Quantcast

Why Princess Nokia Matters Now, More Than Ever

Amani Bin Shikhan

Destiny Frasqueri, aka Princess Nokia, knows herself. You should too.

"I wasn't in no way where I am now, but I remember that line," said Destiny Frasqueri, pausing for only a moment before quoting Lauryn Hill's "Final Hour" about international articles and coming up on a hater. "And I was like, 'that's gon' be my revenge.' And I'm gon' let them fuckin' know." On January 15, Toronto's DJ Nino Brown and Thank You Kindly, a Toronto-based production and curation company, hosted Princess Nokia's two-part event in the city. On the first night, she performed to a crowd of fans who recited every word off her latest album 1992 with her in perfect unison. The next day, she sat with Anupa Mistry, FADER Canada editor in an informal, chill lecture and discussed the myriad of people, experiences and places that make up Destiny, the woman, and sustain Princess Nokia, the artist. After wrapping up the Q&A due to her need for vocal rest before her upcoming European tour, Princess Nokia committed to hanging back and invited every single attendee to a hug of appreciation. "I'm never gonna forget what this feels like. This is new to me every time," she said to a congregation of people hanging onto her every word. In a little over two hours, Destiny had made believers of everyone in the room.

Princess Nokia isn't really someone who needs an introduction. She identifies as a bruja and a tomboy, a classic New York Boricua shorty, a feminist, a queer woman who isn't burdened, but empowered by her complexity. Her podcast Smart Girl Club Radio, is the clearest distillation of Princess Nokia as the artist, woman and friend. The show is comprised of just one mic and her carefully shared musings on her life as she knows it to be true, only interrupted by sweet, fatherly check-ins or short recitations of original poetry. On the latest episode, she spoke on her accomplishments of 2016, the best and most prosperous year of her life. "See? She does many things, wears many hats. Doesn't even need to talk about it… Power to the people, and power to my paycheque," she ends with a little laugh. This is the essence of who she is: a hustler, a charismatic spirit, and someone who plays no games. As Destiny Frasqueri, as Wavy Spice, and, finally, as Princess Nokia.

Destiny first erupted on the scene with "YAYA" by her original moniker, Wavy Spice. The song is a two-minute trip of deep vocals, partly in English and partly in Taino language, its video, one unmoving photo of a woman staring directly into the camera lens. Then came Metallic Butterfly under VICE Records, featuring tracks like the cutesy, drunken infatuation of "Dragons" and "Young Girls," the gorgeous ode to the girls and women of her 'home,' either in reality or an imaginary, alternate utopia. 2015's Honeysuckle birthed only one visual component—"Apple Pie", Nokia's depiction of a hazy, summer love—but also produced "Brown Girl Blues," a somber, spoken word-style reminder of the ghosts that follow Black people in America. Since her introduction, Princess Nokia's narrative has been obsessed with assertion. Her honestly made it so that she needed no external validation. If she laid it all out for everyone to see,—and that she did—there were no secrets. And no secrets meant that Nokia savored a liberation of sorts that, while it didn't quite free her from the harsh realities that have and continue to inform her day-to-day, granted her a space of creative refuge. She did whatever the fuck she wanted, however the fuck she wanted. The best part was that, more times than not, it worked in her favor.

And through that, she created music that toyed with traditionalist ideas of genre and form. In Princess Nokia's world, there were no rules. She would switch from singing to rapping, from rapping to speaking plainly. It wasn't until 1992 that the beat selection on her projects inched closer to traditional cohesiveness, binding the tracks together in theme and feel. It's also the third project release in three years by Nokia. "Every year, I assign myself to make a beautiful art piece which is my musical project for the year," said Princess Nokia of her process. "It [1992] kind of had a slow start. I made one song a month, but every song was a gem. [...] Those songs were really New York-inspired songs."

Two of the three visuals released for it, "Tomboy" and "Kitana", are backdropped by a real city landscape; the real New Yorker's New York. Basketball courts, brown buildings with windows in various stages of openness, mom and pop shops, crowds of Black and Brown friends on foot, on skateboards, in cars, on bikes. She's rarely alone. But when she is, she stands smileless, hair pulled back or tucked behind her ears, a joint habitually in hand. "I'm having fun with my friends, and I don't want it to end," she screams on "Tomboy". Abruptly, the euphoria ends as "Kitana" starts, her lips widening to reveal a bloody grin after an unexplained boxing match. In "Brujas", everything is different. She's cleansed, dressed in white linen and calf-deep in a shallow lake, invoking the name of Yemaya, a water deity according to traditional Yoruban religion passed down through wide-spanning diaspora. Just as quickly, the scene changes and she's in a forest, piercing the soil. And then, she's on the steps of a building complex, three Black women at both her sides, chanting one sacred rule: don't you fuck with my energy. "When I do it, I put my all into it, guys," she confessed on Smart Girl Club. "This is my testament as Princess Nokia and as an artist. 1992 freed my soul." (Sidenote: who else but Princess Nokia could interview herself on her own show about her own work? Iconic.)

For Princess Nokia, power is in her communities. She belongs to many. Shoutout to Harlem, to her Taino and Yoruban and white Boricuan ancestry, to the hood girls, to the queer communities who helped raise her since she was 11 years old, just a child tagging along to voguing competitions at the club. In countless ways,—some of which we may know and some of which she may keep to herself forever—Destiny's people kept her alive when death was all but knocking at her door. With 1992 and the return of Smart Girl Club Radio, she's finding herself in a place that no longer requires an explanation for her existence or continued survival. Destiny knows who Destiny is. And it's time the rest of us caught up.

Amani Bin Shikhan is a writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.