Hip-hop artist Mykki Blanco raps and sings about everything from the ups and downs of drugs and addiction to his shifting gender identity. He has been an icon for hip-hop-loving queer youth, as he has lived as a trans woman and a genderqueer person while producing some of the most lyrically devastating, smart and inspiring underground hip-hop songs of the past decade.
On his first North American tour in two years and in advance of his Thursday, February 23, show at Los Lake Lounge, Blanco spoke with Westword about his shifting fan base, U.S. politics and his take on the hip-hop community.
Westword: What can Denver audiences expect?
Mykki Blanco: The tour, with Cakes Da Killa, has been really amazing. It's been my largest North American tour in two years. It's been really, really awesome to meet all of the younger kids who were — when I first started making music — too young to come to the shows. Maybe they were sixteen or eighteen. Now they're old enough to come to the shows. So I'm meeting this whole new group of people who have essentially grown up listening to my music and really understanding the content that I create, and people who know multiple projects.
It's a whole different vibe than when I first started and people were just finding out who I am. It's been larger audiences. I guess it's that thing that happens when you gain more noteriety and people really start to engage with you musically over the years. It's only been five years, but already I feel a really dynamic change in the audience. So I am really pleased with the turnout and just how people are being so affected. I think it just comes down to the fact that they are so much more familiar with the work.
I'm interested in what you've seen change in the audience. What are those changes?
The biggest change that I see is a lot of the things that make my music or make my image or make me as a person seem really taboo to a lot of people in these American audiences, which is why I haven't toured much here. I've been living and touring so much more in Europe, because people weren't as open-minded [in America]. A lot of my identity politics seem super-taboo to American audiences. And now we've so much of a larger genderqueer and transgender presence, and gay marriage passed in America, which was a really big touchstone for a lot of people.
I guess I feel like a lot of people are more comfortable, that they can engage with a queer entertainer and for some reason not have to have their own identity entwined with enjoying my music — or, at the same time, people who feel celebrated and proud to come to the shows and feel like they're inhabiting a safe space and feel like they have a place where they can enjoy my kind of music or live music in general and not have to share space with people who would put them down or judge them.
I'm curious how you situate yourself in this particular political moment?
At first, I needed to position myself where I would be constantly critiquing this new administration. I was in the same kind of shock as everyone else in really understanding the weight of everything that occurred. But now, especially being in the country, to be quite honest, I think that it's more constructive to focus on what I can do as far as community-building in my community. Rather than focus on the administration, focus on the people and focus on what we can do to still thrive during this administration. I think, like everyone, at first I was like, "Blah, blah, blah, president this, blah, blah, blah, this that." But now I think it's definitely more constructive to continue to speak directly to my community rather than focus energy on the administration. And I think that's very important. I think a lot of people have switched gears, because there are enough people who are watchdogging the administration. That's not to say that we shouldn't be vigilant and hype-aware, but I think at a certain point you start to feel like you're giving your energy away to it rather than giving your energy away to people in the community that really need your attention.
What does that look like, for you to be focused on community?
I'm not standing on a soapbox right now, but for me, first of all, I chose not to live in the country. For me, that's a big red flag already. I chose not to live in America. I'm an entertainer. I do my shows. People often tell me that [doing] my show is unabashedly, in itself, a political statement. I would never necessarily call myself an activist. A lot of people have called me an activist. I just feel like there are certain things that are important to talk about, and I use my platform to speak about [them]. When it's important to use my platform to act on it, I do. But I don't have any kind of political strategy.
What's it like being back in the U.S.?
I thought it was going to be more scary. I mean, it is scary, in a sense. But at the same time, I think that it's really interesting that right now, at this key moment, that the administration has just begun taking hold of America and that we're doing this tour. I think to a certain extent, for me, now that I've been doing these shows, it's moved past "Fuck the administration." It's one thing to say it and get your crowd riled up. But I think it's more important to build community, helping the community continue to thrive and overall be more constructive than just a "Fuck you."
I'm curious where your head is in terms of philosophy, in terms of what you're reading right now and what you're thinking about.
What am I thinking about right now? [Coughs.] Sorry. I'm just getting over being sick.
We were lucky enough to start the tour in the middle of a blizzard that we followed through four states. It's like, literally, we followed the blizzard.
Right now I'm reading short stories. But I guess what I'm really thinking about a lot on this tour is personal accountability. In my own life, it's always kind of interesting to tour during the wintertime. During the wintertime, already, it's usually a time of reflection. So it's like, I usually tour mostly during the summer or I tour during the fall. Touring during the winter is this double thing where you're having to work, you're going into tour mode. Winter itself, biologically, is doing a number on you, and it's in a different way than it would during the summer months. I guess I've been thinking a lot about self-sufficiency and self-reliance. I turned thirty last year, and this is my first year to be thirty years old. I think I'm still adjusting to this thing of being completely accountable for my whole entire life and really entering adulthood and that it's up to me to make sure that everything in my life is going according to plan.
You feel like it is?
It is, yeah. A lot of things have really smoothed out. I still have some personal struggles I'm really working through, but for the most part, I'm usually making good choices around those personal struggles, and I'm really trying to prevent situations where I don't, because there comes a certain point where everyone makes mistakes, but you don't want to start to develop a toxic pattern of behavior. I think that you realize it's healthy for you to stop it.
How? What does that look like?
It's everything that people do, from going to sobriety meetings to picking up literature that inspires you to seeing a therapist.
Is tour a particularly challenging time?
For me it can be, just because I've not done it for so long in America. It's kind of a whole different rulebook. But once it starts, once you realize, "I'm on tour, and it's really time to get grounded." You can't do this and you can't do that, and you know it's this kind of situation that you can be here and do this. I think the first week was just getting back in this mode and understanding all the different things that can trigger you. But I think I'm pretty grounded again, and I'm like, this is what this is. It's time to move forward, too, but to remain really grounded because this is a tour. These are these atmospheres and this context, you know?
How have you seen hip-hop in the U.S. evolve, and where do you situate yourself within that right now?
I really don't, actually. To be quite honest, in the hip-hop community, there were certain people in hip-hop that were supportive, but as a whole, the hip-hop community has never had anything to do with my celebrity or my fan base. So I can't really answer that question, because I've never really been a part of that community. It's like I created my own fan base. I created my own content and put it out in the world, and whoever liked it liked it, and whoever didn't didn't. It wasn't the result or any kind of push from the hip-hop community.
Mykki Blanco plays Lost Lake Lounge tonight, February 23, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $17-$19. For more information, go to the Lost Lake website.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.