Navigating the U.S. health care system can be terrifying, and the process is even more inscrutable for the millions of self-employed Americans whose ranks include working artists and musicians. Michael Quattlebaum Jr., a 30-year-old self-proclaimed health nut, is one of those people. He rose to fame as Mykki Blanco, an avant-garde rapper who blended hip-hop and riot grrrl to make music that’s as gritty as it is cinematic. Last summer, he announced that he has been HIV-positive since 2011. It was a freeing move: he said he was tired of being afraid of stigma. Today, he’s happy and healthy, and that shows in his new work.
Quattlebaum released his debut album, Mykki, via !K7 Records this fall. Weeks earlier, he spoke about living with the virus, the transformative power of eating well, and the people America’s health care system leaves behind.
How has your approach to your health — physical, mental, and spiritual — changed as you’ve gotten older?
I come from this kind of anarchist punk teenage background where it’s like “live fast, die young,” even if you don’t really believe in dying young. Now I’m so far gone from that ideology. I believe in wisdom. You don’t want to just survive, you want to live. You want to thrive. I think understanding what it is to nurture yourself through the way that you take care of your physical body — creating the atmosphere of stillness and wellness — is regenerative. It ends up affecting everything, from your everyday decision-making to your performance onstage.
When I became HIV-positive, which was in 2011, there were some people who were like, “Oh, did you find out you were HIV-positive because you became sick?” And I always like to tell people, “No, I’m lucky.” I never became ill. I found out I was HIV-positive because I was a gay man living in New York City. I used to get tested every three months. When you live in a big city and you have multiple partners, you just get tested. I’ve always been very meticulous about my sexual health.
When I became positive, there’s certain things, like nutrition, that started to become very important to me. Because I tour so relentlessly. There are things that I’ve done healthwise — like become a fanatic about raw garlic or wheatgrass or blueberries or about fasting — because I’ve seen what they’ve done for my overall health.
I’m definitely not someone who’s super absorbed in alternative medicine, but I’m not a fool and I know that there’s just some things that the medical community aren’t gonna recognize that are genuinely, extremely healthy for you. No one can ever tell me that raw garlic is not also insanely anti-bacterial, anti-fungal. In 2014, I was eating so much garlic. At one point I remember telling my mom, like, “Is it weird that I haven’t gotten sick?” I’m not talking about anything HIV-related. I mean there have been periods where I haven’t even gotten a cold. That’s because I know the foods I eat. That’s the way I take care of my body. Even though I take the medicine and I’m undetectable, it’s just one of those things where I never want to put my immune system in a compromised position.
“The way that I navigate the American health care system is to do everything I can to avoid it.”
How has touring affected your approach to taking care of your health?
Touring has made me hyper-aware of just how quickly the body can repair itself, and also what damage you can do. If you go out drinking three days in a row, you know you’re gonna feel that for more than three days. I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite, because I’ve definitely drank and done drugs and partied. But travelling has made me really aware that, like that quote says, our body is a temple.
In Europe, I’ve been super annoyed that I didn’t decide to travel with a blender because I’m such a smoothie junkie. I eat a lot of blended, raw foods. I tried to be vegan, but I didn’t last long enough because I didn’t really give myself the time I needed for my body to adjust. I mean, not to go on a tangent about veganism, but being vegan is actually, in my opinion, one of the most healthy ways you can be. I want to get there one day soon, but I just need to figure out the discipline.
Also, let’s not forget that it’s way easier to be vegan and a lot of these things if you’re super rich. Especially with the black community — you have places like Detroit and New Orleans where there’s not even grocery stores in certain neighborhoods where people can get proper nutrition. America is one of those places where we deal with social issues one at a time, and I wish that the conversations about nutritional racism and nutritional classism had entered the mainstream already. That is a real thing that affects Hispanic Americans, African Americans, white Americans who live in Appalachia — places where the government and the economy just forgets our citizens. It’s a fucking epidemic.
Could you speak more to nutritional classism and racism?
It’s sad that to eat healthy in America is more expensive. It’s sad that other countries literally taunt us about the fact that we think that we’re such a superpower and we poison our citizens with the quality of our food because we’re more concerned with making money than the health of our citizens. In France and in England, when you go to the markets there — I’m talking about the regular grocery stores — the quality of the food is so much better. They’ve outlawed certain ingredients.
You literally start to think, Why is the American government somewhat evil when it comes to certain aspects of governing these people? When you remove classes of people or races of people from having access to quality foods or even education about nutrition that’s — I feel like it may be radical to even say this — like nutritional terrorism. It’s like a war on the bodies of your people. Why aren’t the people who are on WIC [the federal food assistance program, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children], who are using food stamps, being targeted and taught about organic produce or about all of these things like free range or cage-free? It’s like those terms don’t even seem to ever show themselves in a black or Hispanic home. And people are like, “Oh well, it’s just cultural.” But it’s not cultural, it’s fucking classism.
“When you remove classes of people or races of people from having access to quality foods or even education about nutrition that’s — I feel like it may be radical to even say this — like nutritional terrorism.”
Do you also see class and race boundaries when it comes to going to the doctor?
Yes. I think that has a lot to do with mental health. There’s kind of like this blanket statement that is said in the black community, which is [that] black people don’t go to therapy. And it’s hard for me to even talk about because it’s like, well, why is that a general statement in the black community, first of all? Why is seeking guidance or help about a personal issue wrong? It’s kind of this weird paradox and I honestly can’t even wrap my head around it.
How have you found navigating the U.S. health care system?
I guess I didn’t realize how much the U.S. health care system is genuinely reflective of the economic interests of the pharmaceutical industry and not so much the patients. That surprised me when I actually really understood that. Like, Wait a minute, something is wrong. How is it that when pricing these medications or pricing these forms of therapy we aren’t taking into consideration the economic status, the class status, the wages that the average Americans are making, the wages that these people who are maybe disproportionately affected by a disease or a circumstance? And having traveled the way that I do, and seeing the health care system in England, and seeing how things work in Germany and Scandinavia, it’s just, like, the American health care system is barbaric.
What did you see on your travels that changed how you perceived the U.S. health care system?
I’ll put it like this: In America if you become ill for any reason — and not even seriously ill — there’s such an apprehension to seek care because you know that it’s gonna be expensive. You know somehow it’s gonna put you into debt. So you get sicker or you figure out a way to make it work, but the level of stress that you’re put under as a citizen who is already feeling ill is just nuts. I’ve talked to my friends in foreign countries and it’s like, “When I don’t feel well I go to the doctor and I get better.” There’s not any kind of crazy psychological warfare about falling into debt or about getting your needs met.
Have you been able to access U.S. health care services from people who are black or openly queer?
I’ve never had a gay doctor and I’ve never had a black doctor, which I think says something in itself. I know they exist, but I’ve just never had one.
What has been your most helpful resource in learning to navigate the health care system and take care of yourself?
I don’t think I have one. I honestly think it just comes down to how I personally take care of my body. Really the way that I navigate the American health care system is to do everything I can to avoid it. I literally do everything that I can to keep my body and my mind healthy so that I can avoid going to the doctor or avoid actually engaging with the health care system because it’s so fucked.
What’s the most important health care issue future lawmakers need to address?
I don’t even know if I’m informed enough to answer that question intelligently. And that’s the thing — I don’t really know people who are super informed about health care. I don’t know if I know anyone in my peer set, in my industry, or who I’m really good friends with, who could intelligently answer questions about health care. I think that the fact that so many people don’t even know the answer speaks to the fact that we need articles written about this. Not only about the actual, real-deal factual gaps and cracks in our health care, but the fact that we don’t even know how to talk about health care.