There’s a new Queen of Hip-Hop—and she’s not like anything you’ve seen before. Her name? Mykki Blanco. Her job? Something like “cross dressing poet extraordinaire.”
“I would just consider myself an artist,” says Michael David Quattlebaum Jr., a.k.a. Mykki Blanco, 24, in between sipping a coffee and taking bites of a chocolate croissant at The Smile on Bond Street. Today, the budding star comes across as an off-duty club kid, keeping it casual in zany patterned shorts with a beanie over his buzzed hair (and hot pink acrylic nails from a dizzying week of photo-shoots). It’s no secret that the Harlem-based artist, who’s considering changing the title to his upcoming mixtape from Cosmic Angel to The Rebirth Of The Showgirl, has a penchant for glamour. For example, in his recent campaign for Happy Socks, Terry Richardon shot Quattlebaum dressed like a retro pin-up girl, flashing peace signs in a in a va-va-voom wig with plenty of lip gloss; on stage at a recent show opening for SSION, the show-stopper worked the crowd, firing out lyrics like “All these mainstream girls, with their mainstream teams, and in walks Mykki, army of me.”
The words ring true: Blanco’s leading a one-woman show sans manager or publicist. This spring, he has a four-weekend residency at the Living Theater (think Bette Midler-meets-Sandra Bernhard, he suggests, albeit if they could freestyle). Once a 16-year-old New York City runaway, Blanco has officially called Gotham home since 2008. “The downtown community embraced me, and I gave back,” he explains, before spitting a few lyrics across the table at me to illustrate the “fabulously broke” life of a downtown artist: “One night I’m drinking champagne with Linda Evangelista, the next night I’m eating one dollar pizza.” But Blanco, who boasts an interdisciplinary art background and comes from a single-parent home, has no issue admitting a desire to overcome the broke artist stereotype. “As much as I want my work to read with integrity and to touch people in a humble and honest way, I also love glamour and I also have no problem being careerist because I come from a background where you are supposed to succeed,” he says. “Why would I not want to be more successful than both of my parents? We all want the vacation house for mom.” The dream might not be a stretch if things continue to go his way.
Mykki Blanco was born in December 2010 as a “humorous” interactive video project in which Quattlebaum aptly portrayed a teenage female rapper. “I was doing it YouTube interactive style. You know, how girls do haul videos and talk to their, like, YouTube subscribers,” he says with a throaty chuckle, in his best Valley Girl voice. But it was the theatrical poetry readings from last summer’s OHWOW gallery-published book, From the Silence of Duchamp to the Noise of Boys, that really kicked things off. He worked the downtown gallery circuit giving readings and striking many a pose in head-to-toe typical Blanco garb. “It allowed me to see that writing poetry could be turned to song.”
Things have been seriously nutty for the artist ever since. “I understand that it can be hard for people to pigeonhole what I’m doing,” Quattlebaum says. His upcoming projects include a 7-inch two-sided record produced by OHWOW Gallery, a punk and industrial-tinged concept album, Mykki Blanco and the Mutant Angels, and, of course, the aforementioned mix-tape. “But if you wanna tie me into anything, I relate most to the old New York—the Bette Midler’s, the Liza Minelli’s—I’m an entertainer, I’m entertaining.”
Quattlebaum also, not surprisingly, into fashion. “Queer theorists and art critics like to add this discourse to my cross-dressing, but I cross-dress because I look hot, men think I look hot and I enjoy the attention. Cross-dressing opened up my sexual life a thousand percent,” he says, smiling. But is he worried that the world outside of downtown Manhattan is ready for his alter ego? “People may have their prejudices, people may have their phobias, but when you’re talented, no one denies the talent. What can you do? What can you say?”
Breaking stereotypes, starting a dialogue, creating art all the while causing a riot—it’s what Quattlebaum’s trying to do, with the help of Blanco. “Right now, I have the pedigree that a lot of these up-and-coming girls would kill for,” he says with bracing candor. “This is my job and I don’t have to be fake. You gotta knock the humbleness off because this is the entertainment business,” he says before heading off for a busy weekend that includes an afternoon shoot with Ryan McGinley and a sea-creature-inspired music video shoot. “When it comes down to it, I’m a bad bitch, and I’m gonna continue to be one.”