Princess Nokia: ‘Rock and roll is my soul’

The shapeshifting rapper on being the new Joni Mitchell, body dysmorphia, and why she is wary of talking politics

Destiny Frasqueri, the multi-hyphenate musician otherwise known as Princess Nokia, arrives at her north London label offices a little late and a lot punk. Dressed in a black Vivienne Westwood number, silver choker and towering tartan platform boots, she is sporting a panoply of piercings, her hair pulled into braids. It is a contrast with previous looks: specs and baggy basketball sweats, a full nu-metal uniform (Slipknot tee, studded wristbands) and even a mermaid phase, during which she called herself Wavy Spice. To call Frasqueri a shapeshifter would be an understatement.

Although known mostly as a rapper, over her career she has mined everything from emo and punk to ballroom, folk and lo-fi house. Today she declares herself a “little hippy stoner” and “an old soul”, “honest, normal and lovely” and “very intelligent”. She can also be, she admits “a bit of a brat sometimes”. The phrase that comes up most consistently, however, is how rock’n’roll she is.

“Even if it’s not the music I’m making, [rock’n’roll is] my spirit, it’s my soul, it’s how I dress, how I act, how I talk, how I love, how I make music, how I have sex, how I eat,” says the 27-year-old, absentmindedly spearing a slice of mango.

Frasqueri landed from New York this morning and, after a brief sleep, made her way here for a full day of promo for her new single, the flamboyantly funky Sugar Honey Iced Tea (S.H.I.T.). It’s as confrontational as you might expect: the first verse is a middle finger to her detractors – “I know you mad that I’m famous / I know you mad that I made it” – while the second addresses the time in 2017 when she threw soup (butternut squash, FYI) on a racist man who was abusing black teenagers on the New York subway. “I instantly got up,” she says, “cos if you’re playing with children, and you’re playing with black children, you’re not about to get away with that. Not in front of me. I’m not a docile, complacent person when it comes to racial aggressions.” Later in the verse, she likens herself to a female Colin Kaepernick. “That was a metaphor about me standing for what I believe in. Even if I’m standing alone. Even if it puts me in danger.”

Frasqueri is no stranger to adversity. An NYC native of Puerto Rican descent, she was raised in Harlem until the age of 10, when her mother died from an Aids-related illness. The grieving pre-teen was shunted into various foster homes, one of which she has previously described as physically abusive, before running away to live with her grandmother in the Lower East Side when she was 15. She started songwriting when she was 12. “I was a happy-go-lucky gothic girl who had an optimistic spirit cos I was suffering a lot at home,” she says. “I’d been suffering all of my life. I think comedians and artists, we do that. We know how to be the life of the party and enjoy exuberance outside of pain.”

When Frasqueri dropped her first single on SoundCloud in 2010, fans were drawn to a savvy artist who could flip from utter irreverence (Bitch I’m Posh) to shrewd commentary on colonial history (Yaya). For her new record, she is trying something new: due next year it was recorded between Puerto Rico, Los Angeles and New York, and saw her work with jazz musicians, freestyling and sometimes creating as many as 10 songs in three hours.

According to Frasqueri, one of the record’s producers has compared her creative output to Joni Mitchell. “He said: ‘You’re emotional and you’re powerful and you’re this really witchy woman. Joni was with all the guys and they loved and revered her and I see you do that. You come into these spaces with all of these musicians and men and you’re just one of the gang. You love to have a good time, you have the purest heart, you’re rock’n’roll in so many different ways.’ I was like: ‘You’re so right.’”

For someone so often candid and outspoken – whether alleging that Ariana Grande’s 7 Rings was a rip-off of her track Mine on social media or confronting misogynist students at a Cambridge University show in 2017 – it is surprisingly tricky to navigate certain parts of conversation with Frasqueri. As we segue from the themes in her single to wider topics to do with society, such as whether the US has regressed since 2017, she seems unwilling to talk. “To be honest with you, I’m really trying to make my articles centred around music solely,” she says firmly. “A lot of journalists like to ask a lot of questions that are very non sequitur to the topic at hand. I don’t want to go into public zeitgeist because I don’t do press a lot and I’m allowing you to do this and ask me questions and I’m very intelligent so I talk a lot but I can’t go into worldly issues. This is about Princess Nokia music.”

She is similarly reluctant to discuss the clear ballroom influences in her single’s video; in this instance she is wary about being seen as a spokesperson for an important part of the LGBTQ community. “Ballroom is a tricky topic that I’m not going to bring up. People want to latch on to it because it’s very popular right now. I don’t want to be a spokesperson for it because once I say I vogued in high school, people want to latch on to that, and they don’t want to latch on to other things that are more important.” She stops for a breath. “I just have to be very adamant on these things.”

Lean, mean... Princess Nokia at Boston Calling earlier this year.
Lean, mean... Princess Nokia at Boston Calling earlier this year. Photograph: Boston Globe/Boston Globe via Getty Images

Frasqueri feels that quotes often come back to haunt her, that journalists perhaps shuffle the context of her thoughts, edit them down. She also finds it exhausting, she says, that people seem to want to sensationalise her soundbites. As a woman of colour, she feels used and would rather talk about politics on her own terms, on her own platform. While it makes the interview a little uncomfortable in places, she remains disarmingly direct.

One track on her next album – which she is still working on – examines social media and its impact on mental wellbeing, in particular her own. It is unsettling to hear that Frasqueri – a woman whose 2016 track Tomboy celebrated “my little titties and my phat belly” – has struggled with confidence issues.

“All my life I was fine with how I looked. I’d have small disorders about myself,” she says. But the advent of social media – “especially as a musician trying to keep up with the zeitgeist” – has taken its toll; she describes “developing facial and body dysmorphia while touring”.

“I have to get ready every day now, which I never used to,” she says. “I used to go onstage with no makeup on. And then I realised I was looking a little crazy and I had to grow up a bit and look more presentable as a woman. That line [in her new song] ‘I look in my mirror’ is about how I look at women and wonder why don’t I look like that. Why isn’t my hair – and my lips and my skin – like that? It’s a very common thing for all women to think. I just realised one day that this is an illusion. I really have to love myself again. I never want to be in that dark place ever again.”

The new record arrives in 2020, as well as a photobook documenting the last five years of Spanish Harlem’s Puerto Rican festival. Before that, Frasqueri makes her screen debut in the indie flick Angelfish, which she is also exec-producing. She also runs the Smart Girl Club community collective and has a show on Apple’s Beats 1. It all sounds quite exhausting, but she makes time for herself, too. As we finish up, she decides that the new record is about self-care. “I’m so in love with myself, that’s what this album is about. Romancing myself, loving myself, cooking dinner for myself. I’m really just living my dreams.” Doesn’t get more punk than that.

Sugar Honey Iced Tea (S.H.I.T.) is out now via Platoon. Princess Nokia will tour the UK in 2020


Hattie Collins

The GuardianTramp

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