Music

Princess Nokia Is Ready to Reign

by

I meet up with Destiny Frasqueri — the 24-year-old Nuyorican alternative hip-hop artist known variously as Princess Nokia, Wavy Spice, or simply Destiny — in the East Village. I’m running late; she’s even later, so I get to the Astor Place cube first. Fifteen minutes later she walks up, dressed, as she’d indicated in a text apologizing for being behind schedule, in a beige duster coat and sweats to match, carrying a cherry-print Louis V bag. She’s wearing oversize shades, no makeup, just a touch of mascara. Her dark hair blows in the breeze, caressing a diamond-studded choker.

Frasqueri has appeared in Vogue, modeled for Calvin Klein, and had her song “Tomboy” used for an Alexander Wang runway show. But what makes her a figure of fascination for music aficionados in their teens and early twenties is the way she celebrates the beauty of imperfection, building a hero’s identity out of being a self-described “fucked-up kid.” She’s stunning yet still rough around the edges, rhyming about wearing dirty sneakers, smoking blunts in the stairwell, and proclaiming the power in her heritage. For her followers, her attractiveness lies in her contrasts. “Eczema so bad I’m bleeding,” she raps on “Bart Simpson,” the first track on 1992, the album she put up on SoundCloud last September. Sure enough, I look down and her irritated hands are bleeding slightly.

‘I never thought being poor was great or cool. But I wouldn’t take it back for a second. There’s so much richness and funniness in it.’

“I’m just ghetto as hell,” she says once we’ve settled in at San Loco for some chicken nachos. “That’s the only way that I know how to just be myself.” She shares a San Loco pro tip: “If I learned anything eating here all these years, you gotta ask ’em for a paper box and just dump all the nachos in there. It gets messy, but it’s so good.” After we’re done, we cross the street, and cultures, to get dessert at B&H, the kosher dairy. Frasqueri greets the cashier and places her order in Spanish.

As a teenager — when she was a goth and a cutter — Frasqueri hung out around the corner, with punks on St. Marks Place. She didn’t listen to much rap growing up, gravitating instead toward rock — Evanescence and Blink-182. The first music she made, as Wavy Spice, starting in 2010, was clubby — tracks like “Versace Hottie” and “Bitch, I’m Posh.” In 2015, as Destiny, she put out Honeysuckle, an album of soulful r&b.

But 1992 is a rare thing, combining the kind of New York lyricism safeguarded by hip-hop purists with the freedoms enjoyed by new-wave rappers like Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Yachty. “I’m old-school with a new-school heart,” Frasqueri says. Three years of writing and rhyme woodshedding led to 1992, named for her birth year. “I fell in love with hip-hop as an adult, not as a kid,” she says. “At the end of the day, I’m still a ‘hood bitch, no matter how punk I am.”

Frasqueri’s mom passed by the time she was nine, and she grew up living in various homes across the Bronx, Harlem, and the Lower East Side. She experienced abusive foster care, life in the projects, and brief escapes to camp with wealthy kids from the Upper West Side. She’d skip class but bury herself in books, digging deep into the Black literary canon. (“I am Black Harlem Renaissance,” she says. “I am Walter Dean Myers and Langston Hughes, baby.”) She taught herself, studying Kemetic philosophy, practicing brujería and Santería, claiming her inheritance of Yoruba and Taíno cultures, and falling in love with New York City. Pissy project elevators and breezy summer barbecues in the street suffuse Frasqueri’s memories. She represents a specific kind of New York, what she describes as her own “urban realism.” “What makes life beautiful?” she muses at one point. “The ghetto makes life beautiful. Black people make life beautiful.”

When she speaks, Frasqueri sounds like Harlem. Her voice is honey-warm but can turn tough and unyielding in an instant. I hear it when she braces herself as she remembers the moment she pinpointed her status as an outsider: “When I was sixteen, I was in a duplex of my homegirl, she was white, and with another Latina who came from an upper-middle-class family. I lit my cigarette on the stove, and my friends laughed at me. I asked them what was so funny and they said that what I did was really ghetto. From that moment, I knew that there was two different types of people in this world: people who light their cigarettes on the stove, and people that don’t.

“I never thought being poor was great or cool. But I wouldn’t take it back for a second. There’s so much richness and funniness in it. That’s what poor people do: They light their cigarettes on the stove, and smoke Newports with the door open while we take a shit in front of our family. That’s who we are. Poor folks, ghetto folk, Brown folk, Black folk, we just have a whole different world, life, and style. I just feel comfortable with the rawest, most naturalistic parts of every spectrum of my life.

“I’m a Brown Afro-indigenous woman. That makes people uncomfortable as it is. The folks that have a problem with me and say, ‘You still live with privilege. You not fully Black.’ I can’t win and I can’t lose, so I’ma just keep going.” She smiles. “Yes, I’m mixed-race. There’s girls who look like me and glorify being exotic. I have a responsibility to my Blackness.”

Frasqueri’s Princess Nokia persona was a way of transforming all the moments of ridicule and unsureness she felt as an outsider. “I know what it is to be the weirdo kid in the ‘hood,” she says. “That’s who I am in rap.” She promotes queer rights and lets fans know she has “zero tolerance” for instances of “sexism and sexual assault” — that’s how she put it in February at a show at Cambridge University, after she’d jumped into the crowd to punch a man in the audience she maintains was hurling misogynistic comments at her during her performance. (He denies this.) After she swung on him, she told the crowd, “That’s what you do when a white boy disrespects you.”

“I’m like an old-school rapper,” she tells me. “I never put no guns in my fuckin’ videos. Fuck the beef, spread the peace….At the same time, I’m very much a rapper. Recently, I was in the papers for punching someone. That’s more ‘rapper’ than a lot of rappers.” She laughs softly.

Punch-outs aside, shows are how she earns her living. On April 11 she plays the Brooklyn Bazaar, one stop on a 24-city international tour that includes many sold-out 300–500 capacity rooms as well as summer festival dates across Europe. She’s turned down label offers, running her business herself — no manager, no PR, no assistant — and it’s paying off. She says she flies first class when touring. And there are other benefits.

“I don’t look at tags when I shop now,” she says. “I love to get fly, but I don’t buy designer clothes. I can’t take care of nice shit, so I don’t buy nice shit. That’s the difference between me and a rapper; my equity’s gon’ be in my home and my assets.” She pauses. “Then again, rappers are wonderful business people….I think about twenty years from now, honey, I’m not gon’ be no internet artist, I’ll tell ya that! I’ma be sitting on some residuals and some fuckin’ legacy.”

That legacy will be shaped by Frasqueri’s presence as a cultural force actuated by her sensibility of the past, embodiment of the present, and intimation of the future. She’s attuned to the tone of the times, catching wind of New York’s cultural scene. Her existence is what she brings to hip-hop. “It’s so powerful to be a girl at the top of underground hip-hop,” she says. “I love being a rapper so much because I get to redefine what it is to be at the top. Them other boys at the top with me right now — they’re gods in their worlds — young gods. I’m a young god, too. I don’t get down like other rappers. But I am hip-hop.”

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