From the very start, Princess Nokia has refused to play by other people’s rules. Courted by hordes of labels and A&Rs at the beginning of her career – eager to sign her off the back of early tracks released under the moniker Wavy Spice – there was something holding Destiny Frasqueri back from immediately taking the plunge. Instead, she sacked off the shiny offers and adopted a new name: Princess Nokia. In subsequent years, she put out the formidable triple threat of ‘Metallic Butterfly’, ‘1992’, and ‘A Girl Called Red’. Between them, the releases spanned emo, hip-hop, grime, punk and pop – all evidence of an agile artist who doesn’t fit neatly into a pre-prescribed box. There are few other artists in Princess Nokia’s lane.
In yet another lane of its own is ‘Sugar Honey Iced Tea (S.H.I.T)’ – the first taste of Princess Nokia’s next record. Atop bright peals of horn and distilled bursts of gospel vocals, this is a track with soul and ambition at its core. In one verse, Destiny revisits an incident in 2017, in which she threw soup at a racist passenger on a New York subway train. Elsewhere, she dismisses her detractors with a cool brush-off. “Do I care?” she asks rhetorically, “unlikely.” And now, the New York rapper has followed that up with ‘Balenciaga’ – a thumping ode to bagging thrift store bargains and looking like a million designer dollars on a shoestring. “Bitches be mad, I blow them a kiss,” she deadpans. In this new era, Princess Nokia isn’t taking anybody’s shit.
“I’m not a garbage can,” Destiny says today. Quietly spoken, she often addresses her hands, which are neatly folded on her lap. Now she looks up, fixing me with a decisive look.“That’s my whole thing for 2020. I’m not a garbage can, I’m not a place for you to put it and I’m not a place for you to dump your waste. People just love to omit toxic waste and that’s not the type of time that I’m on.”
Princess Nokia often talks in these kinds of brushstrokes. “Let it be known that how you feel about me is a reflection of you, and not me, cos over here is fab,” she says, addressing a vague, collective ‘you’ in the wider world as she speaks about the fuel behind her new material. “Not only will I not let you shit on me, but I’m not going to let you disturb my peace. I’m not a garbage can,” she repeats.
For the accompanying visual for ‘Sugar Honey Iced Tea’, Princess Nokia heads to a beauty pageant – typically doing things her own way, it’s a mission statement for things to come. Instead of ticking her name off on the entry form, she sticks down a dob of chewing gum. Giggling and smoking in the dressing room, she waves cheerfully at her perturbed rivals, even as they try and give her the cold shoulder. In another symbolic gesture, Princess Nokia’s wingwoman is played by fellow NYC rapper Maliibu Miitch, who helps her prepare for the competition, and ultimately, plays a major role in her victory. Generosity above greed and paying it forward rather than keeping success close are key themes: “That toxic energy shit,” Princess Nokia raps, “ain’t really good for your health.” In the final scene, she gifts her winner’s crown to a young girl she meets outside the lift.
“People just love to omit toxic waste, and that’s not the type of time that I’m on.”
– Princess Nokia
It’s also a feast of cultural reference points, with a dance performance that pays direct homage to Debra Paget’s snake dance from Fritz Lang’s 1959 film The Indian Tomb. Destiny’s first outfit hints to a leather-clad Aaliyah in ‘More Than A Woman’ – there are also elements of New York’s underground ballroom culture peppered through the campy presentation. And according to Destiny, the whole video’s an allegory for something larger.
“Music is a beauty pageant,” she tells me. “When I go put myself out there, I’m going to compete. It was an allegory for my life and what I do as Princess Nokia. I’m wowing the world with my personality and my unique talents and my beauty, and the way that I uplift my spirit and culture, and my spirituality. And my religion,” she adds, “which is a big part of ‘Sugar Honey Iced Tea’. Spiritual vision inspired me, and meditation. The song is just about not letting the world shit on me: not letting the world take shots at me.”
Society is sometimes not kind to ambitious women. When female artists are proud of their fierce work ethic – and express a desire to achieve huge success – certain circles can label them as power-hungry or materialistic. When they evolve and shape-shift through their artistic careers – playing with different creative personas and modes of expression – it’s somehow disingenuous. There are certain double-standards at play. Is this something that Princess Nokia has found in her own experience? She’s never shied away from her ambition to take over the world, after all.
She nods slowly. “Yeah. Someone called me a bad name recently for speaking properly,” she says. “Someone told me I speak like a ‘house slave’. Wow.” She pauses, reflecting on the things about her that people take issue with. “Sometimes people think that I’m maybe pretentious or just weird, a fraud, or fake, because I have a formal education and speak properly and give people respect. I’m very conscious of my manners. I think that if I was a white male people would get me more. I do. I think that. I think a lot of things would make more sense if I was a guy and if I had people supporting me and saying this is the greatest thing in the world.
“But I am a woman of colour, with a uterus, so I’m considered messy, or like I have a personality disorder. People think I’m fake, or a fraud, or that I can’t make up my mind, or that I’m crazy. I think those are some of the most disrespectful and harmful things I’ve ever heard because I couldn’t be more true to myself. I don’t think many people have met someone like me. I don’t think the world gets to see too many women like me, and I enjoy being that woman.” She lets out a satisfied laugh before adding: “Because it breaks more doors down.”
“I have a lot of women look up to me for the decisions I’ve made in business, and for the fact that I’ve made music without wanting to people please and trying to do ‘big numbers’,” Destiny continues. “What I coincidentally get is an even bigger legacy. [People] know that I’m behind everything that I do. And yeah, sometimes it breaks my heart as a woman. But it makes the fight even better. And it makes the reward even more tasteful. If people aren‘t talking, if you aren’t making people mad, what are you really doing?”
For the last seven years, Princess Nokia has tried to do everything by herself. Unlike her beauty pageant triumph in ‘Sugar Honey Iced Tea’, she didn’t previously have a trusted sidekick at her side. In this new chapter, she realised that she needed to switch up her approach – otherwise, she’d burn out. “I said ‘I need help’” she recalls. “I regretted doing a lot of things by myself because I didn’t need to do that. I struggled a lot behind it.
“Even though I’m a very friendly and jovial person, I don’t let people in,” she continues. “That’s the Gemini in me. You think that you know everything about me, because I’m so lovely and I’ll tell you a bunch of things, but you don’t really know the slightest thing about me. I don’t let people in, and I don’t share how I feel sometimes.
“After doing so much in the underground, it was about taking it to the next level in the most stupendous way.”
– Princess Nokia
“I’m really into everything I did in the last seven years, and that’s beautiful, and very rock ‘n’ roll. But now it’s like, how long can I keep doing that before I go nuts? I’ve been talking a lot about how Caribbean women take so much on when they’re young, and I think I took that into work. I was always trying not to ask for anyone’s help. When I was dissatisfied with people, I would go, ‘Ah fuck it’ and just do it myself, to prove it to myself. I don’t need to suffer that much. With this project, I owed it to myself. [After] doing so much in the underground, it was about taking it to the next level in the most stupendous way.”
In turning her attention towards her forthcoming – and, as yet, unannounced – next album, Princess Nokia went to Puerto Rico to write, away from the bustle of New York. Visiting familiar haunts isn’t new for the rapper – ‘1992’ was penned around various neighbourhoods in the Big Apple. The expanded deluxe edition from 2017 is especially vivid: teeming with caricatures from around the city. Princess Nokia’s writing roams between bodegas, the Natural History Museum and the 4/5/6 subway line: something of a musical love letter to New York and her home zip code of East Harlem. Though some of this next record was written in NYC, she also longed for some quiet reflection. The search took her to another place that helped to shape her.
“Whenever I say ‘I wanna come visit you’, my grandpa always says: ‘Come home’,” she smiles. “‘You can come home any time you like,’ he says. I decompress and live a very isolated life. That’s my idea of heaven or me-time,” she says. “My bag. When I go to Puerto Rico, I’m in my bag. I’m with my ancestors, with my country, with my people. I’m with the things that you can never buy: nature, the elements, the trees, the beach, the ocean. It makes me feel complete, like a real person.
“I meditate so deeply, and [think about] everything that I want to create by myself, and I just sit in silence for hours. I cry and think a lot, and visualise. And then I let it come to life,” she says. “I’m birthing it from a very natural and emotional place. That’s how ‘Sugar Honey Iced Tea’ came about. I think that’s why it’s become so successful, so fast. It’s a pregnancy.” She rubs her stomach. “I birthed it, nine months, I pushed it out. It’s a beautiful baby for me to care for.”
Destiny’s music runs rich with the experiences she’s gone through in her 27 years on Earth, pouring her personal feelings into her work. She says she’s only hesitated once – on 2018’s ‘A Girl Cried Red’ – before sharing such songs with the wider world. “For a brief moment, I was like, ‘Oh god, I’m going to confuse the world again’,” she says. “Then I thought about it, and I realised, ‘You know what, I’m going to do exactly what my peers wouldn’t do’, which is to take a risk. I took a leap of faith. I was really emotional because these are my most vulnerable lyrics. I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is really dark and real – but it’s nothing I haven’t shared with the world already’.
“Everyone knows I’m gothic and that I love [emo] music, too. I was scared a little bit, but there was nothing else to put out. That’s what I made, that’s what I had to say. That’s how I felt. I’m saving my life and a lot of other people’s lives. I’m grateful that I was hesitant but took that risk. I ended up changing history a little bit.”
And Princess Nokia’s next album is yet another curveball – there’s no concrete release date, but it’s expected during the first half of next year. “I can talk about it freely because I’m not giving you too much, but I’m giving you just enough,” she smirks, fiddling with a gigantic Vivienne Westwood pendant. “I’ve got a hip-hop and soul record coming out, and it’s incredible. It’s probably my best work I’ve ever made so far, which will only last ‘til the next one after that.”
“It’s a pregnancy. I birthed it, nine months. I pushed it out.”
– Princess Nokia
“It’s a really well composed, thought-out brilliantly musical project,” she continues. “I go back to hip-hop, acoustic, R’nB, soul, and there’s some Latin music on it. These lyrics are from the pages of my diary. It’s the diary of a young girl going through heartbreak, loss, betrayal, fame, insecurities, doubt, boundaries, self-care, and more than anything, healing. Healing as a young girl at the start of womanhood. Healing and being honest with everything that I’m feeling and experiencing, and bringing it into poetic light and making it very powerful.”
If you’re feeling fragile, consider this your warning before slipping on the headphones and listening when it eventually comes out. “I know that it’s going to make a lot of women cry,” she claims. “This is just a little taste of it.”
“I can barely keep my panties clean,” she cackles, reflecting on a whirlwind few years. “I’m still such a normal kid. But I think that with this record, a star is born”.
Princess Nokia’s new album is expected in 2020. Her new single ‘Balenciaga’ is out now.