September 9, 2012
Mykki Blanco’s video for her track “Wavvy,” begins with Blanco acting out a pretty standard hip-hop video trope: shirtless man engaged in a drug deal, shirtless man running from the police, shirtless man rapping. Then, cut to Blanco as woman, still rapping shirtless but with a wig and make-up, her lack of breasts in full view. Here the traditional hip-hop video style begins to unravel; though Blanco raps in a club surrounded by back-up dancers, these dancers wear stranger, artier ensembles, and their beauty is a weirder, more indefinable one removed from traditional definitions of music video “sexy.”
This is the world of Mykki Blanco, the transgender (or genderfluid) rapper who has gotten attention for rapping as a woman. While in other videos (and concerts) Blanco has typically performed in full-on drag, in “Wavvy,” Blanco’s presentation is more genderfuck. Here, Blanco postures herself between masculine and feminine identities, toying with the traditional criteria of gender normativity in the hip-hop tradition.
The unpredictability of “Wavvy” is a testament to Blanco’s abilities as a transgressive pop/hip-hop artist. Subversion—of traditional gender roles, of the standards of hip-hop, and of the audience’s own expectations of Blanco as a queer rapper—lies at the heart of Blanco’s music. It is this uncertainty that makes Blanco such an enticing performer: the viewer is constantly left on edge, never quite sure which identity Blanco will assume next.
Mykki Blanco is the drag performer persona of New York artist Michael Quattlebaum, Jr., one of a growing movement of New York performers creating rap and hip-hop with an aggressively queer bent—the most prominent others being Le1f and the duo House of Ladosha. What makes these artists “aggressively queer” is their shared commitment to subvert and surprise. The raw darkness of their beats underpins the blatant expression of queer sexualities within their music. This movement is as much visual as it is musical: as they toy with gender norms in videos and onstage, their performances become as integral to their art as the music itself.
Though Le1f performs exclusively as a man, his excellent video, “Wut,” also subverts hip-hop video standards. The opening scene pares a hip-hop video down to its basics: a rapper and two dancers against a white backdrop. The beat starts, and we see Le1f bouncing towards us, assertively staring straight into the camera with a macho aggression traditionally designated as masculine. But then he laughs, and we realize the masculine posturing was nothing more than just that—posturing.
Another shot zooms right in on Le1f’s face to reveal him flirting with the camera with a more “feminine” coyness, only to cut to Le1f, dressed in a basketball jersey revealing his biceps, sitting on the lap of a shirtless man. This constant switching between societally masculine and feminine posturing is perhaps best embodied in a particularly bizarre gesture in which, staring down the camera once again, Le1f twists a stick of pink chewing gum around his finger. It’s a seemingly flirty, girlish gesture, but with an aggression that completely removes it from the way you’ve seen so many teenage girls do it in film and TV.
Le1f’s constant switching and splicing of socially prescribed masculine and feminine movements and behaviors deconstructs these conventions in the hip-hop sphere. His ability to don both gender identities in the span of one video suggests that there is nothing natural or essential about either of them. They are nothing more than performances one puts on, methods of indicating one’s masculinity or femininity that have become codified by thousands of hip-hop videos in the past. Le1f sees both masculinity and femininity as costumes equally fun to try on as he gleefully moves back and forth between the two.
Another queer rapper frequently grouped with the likes of Le1f and Mykki Blanco is Zebra Katz, whose addictive track, “Ima Read,” is an ode to queer history. Specifically, the track addresses the art of “reading,” a practice first made famous in the cult film Paris is Burning, now known from the “reading” challenge on RuPaul’s Drag Race. “Reading” is an essential part of drag queen culture in which queens vie to cleverly call each other out and cut each other down to size. (More on reading can be seen in this YouTube video, beginning at 0:35.) Katz’s lyrics take inspiration from the act of reading itself: “Ima read that bitch / Ima school that bitch / I’m gonna take that bitch to college / I’m gonna give that bitch some knowledge.” The lyrics are undeniably a step down from the clever rhymes of Le1f and Blanco, but they create a great song that pays homage to current gay culture’s drag foremothers.
Yet Katz’s video for “Ima Read” lacks the same subversive quality of Blanco’s and Le1f’s. The camera is static, looking straight on or, more often, up at Katz, who always looks back aggressively and assertively. Katz is cast in the video in the “teacher” role; in the video’s universe, he is always in control. As such, his gender identity stays rooted in the traditionally masculine. Throughout, the track’s guest rapper, Njena Reddd Foxxx, sits in a leg-baring crouch, inhabiting a classic pin-up girl role. It’s a far cry from the more subversive, ambiguous use of gender in both “Wavvy” and “Wut.”
Perhaps due to its more tempered message, “Ima Read” has met an incredible amount of success. The song first gained popularity after being played at a Rick Owens fashion show, immediately catapulting Katz’s work to a more privileged fan base. Shortly afterwards, Katz signed a record deal with famed pop producer Diplo. In an interview with Guardian, Venus X, the co-founder of a New York party called GHE20 GOTHIK, which has featured the likes of Mykki Blanco and more, said this of Katz signing a deal with Diplo: “I would never work with Diplo because he’s a hetero-normative piece of shit. I would never put gay music on that label. He will just capitalize on whatever is hot at the moment. And being gay is not a question of ‘hot,’ it’s just being gay.” Whether or not Diplo is actually a “hetero-normative piece of shit,” as Venus X asserts, she brings up a good point: that many may simply embrace queer rappers and queer culture due to its of-the-moment hipness, appropriating queer culture as a commodity.
It’s tough for me to consider Katz’s video as being in the same sphere as Blanco’s or Le1f’s: while it’s undoubtedly a great pop song, it lacks the critical edge that sets the other two apart. Blanco and Le1f’s videos get to the heart of what makes the queer rap movement so exciting: they create hip-hop that actively critiques and subverts, that refuses to be complicit in enforcing traditional gender or societal norms.
The raw spirit of the queer rap movement is perhaps best captured by one of Mykki Blanco’s first videos, “Join My Militia (Nas Gave Me a Perm).” It’s a surreal nightmare of a hip-hop video, tied more to industrial, punk, and hardcore beats than to hip-hop. Blanco’s deep, threatening voice resounds throughout, inspiring both awe and fear; dark, bizarre images show Blanco slithering across a beach, masked figures, and a group of dead fish hanging from a tree. And then the unforgettable final shot: Blanco, nude and kneeling on the ground, a dead squid hanging out of her mouth. It’s an image of both revulsion and beauty. At its core, great “queer rap,” like Blanco’s, might make us want to dance, but mostly, it leaves us on edge, constantly unsure of what to expect next.
Andrew Wagner is a sophomore in Yale College. He is the arts editor for Broad Recognition.