It’s almost 6 p.m. in Lisbon, but Mykki Blanco’s body isn’t sure what time it is. “I’ve got West-Coast-to-Europe jet lag,” they say over the phone. “I tried to get up early today, then took a nap, went running. But it’s like a three-day thing!” Only two days earlier the queer artist and activist returned home to Portugal from California, wrapping up a trip to the States that included Pride week events in New York and a performance at San Diego’s Pride festival — hot on the heels of their starring role as Joan of Arc in Madonna’s music video for “Dark Ballet.”
We’d planned this phone call as a chance to talk about the state of homophobia and transphobia in music, but our conversation bounces around wildly — from Pride experiences (still very much on our brains) to the state of LGBTQ representation in the music industry to their own journey with gender as well as their winding path through the industry. “My trajectory has really been this organic thing that I’ve really owned,” says Blanco, who also gave Billboard a progress report on their next album, Stay Close to Music, Stay Close to God, which will start rolling out this fall before arriving in full next year. “The things that have happened for me could not have happened any sooner than they happened.”
What was your take on Pride celebrations this summer? Obviously the 50th anniversary of Stonewall had a lot to do with it, but it seemed like, in New York at least, displays of Pride were much more over-the-top and ubiquitous, showing up in Bed Bath & Beyonds and basically every bank in Manhattan.
It’s so funny to hear you say that, because I think for anyone who’s lived in New York and has been to a New York Pride, obviously we all know how jovial and feel-good that week is, but one of the first things I told my boyfriend after two days of being there was like, “Babe, Petco is walking in the parade!” And I feel a few ways about things like that. On one hand, my career began before gay marriage was passed in the U.S.A, and so when stuff like this happens, or whenever our heteronormative Western society can further embrace the LGBTQA community, that is obviously a good thing.
In certain queer circles, and even in certain circles that I felt were like white gay power circles, I did feel a changing of the guard in a positive way, where writers and editors and people that pull some weight in the media are now people of color, are now trans or gender non-conforming people of color, are now lesbians. And so that was a really awesome thing to see. But take that with a dose of, you know, your Joe Schmo who is drinking from a rainbow-colored Budweiser cup and still making fun of gender non-confirming people during Pride. In New York City, that’s a real slap in the face. So all of this information and all of these worlds definitely still exist in what I would call this “consciousness soup.”
I know what you mean. I was just talking with a friend of mine about that Out to Brunch event in L.A. last year, which, well-intentioned though it may have been, was ostensibly about inclusion, yet the photo from it that went viral revealed it to be almost entirely white and male.
I remember that photo. I think that in Europe and in cities like New York, certain circles have made the effort and are continuing to make the effort. But I think that Hollywood and Los Angeles and that sector of the music industry out there in general has a segregation problem and still has a really big issue with inclusion.
Last year I participated in a program that Jill Soloway and Lena Waithe were a part of called Queeroes, [which was] about empowering queer, transgender and gender non-conforming people in production. I was involved because I was cast in a film by a trans director named Zackary Drucker. This production was my first time working with a trans director, but I also remember that the entire production staff was queer, trans, or gender non-conforming. There was not one cis het white man that was on that production staff. Not the sound person, not the assistant director, not the people doing hair and makeup.
When something like that happens, I think it’s really awesome. But again, that was not really the music world. That sector — television and the movies — is a little more aware, because when it comes to the Hollywood music machine, we’re talking about people that are still kind of trying to wrap their heads around how to make the most money from streaming. There are all these relics of the music industry. And while I am in no position to call the head of a label or the A&Rs that all these labels choose to hire “relics,” I think they really are trying to bring themselves up to a contemporary standard of of inclusion, particularly when it comes to queer people.
The number of queer artists getting promoted has really shot up, and it seems like the mainstream pop world is so open to and accepting of all identities. But you also hear stories about young men in pop who have a hard time coming out. Do you think it’s easier for queer women?
It’s hard to make any kind of blanket statement, but now that Lil Nas X has come out — one of the most popular pop-rap musicians in the world right now — it’s really going to be interesting to see his trajectory. He speaks to a generation that is far more accepting and far more open-minded than the world that I kind of came into about six and a half years ago. But also Lil Nas X [appears to identify as] a cis male gay. And while I think his coming out is such a powerful thing — it has the same power as someone like Frank Ocean — I think that when you have someone like the lesbian artist Young M.A it’s [meaningful in a different way].
She’s popular with people because she’s extremely talented. And I know she’s experienced intimidation and homophobia, but at the same time I feel like she’s definitely more accepted in the hip-hop community because she still has the same kind of hyper-masculine braggadocio as a cis het male. And I think that in pop, perhaps a lesbian woman who subscribed to an image that was closer to a “lipstick lesbian” [stereotype] could enter that glamour machine that the industry provides. I feel like if any female artist chooses to subscribe to the fashion and beauty glam machine, then I think that is something that will work in their favor, to make themselves more palatable to a heteronormative society and audiences.
But the artists that have the hardest time — and this is across the board, not just in the music industry, or the entertainment industry — are the people who are queer and gender non-conforming. The people who are not passable, the people who are clockable.
Hip-hop has this reputation for being particularly homophobic, and people in the industry talk about it as if it’s the genre that has been the slowest to embrace LGBTQ inclusion. Do you think that’s the case?
Well, I would say that I disagree that hip-hop is more homophobic than pop. Let me tell you why. We have probably one of the biggest pop stars in the world in Taylor Swift. And I bet that a large portion of her Middle American audience is not so LGBTQ-friendly. And I think that this could be said of a lot of pop stars. Just because we have really bright lights like Lady Gaga or Katy Perry or Taylor — just because these artists are magnets for the LGBTQ community — it doesn’t mean that their predominant base is LGBTQ-friendly.
And while historically hip-hop has been a very homophobic, transphobic and queerphobic musical genre, to say that hip-hop is more homophobic than pop or country or R&B I think is actually racist, because it makes it so that these more historically passable genres are not responsible for the transgressions that they have made against the queer, gender non-conforming and LGBTQ community. It almost absolves them and imakes hip-hop a scapegoat, when in general we’re talking about an entire music industry that has long been very homophobic. So, yes, if you want to get into the nitty gritty, we have so many more examples of homophobia and transphobia within hip-hop songs — that’s something that no one can deny. But I think people should be very careful when they say that hip-hop is “more homophobic” than pop or country or indie.
But I am extremely hopeful, because at its core — even though hip-hop is a global phenomenon — it’s still a reflection of black American identity. And I think that if there’s anything that I’ve learned in the six and a half years that I’ve had my career, it’s that you cannot rush change. A few years ago I would have given you an answer that was far more militant. What my career has taught me, and what maturity has taught me, is that you can push and push and push, but until people have examples of change that is not threatening — change that allows them to see with a perspective they have not had before — there is really very little you can do to change a heart and to change a mind.
This makes me think of what you say at the end of Madonna’s “Dark Ballet” video: “I’ve walked this earth black, queer and HIV-positive, but no transgression against me has been as powerful as the hope I hold within.” As we talk about homophobia and transphobia in the industry today, are you more optimistic about what you’ve seen in even the last five years?
I am, because I think the more artists that come out, [the more it makes] a younger generation un-indoctrinated by all these ridiculous prejudices that we’ve had to endure as queer people and queer artists for so long. And as much courage as I think it would take for an artist to be out from the onset, I think it’s really amazing to win over the masses and then come out. If you’re a music lover and you love this song, if you attach memories to this album, you know then you really have to question your character if one of your favorite artists comes out and you can’t fuck with their music anymore.
Can you talk about your own personal journey, because the way you’ve talked about your own identity, it seems, has evolved along with the vocabulary we have to talk about and understand queerness.
Yeah, for me it’s been this interesting public journey. When I began making music for the first time at 25, the creation of Mykki Blanco as a musical identity was literally also identical to the discovery of Mykki Blanco, my trans-femme self. That journey was so intertwined. And then there was a moment in my career where I said, “Well, no, I’m not actually going to medically transition.” And then there was a point where I said, “Well, actually, I still don’t feel comfortable with the ‘he’ pronoun, and I’d prefer you to refer to me as gender-queer and maybe ‘she’ when you’re referring to Mykki Blanco.”
It’s been this thing where I get asked a lot to speak and give lectures at colleges, and I’m this weird figure who’s only had a career for seven years, yet I’m oddly historicized. And I know that’s why I’m a pioneer in what I did in hip-hop. But I also know that the chronology of what I did fits in with this very interesting acceleration point in our culture, where literally two years, three years after I began making music, artists who wouldn’t want to associate with me because I had just come out as HIV-positive are now willing to work with me because of the accolades I’ve continued to achieve for myself. It’s like when I started making music, two or three years later, Obama passed gay marriage. And then we had Laverne Cox and, for better or worse, Caitlin Jenner create this so-called “transgender tipping point” that I think as queer people we all know was not actually a real thing. But it enabled a heteronormative, patriarchal society to learn a few new words. When we we still have transgender, non-conforming women of color being killed, we all know how much that “tipping point” really counts for.
My career has directly benefited from the twisting and shifting of western society to deal with gender and sexuality. And so when I say, “Oh, I haven’t recently experienced transphobia or homophobia,” the only reason why I haven’t is that I have now created a platform that enables me to experience less of it. Now, that does not mean that I am absolved from it, but I would say that I now have an audience and a platform globally that allows me to now navigate the world in a way where I’m usually with people who want me there.
I remember one of the first major producers I worked with was A-Trak, who invited me to his festival, Fool’s Gold, which is a huge hip-hop festival for emerging and established artists. He did it out of the goodness of his heart. But I remember playing that in 2013 and nearly being booed off the stage, for no other reason than people’s homophobia. I don’t really navigate spaces anymore where there is some 50-50 chance of me being booed off the stage.
I remember telling my first manager, Charles Damga, who’s now A&R at Warp, “People are gonna give me this ‘gay rapper’ label. And I am going to have to prove to them over and over and over again [that I’m more than a label].” I don’t think you could get someone that came from more of the underground than me, and now [I’m] entering what might be considered the beginning of the mainstreaming of my career. My first tour in the U.S.A. was with Death Grips. The second major act that I ever opened for was Diplo, who had me opening in Texas for Major Lazer. Then Björk had me opening for her for two shows in Canada. And then I’ve gone on to write with Kanye West and work with Madonna. So my trajectory has really been this organic thing that I’ve really owned. The things that have happened for me could not have happened any sooner than they happened.
What is the status of your next album?
Tthe album is super done! The campaign starts in the fall, and the album will be out in the spring. We’re going to start dropping music videos in October. It’s called Stay Close to Music, Stay Close to God. I got to work with some of my idols on this album: I have a hip-hop song with Devendra Banhart, and I was able to create a rap track with ANOHNI. I worked with Jónsi from Sigur Rós, who co-produced and sings on a track. I worked with young artists like MNEK, Kelsey Lu and Diana Gordon. This is going to be the biggest record I have ever put out.