Princess Nokia: “I have a very resourceful spirit – a survivor’s spirit”

After nine years in the game, the mercurial rapper is on the cusp of her most world-conquering reinvention yet. “I just want to be a fucking shapeshifter diva!” she says

Princess Nokia is an expert at transformation. At any given time, she could be a bare-faced tomboy in oversized layered T-shirts and slicked-back bun, or rock immaculately full makeup beat with a pristinely laid wig. Or she might sport intricate, sprawling natural braiding styles embellished with unfurling edges and statement hoops. Her multiplicity is evident in both her style and her music.

Reinvention after reinvention: it’s a tendency the rapper alludes to on her 2020 single ‘Gemini’, which she performed on music platform COLORS last year. Riding the beat effortlessly, switching flows for every werse, she unpacks the positive nuances that come along with the star sign – colourful imagination, intelligence, creativity, a free-spirited nature – before adding: “I’m really prone to changes / I’m really indecisive and I really fucking hate it.

Today she admits to NME over Zoom from her apartment in New York: “I really, really enjoy who I am and all of the intersectionalities that come from my soul. But sometimes it’s a bit much even for me! I feel like honestly it could be so easy if I was more digestible, in a linear way.” But where would be the fun in that? She’s calm, softly spoken and punctuates her sentences with laughter and tender terms of endearment such as “sweetpea” and “girlfriend”.

NME Cover 2021 Princess Nokia
Princess Nokia on the cover of NME

It’s the beginning of a new era for Princess Nokia. The star, who first appeared on the cover of NME back in 2017, has spent nine years releasing and navigating the industry as an independent artist. International tours, a consistently jam-packed release schedule and masses of critical acclaim later, Princess Nokia has now inked her first ever major-label deal with Sony Music at the age of 28. This was marked by the release of her stellar latest single ‘It’s Not My Fault’ (“It’s not my fault / That I’m that bitch”), a no-nonsense anthem that offers no apology to the haters.

In 2021, Princess Nokia 2.0 is making an unmistakable play for the commercial rap scene. “I think my mission and goal in this business was always to be a representation of strong independent ownership and creative legacy,” she says. Preparing and writing her next record already, after releasing two full-length albums – ‘Everything’s Beautiful’ and ‘Everything Sucks’ – on the same day early last year, Destiny Frasqueri is ready to up the stakes once again.

NME Cover 2021 Princess Nokia
Credit: Phil Knott for NME

Born and raised in the birthplace of hip-hop, New York’s Bronx, the 28-year-old has been immersed in the culture of the genre since before she can remember. She describes her parents as ‘nuyoricans’, a term used to represent the Puerto Rican/New York hybrid community, and as a result her Latinx heritage is also a huge part of her identity too. But from a young age, she was also drawn to the fringes in the form of punk, rock and the queer club scene on the city’s Lower East Side.

“I think hanging out at raves, at skate parks, at clubs – all of those experiences allowed me to be a more experimental, fully-fledged artist that consciously wanted to do a lot of different types of music,” she reflects. And that’s precisely what she did.

Bubbling to surface in 2012 with vogue-infused, cyber club anthem ‘Bitch, I’m Posh’ and in 2014 releasing her debut album ‘Metallic Butterfly’, a project that fell firmly in the same lane, Princess Nokia (then under the moniker Wavy Spice) garnered buzz first by playing shows and making tunes to serve the queer, alternative music scene. This, though, was more a natural alliance than a conscious decision. “I got in where I fit in,” she summarises. “And when you get in where you fit in, you create a really, really safe space for yourself that’s super-enjoyable and special.”

“My goal was always to be a representation of strong, independent ownership”

And Nokia went on to defy all expectations. ‘1992 Deluxe’ – an extended studio version of a mixtape she released for free the year before – was her very own kick-your-teeth-in brand of classic hip-hop meets NYC nightlife. Standouts ‘Tomboy’ and ‘Kitana’ established her as a force within the rap scene, referencing her androgyny and nerdy gamer habits with an unabashed confidence, “My little titties and my fat belly” becoming the mantra of a generation determined to love themselves fully even when the world didn’t.

“Growing up with the night life of the queer folk in New York City, it all just made me more OK with myself and more at peace with being different,” Princess Nokia says, “[and with] maybe being misunderstood or not immediately accepted.”

It’s an energy she has endeavoured to carry with her ever since. Her next release, 2018’s eight-track ‘A Girl Cried Red’, flipped the script once again, paying tribute to her alternative rock inspirations with a 21-minute journey through the inner emo angst of Nokia – at times hyper and at times indulgently slow-mo, as she lamented loneliness, heartbreak and success.

NME Cover 2021 Princess Nokia
Credit: Phil Knott for NME

Throughout these disparate releases, she is a law unto herself: undefinable and uninhibited. Nokia ended up successfully cultivating a space for others to do and be the same. Her live shows are colourful in every sense of the word, from the eclectic outfits of her fans to her high-energy performances. Mosh pits are a given and Nokia has been known to pause shows to bring all the girls to the front to rap to them directly.

“I was a part of all these different spaces that one maybe doesn’t surround themselves with when coming up in the rap world,” she giggles softly. “It all adds to the colourful lived experience and I’m happy that that weirdness helped me cultivate a place for people in this world.” I remind Frasqueri of the first time we ever met at a dinner party in Brooklyn, by accident, just over three years ago. At one point, she helped break the ice at the table by advising people, in the manner of a horoscope or palm reading, which Harry Potter house they’d be in. She cackles at the memory, which is so completely on brand for her.

Nowadays, this meeting of the worlds of punk, rock, rap and even ‘geek’ culture is commonplace – just look at anime-loving former NME cover star Rico Nasty. In fact, this crossover has found a place well within the mainstream with the likes of Doja Cat, Ashnikko and Bree Runway. From Doja’s genre-straddling run to date, Ashnikko’s distinct brand of e-girl meets hip-hop or Runway’s pop interpretations of punk culture, it seems there are no rules any more.

“With OnlyFans, I found a very powerful vessel of using my beauty, my entertainment, my sexuality”

“I think it’s really special that there’s less pressure for people of colour to fit into a mould,” Princess Nokia beams. “And that’s all that any individual deserves to have: a chance at having a little bit more peace, a little bit more fun, a little bit more room… I know what it is to have people raise eyebrows at you for certain ideas or thoughts or set identity. I know what it’s like to feel confined. It’s a beautiful thing that art has transcended and young people get to be themselves and to explore themselves.”

Alongside her outlandish versatility, there’s another key aspect that kept Princess Nokia’s name and the forefront of industry lips: her independence. Since she began to make serious waves around 2016, Princess Nokia has never been without major-label offers. But up until 2020, she declined them all and continued to create, release and tour independently, even directing the majority of her own music videos. Of that arduous but rewarding task, she notes: “I have a very resourceful spirit, that’s the most helpful and apparent thing… a survivor’s spirit.”

It was a decision she made precisely so that she was only accountable to herself and whatever fulfilled her at any given moment. “I just really wanted to be creative without feeling pressure,” she explains.

NME Cover 2021 Princess Nokia
Credit: Phil Knott for NME

Self-reliance comes naturally to Destiny Frasqueri; her survivor’s spirit burned bright long before she had labels phoning her up. Her mother passed away when Frasqueri was very young and, as a result, she ended up in foster care from around eight or nine years old: “I always say August 2nd 2008 changed my life. It was the day that I left my foster home.” Nokia has touched, in previous interviews, on the abuse she faced in that household, and here she elaborates: “Nothing I did was right, nothing I could do was right, nothing I believed in was right. And I wasn’t living my full potential as a human being, that I knew that I could.”

So, at the age of 16, she decided to leave the house for good: “I really took a chance on myself in cutting the cord and never looking back.” And she’s been her own biggest backer ever since. “The last 12 years, sweetpea, have been the best years of my life,” she says smiling audibly. “It’s what makes me go for it. I think of that girl that wouldn’t take no for an answer that night. She really lives and breathes with every project, with every line, with every funny decision. She’s always looking forward and she puts it behind her. I don’t dwell on what happened, I just always wanted to go further than it.”

That constant evolutionary drive has ultimately led her success over the last year. When she released ‘Everything Sucks’ and ‘Everything Is Beautiful’, her ambition was evident not just in the volume of work, but also in its quality. ‘Sugar Honey Iced Tea (S.H.I.T)’ is a dreamy, brass-filled ode to the haters, more pristine and radio-ready than Nokia had sounded to date. ‘I Like Him’, an irreverent thirsting chant, went on to become her most commercially successful single yet after exploding on TikTok; the track has over a million uses on the app and over 87 million streams on Spotify alone.

“I’ve always been the underdog”

The dual projects signified a gear shift for Frasqueri, punctuated with her signing to Sony Music earlier this year. For the longest time, her independent spirit meant maintaining total ownership and creative control over everything she produced, existing in a world of her own creation, until she felt she’d reached the natural point of the next phase. “The power of choice is so special and I felt like I had grown enough [on my own],” she admits.

As she works on her next album, and more major label releases, Nokia’s sights are set as high as they’ve ever been. “I’m in this part of my life where I’m just continuing to create new music in a new way. The signing, making the project, uncovering new levels, it’s all been really cool and I’m just excited to elevate as an artist and continue to inspire through music with storytelling and colourful narrative.”

And with the meteoric rise of women in rap – with Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion and Saweetie emerging as some of the biggest names in music right now – the scene is bursting with creativity and charisma, as well as hugely broad commercial prospects. There’s no time like the present for Nokia to stake her claim.

NME Cover 2021 Princess Nokia
Credit: Phil Knott for NME

Her first release in this new phase, ‘It’s Not My Fault’, found her shooting out of the stalls already: “I’m ‘God’s favourite flavour,” she raps. “I’m blessed and highly favoured… I did it again, like – whew! – I signed a new deal like – whew! / My publishing real / Like, oh, I own that I’m real like – whew!.” The metallic, future-facing accompanying video is a modern recreation of Jennifer Lopez’s 1998 R&B hit ‘If You Had My Love’, paying tribute to both the singer – and also the content-subscription platform OnlyFans, most famously used for NSFW material.

Channelling the concept of the J Lo original, Nokia performs for virtual voyeurs in a honey-coloured wig and all-white attire. It’s an image that’s as current as it is nostalgic, depicting Nokia as the object of attention for a whole host of different viewers: “I always say [that video] is so ahead of it’s time, the imagery and the symbolism alone are just really fucking intellectual,” she gushes. “It’s gag-worthy.”

And when it comes to OnlyFans, Nokia’s tribute comes from a place of genuine appreciation for the site. “All my life I’ve had to rely on myself for my strength, my finances, X, Y and Z,” she says. “That old chestnut. But with OnlyFans, I found a very powerful vessel of using my beauty, my entertainment, my sexuality and my exhibitionism as a tool of gain. And in the art of seduction, that’s not a bad thing – it’s a science.”

Inspired by the strong feminine energy of ’90s pop stars such as Jennifer Lopez, Janet Jackson, Mya, Aaliyah, Desiree, Madonna – to name a few – Nokia hopes to continue to channel their show(wo)manship in this next iteration of her career too. “They shaped us and created these tableaus. I could spiral through music videos one after the other and it’s like walking through a museum, you’re so taken aback by every little detail,” she gasps theatrically. “The styling, the hair, the verse, the dance moves, the stunts. I hope I can bring my A-game too.”

“The last 12 years, sweetpea, have been the best years of my life”

And Princess Nokia may be following in Lopez’ footsteps in more ways than one – with more on-screen appearances on the horizon. Frasqueri is no stranger to acting, with a previous appearance in the 2019 independent film ANGELFISH and having read for a number of other roles in the past. “You wouldn’t think I’m as busy as I am,” Nokia laughs, “but I am, so sometimes I’ve had opportunities that I couldn’t do.”

But, most excitingly, she announces to NME exclusively, she has “a guest role in the upcoming Proud Family”, a revival of the classic 2000s Disney animated sitcom which follows a hectic and entertaining African-American family. “I’m Lacienega’s cousin, Labrea Boulevardez!” At this point, we both scream. “You have no idea, the super-geek in me is so hyped that I get to have a guest role in one of my favourite cartoons. It’s small but mighty,” she chuckles.

Exciting crossover opportunities are sure to be in abundance for someone as charismatic and idiosyncratic as Princess Nokia in this next phase. She flicks through her journal to find her latest notes on what she wants the new record to represent, and lands upon the following: “This project is for all the girls who lost their magic and are finding themselves rediscovering it.” And it’s clear that Princess Nokia considers herself one of them: “I’ve always been the underdog. I know what people think of me and say of me and that they think I don’t get the credit I deserve.”

She adds with a giggle: “I think of this part of my life as Ugly Betty? and her a-ha moment, you know? All ugly ducklings get to shine and I’m just the ugly duckling having her moment in the spotlight.”

While it’s hard to imagine Princess Nokia as an ugly duckling, her hope and optimism at the prospect of a metamorphosis is surely universal. “That’s what I think this project highlights,” she says, “and I think that’s really special, you know. “What girl can’t relate to that?”

NME Cover 2021 Princess Nokia
Credit: Phil Knott for NME

It’s goosebump-inducing to think of this new era as a reintroduction to such a resilient and innovative musician, evoking images of makeover montages from such classic movies from the ’90s or Y2K era as Clueless or Princess Diaries and big reveals on shows like Stars In Their Eyes – think Princess Nokia Meets World.

“These opportunities continue to feed my inner child and fulfil my wildest dreams,” Frasqueri summarises. In the beginning, as a child raised in care and by the streets of The Bronx, this was a road she had to conquer alone; her reaching the brink of pop stardom feels about as close to a fairytale ending as it gets.

In reality, though, this is not the end so much as a new beginning. And after doing so much with so little to now having all possible avenues open, what does Princess Nokia want her legacy to be? “Oh my God – I just want to be a fucking shapeshifter diva! Rapper, actress, comedian, poet, songwriter, composer, healer, witch – you know what I mean!?”

Princess Nokia’s ‘It’s Not My Fault’ is out now