Told in her own words
Just in from New York and Princess Nokia is clearly desperate for a cigarette. After opening the window in her label’s North London offices, she returns to the coffee table and snips half the filter off of a Silk Cut. “This is alright?” she asks, before shrugging, leaning out and sparking up. “I mean, I feel like everyone smokes in England anyway.”
Nokia, or Destiny Frasqueri as she introduces herself, is a hard person to pin down. In her black Vivienne Westwood dress and militant looking goth boots, she’s chatty and disarmingly cordial, but she’s also on guard. She’s surprisingly cagey when I open the interview with a question about New York’s ballroom culture. Featuring heavily in the video for her single ‘Sugar Honey Iced Tea (S.H.I.T.)’, the scene, inspired by 1960s-era Puerto Rican beauty pageants, sees different houses compete against each other in fiercely-contested voguing competitions. It forms a big part of Frasqueri’s artistic heritage; however, she’s adamant that she has no interest in taking credit for a longstanding part of LGBTQ+ culture. “It’s a small inspiration behind the video, and I don’t want it to be a focal point,” she explains. “It’s getting very popularised right now, and I don’t want to be a face for it.”
Frasqueri is notorious for not taking any shit. She has often been extremely outspoken in the past, accusing Ariana Grande of ripping off her sound and leaping off stage to punch misogynists during a charity show at Cambridge University. There’s even a verse of ‘Sugar Honey Ice Tea’ that recounts a widely reported story of the time she threw a bowl of soup over a racist man on a subway train. Growing up in Harlem before losing her mother at aged 10, Frasqueri has learned to be a fighter. Passing through a succession of foster homes before running away to live with her grandmother in the Lower East Side, the skateboarding, emo-listening misfits she fell in with in high school helped her to find an outlet through music, and Nokia remains immensely proud of them.
Fresqueri’s first steps into music came in the early 2010s when she appeared as one of the standouts of the brief but inventive Soundcloud Rap scene. Experimenting with names such as Destiny and Wavy Spice before landing on Princess Nokia, she made a name for herself with tracks that ranged from the irreverent ‘Bitch, I’m Posh’ to the politically-charged ‘Yaya’. Intense label interest followed, resulting in her first album 1992 Deluxe landing on Rough Trade in 2017 to rave reviews and comparisons to New York hip hop royalty including Nas and Feem. It didn’t take long for her independent streak to return, though. Last year’s A Girl Cried Red saw Nokia moving way out to leftfield, serving up an album that owed as much to Fall Out Boy and Taking Back Sunday as it did to Odd Future and Frank Ocean (she wore a Slipknot tee on its cover). It may have confused many, but for Nokia it was the culmination of a deeply personal mission, who explained on a YouTube live stream that the record was a tribute to the bands that had helped to overcome depression and loneliness.
2019 had been relatively quiet for her, but in the autumn she unexpectedly returned with two new tracks that have seen the rapper back on a more straight-up hip hop footing. In typically unpredictable style, ‘Sugar Honey Iced Tea (S.H.I.T)’ finds Fresqueri hitting back at her haters and reaffirming her political stance. Follow up ‘Balenciaga’ is more of a dopey love letter to New York City’s thrift stores and the rapper’s unique sense of style. All this, of course, hints that Princess Nokia will be returning with a new mixtape in 2020. While at the time of writing the details on that are sketchy at best, there are three things I can say about it right now – it will be unexpected, break norms and be definitely individualist. Because at the end of the day, that’s what Princess Nokia is all about, who had this to tell me.
“There’s always going to be people who just don’t like you”
I remember thinking, wow, people really don’t like me and I’m gonna have a little fun with it. I’ve never done anything for people not to like me. I have a good heart. I’m honest, and I love very deeply, and I’m a good person. The adult thing to do is keep [the hate] to yourself. But when people start projecting anger and hatred so, so aggressively and just so recklessly, then I have to call it out. I’m a person, and I bleed, and I cry, and I feel things. Why do I have to be the place for people to dump their garbage? Being Princess Nokia is all I’ve ever lived for; I don’t do it to be better than this person or that person. If your main goal is to be famous then perhaps being a successful musician isn’t for you. It’s like I say in the song, don’t do this shit to be famous; I do this shit ‘cos I love it. ‘Sugar Honey Iced Tea’ is about reminding people that I’m not going to let them dump their shit on me.
“I’m not trying to be different, to make a point or a statement”
It’s really all I know. In fact, for a long time I really didn’t think I was making a point ’til I realised that people had started seeing me in a different way than I do. I have a very innocent view of how I got to be who I am because I’ve only worked with myself. I think people don’t expect to be around a woman so immersed in culture and I give you so much culture, reference and intellect.
In a way, I just follow my compass. It always points me north. My compass never steers me wrong. Yeah, I’m a little off-kilter. I make music that has a devoted fanbase that’s underground, but it still has incredible mainstream reach and value. It’s like the very definition of who I am. I’ve made so many different types of music and art. I sing, and I act, and I model, and I photograph, and I write books. I’m a multi-faceted artist.
“My energy will not be spent on petty girl drama”
Women can be so many things: healers, witches, goddesses, mothers; all these incredible, amazing things. But then also sometimes there’s just this really unnecessary conflict. I don’t take anything personally. I don’t write songs that are directed at anyone; I’m more about talking openly about what I internalise and my experiences. I’m all about speaking my truth and letting my freak flag fly.
I’m in a place where my life is so happy, wholesome and healthy. Why should I sacrifice my peace y’ know? I came to realise recently that there are things I care about and things that I want to put my energy into. I’m a soulful, peaceful woman. My revolution is my revolution; I’m doing something very different from the status quo. It’s not like I’m trying to prove anything, it’s more about getting a point across, celebrating my individuality and having fun.
“People are still confused that I made an emo record”
I’m like, ‘yeah, I made a rock record.’ As far as I’m concerned, I’ve always shared with the world what I’m into, and that’s always been one of my favourite genres. I was around at the peak of its height. Ten years later, and it feels like it’s all behind us now, but when I was in high school, I would listen to that shit all day long.
At the time, I was really sad. I was deeply antagonising over a lot of things, so I wrote a three-chord melodic rock album. I’m still so proud of that record because I loved the music. I remember feeling so free while I was making it. I was thinking, if there’s anyone who should put an emo record out then it’s definitely me – I have something so different to offer. A lot of subjects covered in that genre come from a male’s perspective, and sometimes it can go way too dark. A Girl Cried Red is really a Christian rock album. It’s about redemption, finding god and finding yourself even through pain and sadness. It was like the coolest thing ever for me waking up and getting a message from Silverstein or Fall Out Boy; all the people I love and have inspired my music.
“My business pleases me”
Whenever I walk into a meeting the first thing I say to my team is, how does this interest me? What does this do for me? If you can’t answer me that, then we’re just chit-chatting, so goodbye.
I think there are many ways to be business orientated. As a growing businesswoman and self-made success story, I have to be savvy in business. I can be laissez-faire about everything – my spirit free, how I make card is free – but I’ve learnt that I have to take care of myself. I have to take care of my assets. I have to take care of my music that I’ve made all myself; that I wrote and created on my own. I’m not a young, ignorant person who’s just going along for the ride or the money or the laughs. I’m deeply invested in this, and I have created a business that serves me and gives me the life that I wanted as a child.
“I’ve always worked. I always take care of myself and my family.”
That’s just what Caribbean people do. It’s in our ethics as people and especially as women to be hardworking. I wasn’t just going to wait around and collect checks and be a product of my environment; I want something more for myself. That’s why I took Princess Nokia to such a height; I really knew what it was to suffer and be alone and be financially dependent since I was 15 years old. Oh man, suffering as a young person sucks. There was no way I wanted to work in an office, so I said okay, I’m going to connect to the underground music thing and so far its worked out for me.
You know, there are some people from where I’m from who I don’t think have ever left the state. That’s not a reflection on them; it’s not their fault in so much that it’s a reflection of society and systematic oppression and marginalisation. I was fortunate as a child; I got some great glimpses into a more sustainable life, and I met people who offered me the opportunities to get what I have. I’m really grateful that I’ve been blessed to come from a very artistically supportive and nurturing family that didn’t put art down or put us down.
“I think people don’t realise how much I love music”
I love all kinds of music, and I make music according to the type of music that I like. Like, most rappers make just rap or hip hop like it’s religious. I love other things. I mean, I love drum and bass and a trip-hop, so I did it. I love soul and basketball, so I did it. And I love hip hop, so I did it, and I did it really good. It was a little off-kilter, sure, but that’s what made it so beautiful. Music is interchangeable, and it depends on what I’m feeling.
People tend to look at my music and go ‘she doesn’t make up her mind: she’s all over the place. She has a niche fan base, I don’t really know what she’s doing; is it rock? Is it hip hop? What’s it going to be?’ I feel like I put out a really incredible rock album and half of the world got it and saw how genius it was for a Puerto Rican woman to put out the most successful female emo-rap album ever. But the proof is in the pudding. How many times have I saved someone’s life with that album? I know for a fact because people tell me. They write me all the time, even a year and a half later, on a daily basis to tell me how much that album changed their lives, gave them hope and made them not want to hurt anymore. That’s not what I wanted to do with that record, but it’s like, okay. I’m making this to help me heal, but if that helps other people heal, then that’s a success.
“Mostly though, I just don’t fucking care”
And I say that with a really, really big smile on my face. I just don’t care about pleasing others to the point of making myself unhappy. I don’t care about the things that people think about me or the negative things that they say about me. I just don’t care. People sensationalise me and discredit my work or give me half the credit, but I know. I know what I deserve, not coming from ego or anything like that, but as a hard worker and innovator.
I guess I lived my whole life in suffering, pain, depression, confusion, trauma, and I’m like I just don’t care anymore. Music has been the only place to truly get me out of the darkest places in my life, and I only care about music. I care about making great songs and great records, I care about bringing that to the mainstream and going, ‘look at what I can do’. I try not to have negative connotations about the industry, but I try not to pay too much attention to what’s going on around me. I just say it’s like a big cafeteria and I’m just going to sit my tray down. Some people are going to be drawn to me, and some people are gonna stay away from me; I’m just gonna sit in the same place and see what happens.
“My self-belief comes from my friends”
That comes from ballroom culture. It comes down from emanating a fantasy that you’re not born into. When you walk, when you dance and when you present yourself as a queer person to the outside world you have an attitude and a sassiness that you develop from being a part of that world and gay culture. My friends taught me that.
John Carlos, as well as being one of my best friends, is the father of our house. It’s called the House of Mofongo, and we’ve been a family for ten years now. We decided to call ourselves a house even though we don’t compete, we just love our friends and family and take care of the younger kids. That has given me so much belief in myself. I’ve always been this awkward goth kid, but the gay side of me is like, pick it up. I got attitude, I got nerve, I got it all. It’s how you portray that fantasy that helps you to navigate life with courage and strength.