It was a relatively regular day for Mykki Blanco: last year, the rapper was walking around an IKEA in Lisbon, Portugal, attempting to find a couch to furnish his new apartment. All of a sudden, his phone buzzed as a text message came in saying, “Hello, is this Mykki?” When the star confirmed and questioned back, asking who was texting him, he received the reply, “Hi, this is M, Madonna.”
It wasn’t a total shock for Blanco — producer extraordinaire Mike Dean had reached out two weeks prior asking if he could give Madonna his contact information. But what started as a simple text conversation turned into an elongated phone call within the confines of the Lisbon IKEA. “I was hiding in a staged kitchenette set in an IKEA with the curtains closed, and we’re talking on the phone for the first time,” he tells Billboard. “So you can imagine how surreal this was for me.”
A whirlwind transpired over the next few months — Blanco met with Madonna in her London home, heard a finished version of her album Madame X (which he calls “a manifestation of Madonna’s imagination”), and was asked to play a role in one of her new music videos.
But Blanco wasn’t offered just any role. Madonna chose him to portray the legendary French heroine Joan of Arc in her video for “Dark Ballet,” believing that the rapper could properly relate to the saint’s struggle. “She tells me, ‘Based on some of the things that you’ve told me you experienced in this industry and in this society, I feel that some of those things could be a modern day analogy for Joan,’” he says. “‘Because think about if you had existed as you in her time — you would have been burned at the stake as well.’”
In the new video (out today), Blanco, as Joan, is seen being held in a prison, praying for salvation before being brought before a tribunal. Ultimately, Joan is found guilty of her crimes, sentenced to death and burned at the stake. Blanco, stripped down and head shaved, wails in pain while a group of mourning nuns (including Madonna) looks on.
But the video takes a cerebral turn, as Blanco’s Joan appears in a strange dream sequence, once again before her tribunal, performing an erratic dance to Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Reed Flutes” from The Nutcracker Suite. “God is on my side and I’ll be fine/ I am not afraid ’cause I have faith in him,” Madonna sings through a vocoder as Blanco thrashes around a circle of judges, newly dressed in saintly garb.
While the video was directed by up-and-coming talent Emmanuel Adjei, Blanco says that Madonna basically served as an uncredited co-director for the project, advising on acting, choreography, cinematography, and even the costuming of the background extras. “She’s so invested in every detail of what she does, and when someone’s been doing this for 30 years, especially a pop icon like her, I guess you would expect that,” he says. “Intention is very important to her, that’s what I took away.”
In one particular exchange, according to Blanco, Madonna even took over a choreography rehearsal, saying that she wanted to try something different for a section of the video. “Within an hour and a half, we had new choreography directly from Madonna,” he says with a laugh. “Madonna’s a hell of a dancer.”
The rapper says he understands that the video is surreal and strange, but adds that everything Madonna does has purpose and meaning outside of simple shock value. “We don’t just shoot something or move or flail our arms just for the hell of it,” he says with a laugh. “There’s always a deeper, inner intention.”
But Blanco feels that Madonna’s current innovations in her music are largely overlooked thanks to her age. Madonna would certainly agree with that statement — in an Instagram post on Thursday (June 6), the singer criticized the New York Times Magazine’s cover story on her, saying that the writer was primarily focused on her age rather than her artistry.
In our interview, Blanco says he has not had an opportunity to read the story, but he agrees with Madonna that many in the industry overlook Madonna’s creativity in favor of her age. “When people are making these comments that are so ageist, it’s not only tacky, but it’s so disgusting to me,” he says. “It’s so misogynist, because you’re saying an artistic being shouldn’t continue to play and manifest their imagination however they see fit.”
It’s no surprise that Blanco identifies with Madonna’s alleged plights — the star revealed his positive HIV status in 2015 and says he thought it would be the end of his career. But seeing an artist of Madonna’s caliber celebrate him in her work has meant that he no longer has to worry about the status of his career.
“She’s not doing me any favors,” he clarifies. “But for her to reach her hand out and lift me up creatively to her level … that does mean something to me. This project has exposed me to an audience that might not have been within my reach.”