Princess Nokia: ‘At my shows, girls can take up space the way men do’

New Yorker Destiny Frasqueri is the radical intersectional feminist who is taking on the rap brotherhood. She talks about gentrification, male domination, her love of riot grrrl – and why the music industry is like the devil

The first time Destiny Frasqueri came to London, she was 18 years old and called herself Wavy Spice. She had released only a handful of songs on Soundcloud, but one of them, Bitch I’m Posh, had taken on a life of its own. It was a lo-fi house track topped off with a funny, laconic, trash-talking vocal – the kind of thing hipster playlists and profiles in Vice are made of – and now, inevitably, record companies were circling. One of them was interested enough to fly her to Britain.

You might have thought Frasqueri would be delighted. It was, after all, only two years since she had run away from an abusive foster home in East Harlem with “three dollars in my pocket and 75% on my cell phone battery” for a life on the streets, as she subsequently told the makers of the 2016 documentary Destiny. But something about it didn’t sit right. “I still think: what the fuck was I doing? I couldn’t understand why people were glorifying me when I wasn’t that talented; there was no substance or merit in what I was doing. I couldn’t let myself get away with that. And there was a lot of male dominance surrounding me, wanting to be a fly in my ear and dictate or surmise what I was going to be doing.”

Princess Nokia’s most recent track G.O.A.T.

So she spurned the record company advances – “To me, the music industry doesn’t exist,” she laughs, “it’s like the devil, it doesn’t exist if you don’t believe in it” – returned to New York and “started all over again”. She changed her stage name to Princess Nokia, after the brand of cheap “Obamaphone” she was eligible for as a low-income earner, and shifted increasingly towards hip-hop.

That was five years ago. Today, Frasqueri is sitting in the back of a people carrier, wrapped in a blanket, sunglasses on, clutching a travel pillow. She has been in Britain for a grand total of 14 hours, long enough to play a rapturously received live set for Boiler Room, and now she’s leaving again. Thanks to the success of her third mixtape 1992, a flatly brilliant collection of tracks gleefully glorifying her own outsider status (it has just been reissued in expanded form by Rough Trade, which, she is keen to point out, is just distributing and promoting her records and has no say in what she does artistically), her schedule is so tight that the only place she has time to do an interview is en route to the airport.

At first, I get the feeling that her itinerary might be getting to her. Her reputation as an extremely tough customer has been sealed through umpteen sharp, funny lyrics and remarks about race and gender (“she identifies as a bruja [witch] and a tomboy, a classic New York Boricua shorty, a feminist, a queer woman who isn’t burdened but empowered by her complexity,” offered one profile) and an incident earlier this year, when she got offstage at a Cambridge University event and slapped a male audience member who she said had been mouthing “Show me your tits” at her, telling the crowd, to cheers: “That’s what you do when a white boy disrespects you.” Today, however, she seems subdued and softly spoken, the opposite of the motormouthed Bronx-accented figure depicted in the Destiny doc. She says she doesn’t want to say too much: “I talk a lot in interviews, and I don’t want to overtalk something, so I’m being a little bit more quiet with my responses, because I overshare”.

Princes Nokia
Frasqueri: ‘My grandma died and my life shattered and changed.’ Photograph: PR Company Handout

She says it politely and with a smile, but it’s hard not to feel a bit deflated: this ranks fairly high up on the list of things no interviewer wants to hear from an interviewee. But I needn’t have worried. The car has barely pulled away from her hotel and her resolution to be a little more quiet seems to have gone out the window.

She’s as smart as her lyrics, about everything from comics – “I like Marvel because characters look like me and women don’t have roles that make them look too sexual” – to the gentrification of New York. “It makes me really sad. It has glossed over these really formative areas that have inspired me in my life and raised me. A lot of people from the inner city, like I am, they observe it but they’re not going to be vocal about it, because they’re just going about their day. But I really see it; I understand the modern colonisation that they’re doing. So I feel offended. My neighbourhood isn’t even undergoing development, there’s no real estate there, but I’ve seen a couple of people walking down the street who I know aren’t from there and I’m like ‘get the fuck out!’ I think: ‘How dare you? To have the audacity to just walk into this neighbourhood, you really got some gall.’ You know they’re really trying to be the first of their kind in the neighbourhood, and cash fucking crop.”

Her musical background is fascinating. Her parents were hip-hop fans, but she was exposed to heavy metal aged six, courtesy of a goth babysitter. “She was the coolest person to be near. I’d watch her chain-smoke and listen to Rob Zombie and make out in front of me and it was scandalous and I loved it. I grew up in a liberal home where we all loved all types of music and my uncles listened to the Red Hot Chili Peppers; rock wasn’t considered some white-boy shit. But her specifically, I saw and I was really drawn to. It was radical, it was fun, it was aggressive, and it had a tone that matched my heart.”

Frasqueri in the 2016 documentary Destiny.

She says she was always a misfit – “not a typical clean-cut young lady, always a bit rough around the edges, always a bit messy” – even before her life was turned upside down by the deaths of her grandmother and mother, the latter from Aids. She was farmed out to a foster mother she has described as “a succubus”, who beat her so severely that she had to wear makeup to cover a black eye in a school photo. The obsession with 90s culture that runs through the lyrics of 1992 is clearly bound up in her troubled childhood. “Growing up in the 90s was the coolest thing to me. Listening to metal with my gothic babysitter, dancing to Kriss Kross, hanging out and listening to the music at the block party downstairs from my house, the cartoons I’d watch, seeing black representation and Latina representation on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, going to summer camp; oh, God, it’s so vivid, so significant. And then my grandma died and I went to go live with a woman that wasn’t the nicest person in the world and my life shattered and changed. I didn’t like the music that was on the radio, I didn’t wear the cute things girls wore at the time, I was on some baggy clothes, Harriet The Spy tomboy shit, and puberty hit and … I had to subconsciously block a lot of stuff that was going on at the time, so all I got is memories of the 90s.”

She escaped into New York’s underground punk scene. “The principles of punk-rock culture, of self-expression and DIY culture, that really spoke to me. I remember at school one day there was a vocabulary list on the chalkboard and the word ‘nonconformist’ was on there and it said: “Someone that doesn’t appeal to society, someone who doesn’t fit in.” We had this whole conversation about it and I realised it cohered to the punk-rock world that I was into. It was more than the clothes, although I loved the fashion. It was rooted in this beautiful socio-economic awareness and identity, and just saying: ‘Fuck you, we’re going to be loud and express ourselves.’ It gave me so much confidence and backbone.”

She had a particular love for riot grrrl bands including Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, who she belatedly discovered via a music streaming service, and indeed, you can see the influence in everything from Smart Girl Club – a kind of online audio fanzine that Frasqueri started “so I could have my own space when I was co-existing within a lot of white cis male spaces … where I could talk about urban feminism, sexuality, relationships, spirituality, music, art, and interview people and laugh and make fun of myself” – to her insistence that female audience members stand at the front of her shows.

Princess Nokia performs on stage in Los Angeles.
Princess Nokia performs on stage in Los Angeles. Photograph: Scott Dudelson/WireImage

“Men standing in the back – it’s what’s right. All the shows that you go to, men would just be in the front in droves, moshing and they have such a brotherhood – which is beautiful and very commendable and I respect it very much. But it’s like a thousand men with their sausages out and it’s a real testosterone fest. Girls are, like, quivering in the corners, holding on to their purses, and they deserve to hold so much more space than that. A Princess Nokia show is this place where girls can do that and take the space in the way that men and the brotherhood do.”

She currently occupies a unique and enviable place in pop music: a fiercely independent female rapper with a radical intersectional feminist agenda and burgeoning following, who has garnered praise everywhere from the world of fashion – she has modelled for Calvin Klein – to the music press and the serious socio-political blogs. “The only way you can make something work is really by being your most unique self and having a lane, and there’s no one in my lane,” she says. “Not until a sweet 17-year-old girl comes out of high school and does the same thing I do and I’ve paved the way for her. That’s important and I want that.”

The one place she hasn’t been lauded, she says, is in the world of hip-hop. “When I’m featured in serious hip-hop blogs, the commentary is really negative. It’s not over-sexualisation – it’s just: ‘Who the fuck is she? This bitch is whack and corny.’ Because I speak highly of myself, people think I’m pompous, or that I’m really narcissistic. But I’m only speaking on myself and what I’ve done and accomplished, and I only speak like that because no one else is doing it.”

By now, we’ve pulled up outside the airport. Everyone else has got out of the car, including the driver. He taps on the window – “Please,” he says, plaintively, “I cannot park here” – but Frasqueri keeps on talking. “I don’t take it personal. I have come into this knowing very much who I am and knowing where I stand within this world. The fact that I get to coexist with it, and only focus on making art, is all that matters. It’s not a competition, for me. Excluding me out of circles and worlds, it’s happened all my life and that’s what my music is about. So,” she says, “I will happily be the GG Allin of the hip-hop world.”

I find myself letting out a startled bark of laughter – I hadn’t expected our interview to conclude with talk turning to the late, self-styled “true king of rock’n’roll”, notorious for performing naked and bloodied, defecating on stage, then throwing his excrement around while singing Eat My Diarrhea. GG Allin?

She nods. “GG Lopez, it’s a concept I’ve created for many years. And that’s what it is and that’s what it will always be and I love that and I take ownership of it and everybody can suck a dick.”

Then she gives me a hug – “it was lovely talking to you” – picks up her travel pillow and finally gets out of the car, vanishing into the terminal building.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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