In new Channel 4 documentary series Sound and Vision, Billie JD Porter explores the innovative musicians and music scenes that have a profound impact on our culture, from UK Afrobeats to singing synthesizer vocaloid technology. In episode one, she joins American performance artist, rapper and activist Mykki Blanco on the Southern leg of his US tour, meeting his fans and the marginalised black LGBTQI communities of today’s America.
If you’re unfamiliar with Mykki, there are many labels people try to put on him – queer rap, drag act, the HIV positive cross-dresser – but none would be quite right; he eludes categorisation. He’s toured with Bjork and his debut album Mykki has had over one million Spotify plays, yet he is less known than most conveyor-belt-produced artists. You’d probably recognise his haunting, dreamy pop track “Loner”, or his 2014 Princess Nokia collab “Wish You Would” but his musical evolution is constantly escaping genres (he identifies more with Yoko Ono and Kathleen Hanna than any rapper). But what you should know: he’s provocative. He’s fearless, championing the unrepresented – his captivating recital of Zoe Leonard’s 1992 poem “I Want A Dyke For President” for Dazed was the highlight of the election campaign. He unapologetically speaks out about everything from living with HIV and Black Lives Matter, to gender pronouns; although this shouldn’t be seen as left-field, in a time when JME is chastised for simply encouraging his young fans to get out and vote, Mykki is a punk in the truest sense.
Sound and Vision opens with Mykki on stage in Atlanta, Georgia – one of the many Bible Belt states, and one of the five states without laws against hate crimes – dancing around the stage in a blonde wig and white, frothy dress. While only adopting his stage name and get-up since around 2010, he’s been challenging gender binaries from a young age, as Billie finds out when she visits his family home in Raleigh, North Carolina. “He’s been internally questioning the social condition of all of us as men and women – before the term ‘non-binary’ existed, and before you could use #LGBTQI+ on Instagram,” Billie told Refinery29. “He was a child prodigy, basically. His mum has kept reviews in the local paper of his spoken word poetry about masculinity and femininity that he’d performed aged 12. It’s something that he’s been completely interested in and empowered by since he was a child.”
The idea of representation is key to Mykki’s work. In 2015, he announced via Facebook that he was living with HIV, making him the second openly positive rapper since Eazy-E. “I wasn’t living authentically,” he tells Billie. “I realised very early on that visibility is important because people need to see positive representations of themselves in the world.” This is a sentiment echoed by Coochie, a member of Southern Fried Queer Pride (SFQP), an Atlanta-based queer and trans arts and advocacy organisation that celebrates the vibrant communities of the Southern states: “Representation matters. It saves lives. If I had had someone like Mykki at a young age, I wouldn’t have spent so many nights crying. If you don’t get to see yourself in a mirror, you’re going to think you’re a monster.”
SFQP was founded in reaction to the whitewashing and gentrification of LGBTQI+ spaces in Atlanta. We meet some of the members, who explain why overlooked nuances of identity led them to set up the organisation. “You may be white and gay, or white and trans, but there’s still racism, sexism, anti-blackness there”, founder Taylor Alxndr says. “It’s a need for a space where you don’t have to give all of that emotional labour”, explains Monteqarlo. When 2016 was the deadliest year on record for the LGBTQI+ community, and seven trans women were murdered in the USA in the first two months of 2017, groups like SFQP are essential. “This is a state of emergency for black trans women”, says Toni-Michelle Williams, a member of SNaP, a black, trans and queer-led abolitionist organisation. We first meet the group as they’re stood in a circle, gloriously clapping and singing “We’re trans, we’re black, respect our gender just like that” to the tune of Khia’s “My Neck, My Back”. Working to fight the huge injustices and inequalities facing Atlanta’s communities, its focus is on campaigning against the disproportionate levels of harassment and physical violence against black trans women on a daily basis.
This type of violence is not isolated – nearly two-thirds of LGBT Americans say they feel less safe under Trump’s administration. In Durham, North Carolina, all-queer, all-Muslim punk band The Muslims, led by singer Laila Nur, formed in retaliation to that fear. “Challenging the dominant norm is the shit that I like to do – I can’t imagine how different, how empowered, how secure I’d have been growing up if I had had someone like Mykki Blanco.” Along with her wife, Laila is raising her child as gender non-conforming, so in Trump’s America, their very existence is resistance. “It is so important to have artists that push against this transphobia, islamophobia, homophobia, sexism, racism, classism. I believe music and art can do that.” The first episode of Sound and Vision ends with Mykki’s Georgia gig, this time with transcendent slow-motion shots of the people we’ve met dancing freely in the crowd, being authentically themselves while he climbs the stages and tears off his wig.
What does Billie hope people get out of this look into Mykki’s world? “I want people to be aware of their privilege. Don’t stand by and allow laws that do put very certain and specific groups of people at risk, just because they don’t apply to you. You should be fighting on behalf of those people because it’s a slippery slope to a dystopian future.” In a hyper-conservative area of the USA, Mykki’s presence is a safe space for the overlooked and underrepresented. In 2017, when government laws and policies are set to violate the human rights of marginalised groups, socially conscious and progress-making artists are vital in speaking out for their audiences. While that may be a rare thing right now, we can be thankful for Mykki Blanco: “I’m black, I’m gay, I’m HIV positive – you don’t see that combination in the media or in society. I speak out because it’s really important that people know their worth.”