amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Clinging to the Positive: An Interview with Artist Mykki Blanco

Mykki Blanco 1Known for his trademark wigs, flamboyant costumes, and "ferocious" tracks, "genderqueer" rapper and performance artist Mykki Blanco made headlines when he revealed that he was HIV positive on Facebook in 2015. Believing it was career suicide, he already had considered other lines of work.

But if anything, it energized and boosted his fame.

Now, with a new storytelling song — “Hideaway” — that plays with his feminine alter ego as “this queer boss-type figure,” the 31-year-old, who was born Michael David Quattlebaum Jr., spoke to amfAR from the set of the video for “Hideaway,” which premiered April 10 on W magazine to coincide with National Youth HIV and AIDS Awareness Day.

Watch the video here.

In 2015, you disclosed your HIV status on Facebook, four years after being diagnosed. What made you decide that it was the right time?

I could no longer live what I considered to be a shadow life. I could no longer have close friends and family members not know one of the most personal things that I was experiencing in my life. But also I was really ready to start experiencing a healthy love life. When you begin a relationship with someone and you tell them that there has to be some kind of secrecy involved — ‘You know, I don’t want people to know my status’ — that’s not a healthy way to live.

What was the reaction from fans, the industry, etc? What impact did this have on you?

The only examples I had of people who had come out as positive, either they had experienced this outpouring of pity and then were so uncomfortable to talk about it that the person or the situation just seemed to fade away in a very negative sense, or a public outrage. I basically thought, ‘OK, now that I’m open about this, I need to explore other career options.’ I didn’t know that people could be so compassionate. I was genuinely surprised at how people reacted and the wave of positive attention that I received.

Artist Mykki Blanco discusses living with HIV on National Youth HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.

What was life like in the immediate aftermath of your diagnosis?

I found out I was positive and then about six months later, my first really big music video and single came out. So this really kind of tragic thing happened to me, but at the same time this insanely positive­ — no pun intended — trajectory also manifested. I just clung to the positive. I did have examples of people in the community who were positive who were healthy and thriving, so that gave me a lot of encouragement. But I did have a lot of fear because society stigmatizes people.

There seems to be a growing national awareness of gender fluidity and non-binary gender expression. What are your thoughts on this? Can you talk a little bit about your journey?

These public dialogues that are happening with gender fluidity are amazing. These things just don’t enter the public sphere for no reason. There are enough people who have felt marginalized or disenfranchised or misunderstood that are gender fluid and now is their time to raise their hand and say, ‘Recognize me.’ And it does make me a bit emotional. Five years ago, I didn’t walk into a room and someone ask me what pronouns I go by. That’s progress. For my own journey, I had kind of always gone through life just assuming that I was a gay male. And then when I was 24, I started dressing in women’s clothing. It was through exploring my femininity that I ended up where I am now. Even more than sexual, it felt creative.

You have said that being a “queergender” rapper comes with a lot of unwanted extra baggage. In what ways?

When I do something, someone always has to try to attach a political angle to it. I have come out with work that has nothing to do with my sexuality. Yet someone’s going to pop it in there. Instead of just saying musician or artist Mykki Blanco, it’s queer artist Mykki Blanco, gay rapper Mykki Blanco. There was a time like two or three years ago where I was really railing against that. What I realized is that if these labels are helping people who are completely unfamiliar with my world understand my work and then enjoy it, then I don’t disagree with that.

Mykki Blanco 2You describe yourself growing up as a “very volatile young man,” and your tracks have been called “ferocious.” Where does that passion come from?

I did not have a homophobic childhood. But outside of the home, I was teased a lot. People really did some cruel stuff to me. I think a lot of feminine, especially black boys, experience that harsh reality that the outside world is not going to accept you being feminine, and also being black, and being a boy. I think that life taught me very early on that you can’t let people walk all over you. I think that created a lot of aggression that I have had to kind of temper in my adulthood.

On your latest album, the track “You Don’t Know Me” is about coming out as HIV positive. What do you hope listeners take away from this song?

It’s the first time that I ever really shared a personal narrative in that way. I just feel like with this album, and especially with that song, you might have had an idea of Mykki Blanco as this flamboyant, aggressive punk performer. But if you take all that away, you are dealing with just a very simple human being that wants to be loved, that wants all of the things that everyone else wants. I just now happen to have to deal with the fact that I’m HIV positive. While that colors my journey, I can still thrive and I can still achieve my goals and my dreams.

If you take all that away, you are dealing with just a very simple human being that wants all of the things that everyone else wants. I just now happen to have to deal with the fact that I’m HIV positive.What would a cure for HIV mean to you personally?

It would change how the entire world deals with disease and deals with stigma. I recognize that I come from a country where the health care system is not perfect but where I have access to proper medication and a quality of care that people in less-developed places don’t have. Also, because I did become really public about it, it put an ease on my relationships. But millions of people in this country still can’t be open about it. I do understand that I am in a privileged position. So when you talk about a cure, I think about all of those people that don’t have that privilege.

April 18 is National Transgender HIV Testing Day. What would you say to a transgender or gender fluid individual who doesn’t think they need to get tested for HIV?

Everyone needs to get tested because it’s a part of your sexual health. And I think with what’s been happening with the public dialogues around transgender and gender fluid and non-binary awareness, it’s so important that everyone begins to understand that gender is this much larger thing. These are people in our communities that we have to protect, that we have to care for, that we have to educate ourselves about. This is all of our collective humanity. So I would say, as a human being, get tested. As a human being, take care of your sexual health.