Princess Nokia: the modern pop icon talks politics, female empowerment and debut album ‘1992 Deluxe’

Princess Nokia is the New York rapper whose feminist podcasts, visceral live shows and debut album ‘1992 Deluxe’ have made her a very modern pop icon. “I cry onstage, I bleed onstage, I hit myself onstage,” she tells us. “Anything goes”

Destiny Frasqueri is getting ill. Not in the ’80s hip-hop sense – more in the ‘Feel my forehead, I’m hot, right?’ sense. She’s arrived at this Bronx photo studio in an influenza daze, clutching a carton of steaming chowder that she’s laced with hot sauce in an attempt to exorcise her fever. Her voice is a cracked near-whisper and she has the fragile demeanour of somebody who’d far sooner be convalescing under a familiar quilt.

Frasqueri isn’t the type to let sudden, calamitous flu get in the way of plans, however. Fresh from the salon with a deep-green ’do, she commandeers a mirror and sits herself down in a corner of the studio to apply her make-up for the shoot.

“I don’t have a make-up artist and I don’t need a stylist,” she croaks. “All of this is still strictly a DIY thing. I’m at a mainstream level now in terms of the attention I’m getting, but I haven’t gone mainstream.”

Frasqueri first caught ears with 2014’s ‘Metallic Butterfly’ – released under the name Wavy Spice – an eccentric electro-soul mixtape that found her oscillating between singing, rapping and beat-poet proselytising. Next came 2015’s ‘Honeysuckle’ – released under the name Destiny – a straightforwardly nostalgic collection of fun, feminist disco-funk.

Then, in 2016, Frasqueri reinvented herself yet again to become Princess Nokia (a name inspired by the only phone brand available to her income bracket) and jettisoned her soul and electronica influences in favour of tough hip-hop purism. ‘1992’, Princess Nokia’s debut mixtape, was self-released in September 2016 to instant buzz and acclaim. Recognising a sure thing when they hear it, Rough Trade have just reissued a heavily expanded version as ‘1992 Deluxe’, and it’s one of the year’s must-hears: a Technicolor blast of gleeful riot-grrrl rap that slaps your head one moment, breaks your heart the next.

“Everything really came together on ‘1992’,” says Frasqueri, eyeshadow brush ablur, her voice a little less broken with every chowder-sip. “That isn’t to dismiss my earlier works – they were great – but when I focused myself on hip-hop everything just clicked. I was writing five hours a day, five days a week, and it was the funnest thing in the world.”

Frasqueri first realised that ‘1992’ was a becoming a Big Deal during her debut European tour. “I’d released ‘1992’ independently just three weeks earlier, and all of the shows were already sold out, and all the crowds knew every word to every song. It was special. I’ll never forget it.

“Thing is, I’ve never been trying to ‘make it’, per se. I guess I have a peculiar view of my art and its place in the world. I was already being recognised and celebrated for my work – and that’s all any artist wants. I wasn’t ‘big’ by any means, but I was playing shows, making OK money, I didn’t have to work and so I could concentrate on my art. So when ‘1992’ started becoming really successful, I tried to keep it all about the art, and just enjoy the fact that I’d made a really great body of music. Kicking ass is literally all I care about: put on a good show, drink a good beer, smoke a good spliff, turn people on, leave at the end of the f**king night. That’s it, y’know?”

Titled after the year Frasqueri was born, ‘1992’ is largely inspired by her intense and bittersweet nostalgia for the ’90s New York of her childhood. “I try not to be overly nostalgic, and I don’t use nostalgia to be kitschy. But it’s where all my most fundamental thoughts and ideas come from. I’m the classic New York kid, y’know? I’m matzo ball soup, I’m Katz’s Deli, I’m smoking weed at 4am in Washington Square Park, I’m passed out outside a rave in a pool of my own vomit – that’s me, that’s how I grew up. I mean, I’m no longer that person any more. Maybe a little bit.”

Frasqueri pauses her make-up and drifts away as reminiscence takes hold. “It’s everything you see here as a kid: the nightlife, the drag queens, the prostitutes, the skaters, the old women on the Upper East Side with little dogs under their arm. Everything has character here; it has an essence, it has a vibe.”

As the vivid memory-cataloguing of ‘1992’ makes clear, Frasqueri constantly bounced between the city’s subcultures as a kid. And for all her current hip-hop trappings, she remains a skittishly eclectic consumer of everything from moshpits to comics.

“Oh, I never fit in anywhere,” she shrugs. “I’m a loner. I don’t even have many friends. And I accept that. I enjoy what I enjoy, and yeah, sometimes I’m a skater, sometimes I’m a goth kid, I’m a raver, I’m a hippy, I’m a theatre nerd. I’m a weird kid. I’ve got so many personalities eatin’ me up inside. And I think that’s the basis of the music and my whole identity: not caring about not fitting in, y’know? When I was a kid, the coolest thing to me was being a Bowie kid. I’d see all these non-binary glam-rock kids – and I was like, I get that. The not fitting in. I mean, I’ve always been really rock’n’roll – that whole ‘balls out, middle fingers up’ thing – but you don’t have to look a certain way to fit a certain subculture. Whatever moves your heart is whatever moves your heart, right?”

Frasqueri’s lairy rock’n’roll side fully manifests itself during live shows. “I’m influenced by TLC, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, but I’m also punk, and I’ll play Korn and Slipknot during my sets. I spit out beer at people, I smoke weed, I show my butt. I’m smelly and my armpits are unshaven and my make-up’s all ruined – but that’s a part of the beauty. It’s messy. It’s kind of real, alternative, emo hip-hop. I show people how I feel; I cry onstage, I bleed onstage, I hit myself onstage, I get people up onstage. Anything goes.”

These inclusive-but-anarchic performances have been a half a lifetime in the making. “When I was young, all I wanted was to have a show where young girls could mosh together and hold hands and take off their bras and just be so liberated on some real punk-rock s**t. I want girls to feel free; I want them to feel like they’re empowered, liberated feminists.

“There’s been an entire sisterhood cultivate itself around my music, at my shows all around the world, and it’s been really emotional for me,” she continues. “I had this one show in Dubai, and I stop a girl to say hi, and she starts crying, and I’m like, ‘Why are you crying?’ and she says, ‘You can say the things I’m not allowed to say. You can say things that my family would be really disappointed to hear from me. And it’s not that these things are wrong, it’s just they’re not accepted.’”

Is she opening an avenue into hip-hop for women who might otherwise feel alienated from the genre, given its current propensity for grimly casual misogyny? “I do feel like I’ve helped bring certain women back into hip-hop, but I don’t allow misogyny or sexism to lower my perception of hip-hop. Because hip-hop is a beautiful thing. And there are still many wonderful people who I’ve met within that world, and so I don’t want to put hip-hop down. Sure, there are some things that I don’t agree with within hip-hop, and there are some things that I don’t relate to or would ever associate myself with – but I won’t talk bad about it.”

Given Frasqueri’s assertion that she rarely fits in anywhere, does she feel a part of the hip-hop scene? Again, she pauses her make-up – this time to shoot me a look that suggests she’s mystified I’d even ask. “Yeah I’m part of it! To say that I’m not would negate my accomplishments and the recognition that I’ve had. I mean, I make ‘classic’ hip-hop, and yet it broke Top 10 charts. I got nominated for XXL magazine’s Freshman Class 2017. This is my first hip-hop project, but the fact that I’ve been so successful within the first year – just one year of putting this music out…” She’s a little exasperated, and I’m regretting my question.

“I’m very much a part of hip-hop. In fact I am hip-hop. I’m classic hip-hop, I’m old hip-hop – albeit with new-skool flow, identity and relatability mixed in. I’m as a part of that world as anybody else – sometimes even more so.”

Beyond being a killer rapper with a hot mixtape and revelatory live show, Frasqueri is also evolving into a bona fide feminist figurehead. In a world increasingly antagonistic to women, to people of colour, and to women of colour especially, Princess Nokia – a liberal, Afro-Nuyorican, sex-positive, two-fisted tomboy hip-hopper – is a sociopolitical lightning rod just by dint of her existence. You can only imagine what the average Trump fan would make of her.

It’s a role she’d already been acclimatising to through her Smart Girl Radio podcast series – with its serene doses of spirituality, self-help and feminist empowerment – and is now embracing full-on as Princess Nokia.

“I do talk to young girls. I’m honest and comedic with them, but I also try to keep our conversations intelligent and intellectually stimulating. I want them to feel empowered and that they can relate to me, but at the same time I don’t present myself as ‘perfect’, or as the standard to aspire to – like they’re doing it all wrong and I’ve got it figured out. I’ll tell them, ‘I’m just as f**ked up as you, but I’ve had more time to try to figure it all out, so let me show you what I’ve figured out so far that has helped me in my life.’”

Some of these girls doubtless feel inspired to open up to Frasqueri due to ‘1992’’s darker, more cathartic moments: tracks such as ‘Goth Kid’ and ‘Bart Simpson’, which touch upon the harsh loneliness of Frasqueri’s teenage years, when the death of her mother and grandmother led to her being placed with an abusive foster mother.

“There [are] a lot of neuroses and a lot of adolescent aches on ‘1992’,” says Frasqueri, eyes locked on her lip pencil application. “My soul is really heavy, but I can seem so optimistic and sweet, like (squeaky voice) ‘I s**t glitter!’ People didn’t really get that I was a troubled kid, that I was dealing with severe amounts of trauma. People haven’t been so compassionate to me in my life. I may seem optimistic, but I can be feeling so dark inside. I feel so much pain.”

Her make-up finally complete, Frasqueri rises, pulls her oversized Adidas sweatshirt back on and checks herself in the mirror. Destiny Frasqueri has left the building; Princess Nokia is ready for her close-up. “I try not to take things too seriously,” she asserts, shaking off the momentary drift into darkness. “Take things too seriously and you get insecure, and then you lose the magic. I’ve gotten successful by being a half-assed skate rat. Main thing is: I like me, I’m cool. My heart is good. That’s all that matters, I think.”