I was recently blown away by Mykki Blanco’s ‘COSMIC ANGEL’ video diary. It chronicles the rapper walking, in drag, through generally ‘straight’ spaces in New York – the subway, daytime in Harlem neighbourhood, etc. In an interview, he discusses the socially vulnerable position he puts himself in by doing this, and the threats such behaviour invokes. However, Mykki Blanco is no victim. When all eyes are on him, ready for the kill, he begins to rap. And, by all standards – he raps exceptionally. He raps with the vigour and aggression of a mainstream hip-hop artist, hooking his just-formed audiences on addictive rhythms that are impossible to ignore. Performing his ‘other’ status in this way is intentional, at first highlighting himself as an outsider to everybody else. But that his tunes follow the logic of mainstream rap (in terms of flow, delivery and lyricism), means that these audiences are easily able to access them. As evident in the video, most are bewildered, and can do nothing but celebrate the quality of what Blanco is producing.
His technique grows more complex: once these audiences are bopping away to a style of music they feel familiar with, Blanco’s lyrics become increasingly queer (often about gay sex)– “I’m a savage, I’m a freak, on a leash,” “I’ll pull my dick out – skeet skeet, so nutritious,” “Getting gullied in the backroom.” The best bit: everyone’s so hypnotised by his skill that they celebrate whatever (s)he’s saying. What we see here is Blanco wearing the costume of mainstream hip-hop while cloaking a completely queer interior. In a sense, he plays with the logic of a type of music that originally excludes him at its own game, imitating its form to high proficiency, but re-imagining its content. Rather than retire into a secluded queer refuge outside mainstream culture, he combats the combative nature of homophobic hip-hop with a style that is equally as aggressive. Like a cultural Robin Hood, he takes from the overplayed, and gives back what’s rightfully due to the culturally infringed.
Through his technique, Mykki Blanco is able to sublimate what might be perceived as his social fragilities – his homosexuality and his femininity – into assets that galvanise him. It’s a political tactic we could all learn from: through actively performing parts of our selves that society inanely conditions as weak, these ‘weaknesses’ are transferred into strengths. Master of gender performativity, Judith Butler, has been recently fixated on this phenomenon in a concept she refers to as ‘productive vulnerability.’ Over her career, Butler has exposed how capitalism not only distributes goods unequally, but distributes subjective positions such as ‘vulnerability’ unequally too; indeed, capitalist systems condition femininity as a ‘vulnerable’ position below the ‘invulnerable’ condition of the masculine, paternalistic state. One tactic for revising and ultimately escaping these constrictive models, according to Butler, is to consciously ‘perform’ such positions as a means of negating them. So, whereas being a feminine man may be institutionalised as a social hindrance, drag, for instance, in its active performance of femininity, re-routes it into strength. Rather than being stipulated as ‘weak’ by others around you, Butler’s argument is to self-assert these so-called ‘weaknesses’ as a means of control.
How does this relate to Mykki Blanco? Well, he so consciously confuses a societally ‘vulnerable’ image – him walking through Harlem in a short skirt – with a musical form that is characteristically seen as ‘invulnerable’. In doing this, he re-wires capitalism’s distribution of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘invulnerability,’ with Blanco becoming the one in power, and the normative spaces in which he operates weakening around him.
Fellow queer Hip Hop artist, the very brave Cakes da Killa, also employs this type of rebellious performativity. His track ‘Goodie Goodies’ (below) has gathered significant online momentum. It is an explicit rap that details his sexual encounters as a gay man—it’s mostly about anal sex. Some of my favourite lines: “Make a Nigga take a course in Rimming, Eat my shit like a feast, and don’t forget the trimmings”; “Spitting all in my ear with your hand on my butt, cos’ my shit come tighter than a drag when she tuck.” The “tuck” is referring to when a drag performer tapes his penis down against his butt so to remove any trace of a ‘bulge’ – Cakes is implying his anus is “tighter” than that (just in case you wanted to know).
Here we see Cakes imitating the aggressively sexual format of mainstream rap, but simply replacing its content to reflect his own sexual preferences, and giving forum to the language of queer subjectivity (the term “tuck” for instance). He turns the masochistic nature of rap on its own head, and any attack aimed at him by a mainstream rapper becomes null and void: if they dislike the sexually explicit nature of Cake’s music, then they are implicitly critiquing their own genre. A great example of his formal parallels to the style of Hip-Hop he is simultaneously critiquing is the time he got aired on a rap radio station, the radio DJ having got hooked on the track – even listening to it at the gym – before fully realising its gay content.
What I admire about both Cakes and Mykki (along with a growing roster of queer hip hop artists), is that they revel in their queer sexuality so explicitly that any homophobic insult missiled at them does a 180. I found the same when I was at an all-male boarding school: the more I concealed my sexuality, the more I was bullied for it. Finally becoming sick of this introversion, I decided to socially perform my sexuality. For one of my queer survival tactics, I walked around the school wearing only pink (from a headscarf to both socks). That day, I was left unscathed. I paraded around my ‘weakness’ as my biggest asset, and the armour was impenetrable (and quite chic, too).
Mass-cultural thieving and re-packaging of counter-cultural invention has been happening for decades.* Mykki Blanco and Cakes Da Killa are a sign that this mechanism is reversing—infiltrating, as they are, mainstream spaces with their queer agenda through cleverly utilizing its very own hetero-normative forms. Advised as it may be to not give rise to bullies, sometimes, one of the best ways to fight violence, is with violence. Queer artists today are ransacking the glossy edifice of mainstream culture to take back and re-condition what was probably invented by their people in the first place.
*Take Madonna’s 1990 ‘Vogue’ music video, which borrows the signature dance style of the late 80’s drag-Vogueing communities in New York (an underground queer black and Hispanic community with a dance style that fused breakdance with deconstructed model poses). Madonna’s video dilutes the vigour of this expressive queer style, repackaging and commodifying it to create the illusion of transgression in a song that celebrates only white celebrities: “Greta Garbo and Monroe, Dietrich and DiMaggio”.