be my first time working as a host-slashjournalist, interviewing creatives and people who are in the LGBT+ community in Johannesburg, who are like, driving and making really important work there. So that’s something, that slowly a dream of mine is being realised.”
While he is slow to call himself an activist, the work he has done so far has certainly earned him his stripes, and it can only get brighter from here.
“For me, I try to be vocal about the issues that I find important. If that’s a form of activism, then I think that’s really cool. I just try to take everything in my stride.”
Mykki Blanco plays Body & Soul, June 23 to 25 at Ballinlough Castle, Clonmellon, Co. Westmeath, bodyandsoul.ie