The rapper and performance artist Mykki Blanco became HIV positive in 2011, but concealed his status for years until he decided to speak out in a defiant Facebook post in 2015: “F--- stigma and hiding in the dark, this is my real life,” he wrote at the time. “It's time to actually be as punk as I say I am.”
“I was continually falling into depression. I was having to hide my medication from close friends,” Blanco, whose actual name is Michael Quattlebaum, Jr., recalled on a recent night in New York. “I just was not having healthy sexual relationships, I was not having relationships, and I just thought, ‘I can’t continue to live like this.’”
So he fired off that Facebook post, anticipating that it might be a death knell for his music career — “I thought if I came out, I was immediately going to get shunned, that all my opportunities were just going to whittle away,” he said. At the time, and even still, there are few openly HIV positive role models in mainstream culture. (He cited Eazy-E and Magic Johnson, who both became the subjects of intense tabloid scrutiny in the ’90s when their statuses came to light.)
Yet in the nearly two years since status coming out, Blanco himself has become an example of an artist whose career has continued to thrive while being HIV positive, and, in fact, his creative evolution is due in part to his status.
“I do have some sort of responsibility to be some sort of role model,” he said. It has made him more carefully consider the effects of sexually charged lyrics, and those years spent obscuring his status echo in the narrative of “Hideaway,” a track on his recent debut album Mykki. Lyrically, “Hideaway” is about a couple—one HIV-positive, one negative—living in denial, circling around a romance. It toys with hip hop tropes, queering them and lending power to the rapper.
“That feeling of shame, of hiding, of having love only exist in a bedroom,” Blanco said, “I know what that feels like.”
So it was “Hideaway”—which Blanco has described as perhaps his favorite on the album—that rose to the surface when Blanco came together with W and amfAR to create a music video on the occasion of today's National Youth HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
“This is insanely synchronistic,” Blanco remembered thinking. “It is really cool to create a work that has a consciousness to it—that’s not only politically relevant but relevant about a subject that people still to this day are just afraid to talk about.” The video features Blanco, clad in a gauzy ball gown, rapping towards the camera while hovering around a body double locked in an abusive relationship with her partner.
At the end, Blanco turns this subtle examination of power into something more explicit, a public-service announcement disguised as a music video: Around 37 million people live with HIV globally; among them, transgender individuals are among the highest at-risk groups due to a confluence of factors including stigma and lack of education and access to health care. It’s estimated that, worldwide, transgender women are 49 times more likely to contract HIV, and nearly 27 percent of transgender people in the United States report being refused health care, according to amfAR.
After the video had wrapped and the ballgown was back on its hanger, Blanco sat down to discuss how he's come along since that Facebook post, all the “what-ifs” that crossed his mind when he was diagnosed, and why no one should get emotional about sexual health.
You wrote at the time that you thought coming out about your HIV status might adversely affect your career. Have you found that fear was unfounded?
In the past, it wouldn’t have been unfounded, but I’ve realized in this day and age people are better educated about it—even though they could be even more educated about it. We’ve had things that have happened like PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis). When I became positive, I was only three years shy of PrEP being mainstream to people. I think about, ‘Oh, wow, my life would have been completely different if this drug that was being tested in labs had become public knowledge, or the research had been…’ But you can’t what-if about your life. Things happen for a reason. But to a certain extent, what I feel happened to me—and some people get really turned off by this—I call the Kardashian effect. Where I thought everything was going to completely fall away, something has now happened with reality TV culture, with the voyeurism, was that the more people feel that they know bits of your personal life these days, no matter how detailed or how personal, it makes people—especially people who know your work—not have a sympathy for you, but an empathy for you. One of my biggest worries was that the press and people were going to continue to put it as the byline to everything I ever did. I had to brace myself—I knew that for the next few months, maybe even the next six months, the next nine months, maybe even for the next year, you’re going to have to bear with the fact that no matter how far you move from this status update, from this declaration, that people are going to write about it. So I came out with another project; people wrote about it. I came out with another project; people wrote about it. Why is that now intrinsically relevant to everything I do? By the time my album came out, I think the compassionate journalists and the smart journalists and the ones that I respect clocked that and were like, 'No, we’re not going to do that.'
Over the past year and a half, two years since you posted that Facebook post, how have you seen the attitudes towards HIV-positive individuals change?
You know, I wish there were still more public dialogues. It’s still a subject, and for some reason, in the culture industry, for some reason, it almost, for people, it feels so ’90s, or so early-’90s. Maybe, at some point in the ’90s it was cool to talk about, and it was cool to make PSAs and cool to alert people to statistics and cool to let them know what was happening. I think that the general public has just—maybe because of the medication, maybe because it’s no longer a death sentence for some in this country, even though for others it is—people have just become lackadaisical. I wish I could give an answer that seemed more inspiring, but truthfully, I still just don’t see enough information. I still just don’t see enough public conversation.
Considering the track record of the Trump administration regarding LGBTQIA issues and also the personal track record of people like Mike Pence, who saw an HIV outbreak under his governorship in Indiana—how does the political climate now change how you’ve approached work in the activist sphere?
You know what, even though I believe that we have to stay hyper-aware and hyper-vigilant of this administration, to really, really, really do a lot of community work and to understand that there are things that are going to happen under this administration—and they’re already happening—but there are things that are going to happen that we’re not even going to be able to anticipate. For a lot of people, this feeling of not being safe or not being cared for or fear of what will happen to your health care or fear of what will happen to how you receive treatment or fear of what you will be refused treatment for, these are very valid fears. But the only thing that I can think to possibly intelligently say or articulate is the fact that organizing in our communities and making sure that we are literally taking care of people that we know or that we experience in our daily lives that may suffer from this marginalization or finding some way to give back; that, to me, is really important. What other solution is there but that kind of grassroots self-nurturing of the people who are most vulnerable under this administration?
What are you doing, and what can people do?
With this last tour that I did, we did 32 cities. We went from everywhere from Boise, Idaho, to New Orleans to El Paso, Texas. I hoped, with this tour, was that we were creating a safe space. Just your presence says you’re a part of a way of thinking and a wave of people who are so necessary to help continue to change this country for the better. So I think that’s something I did contribute in the last few months to the first 100 days of working and living under this administration. Then, in general, I think continuing to have visibility for myself and for the other people in my fold, the other LGBTQIA, being not afraid to engage and vulnerable in public dialogue through social media. People can scoff at the president’s use of Twitter but I mean, some of the best community organizing in the last two years was done through Twitter and through social media.
How much does your status affect your day-to-day?
In my day-to-day life, I mean, I’m on a medication where I take one pill a day. I didn’t find out I was positive because I became ill—I found out I was positive because I was getting tested regularly. I was someone who was getting tested literally every three months. So it’s a paradox, because you would think for someone who was so rigorous about their sexual health that I would have made different decisions. In the very beginning, I used to think about how my life would be different if it hadn’t happened. At the same time, I just think I’ve encountered some of the most beautiful, compassionate people who, despite my status, have made my life so much more enriched, so much better, and I don’t think I would have met people with that character had it not happened.
What do you think is the most important thing for people to know on National Youth HIV/AIDS Awareness Day?
I think the most important think—and I’ll just say it flat out—I think straight people, heterosexual people, especially heterosexual teens and people in their early twenties, need to realize that you still need to use condoms. I hear more stories of young heterosexual people not using condoms than anyone else. It’s going to sound so weird to say ‘You are not safe,’ but you are not absolved from catching a sexually transmitted disease, and for all people, for people who are now taking PrEP or Truvada, protect yourself. You’re not absolved from getting an STD. Also, it’s 2017. Don’t be afraid to get tested every three months. I still hear of young people who are like, ‘Oh, I haven’t been tested in 9 months,’ and it’s like, you just don’t know. Also, I think it’s an important thing to say: Don’t not-get tested because you don’t trust someone or because you do trust someone. Stop making it emotional. Your sexual health and your health in general is a big deal and should not have, in my opinion, any ties to anyone’s emotional security than your own. So just take care of it like you would get your check-up for testicular cancer or a mammogram. You just do it because you do it.