Wonderland.

PRINCESS NOKIA

The singer ruminates on their layered identity as an artist, the importance of independently steering their creative direction and the mark their music has made on the world.

Princess Nokia Cover the Summer 2020 issue

Watch OMEGA, All clothing Nokia’s own. Photo by Drew Reynolds

Princess Nokia Cover the Summer 2020 issue
Watch OMEGA, All clothing Nokia’s own. Photo by Drew Reynolds

Taken from the Summer 2020 issue. Order your copy now.

The question of exactly who Princess Nokia is isn’t an easy one to answer, and that’s exactly the way they’d want it. Born Destiny Nicole Frasqueri, they were initially known as Wavy Spice before settling upon their current moniker. They are a gender non-conforming, queer, multidisciplinary artist, whose work spans the worlds of music, film, fashion, art, photography and more. They are a New Yorker, they are Puerto Rican, they are ‘Nuyorican’ (“it’s just made me so animated”); a rapper, a producer, a Rockstar, a punk and a pop artist all rolled into one, a creative tour de force who refuses to be pigeonholed or boxed in, resistant of labels and categorisation in almost every aspect of their life. Right now, though, they are pissed off.

“I think Trump is a fucking idiot — point blank, period,” they tell me over the phone, the irritation palpable in their voice. Nokia isn’t a fan of far-right ideology at the best of times — they went viral last year for throwing hot soup over a man insistently using racial slurs on the subway — and, while the nail has long been in the President’s coffin in their eyes, his callously inept response to the Covid-19 crisis has only served to strengthen their resolve.

Like most of us, Nokia is currently stuck at home, locked down in their native New York as the pandemic ravages the world. Like most of us, they aren’t finding the change easy. “I don’t work well at home,” they bemoan relatably. “My house is a really beautiful, peaceful space; it’s just never been a place where I make music. I have a system that works for me, and I got to be honest with you, this is not working for me.” The prospect of getting back to normal is a tantalising one, and it is clear the rapper has thought long and hard about what they’ll do when familiarity eventually resumes, their voice filling with excitement as they detail their post-lockdown plans. “I think the first thing my friends and I are going to do is throw a huge rave,” they tell me. “Period. That’s it. The clothes are optional. Big ass rave. Open your mouth, the liquor is coming in. We’re gonna have a good old time. And then, when the sun comes up, we’re all going to drag our asses to Riis Beach, and we’re gonna get all naked and we’re gonna jump in the water and we’re going to watch the sun come up. That’s what me and my friends are going to do.”

Princess nokia Polaroid
Princess Nokia with Ice Cream

(LEFT) All clothing Nokia’s own. Photo by Robot MoonJuice (RIGHT) Watch OMEGA, All clothing Nokia’s own. Photo by Drew Reynolds

Princess nokia Polaroid
All clothing Nokia’s own. Photo by Robot MoonJuice Watch OMEGA, All clothing Nokia’s own. Photo by Drew Reynolds
Princess Nokia with Ice Cream

It’s easy to see why Nokia is particularly frustrated by being locked inside; after all, they kicked off 2020 with more of a bang than practically everyone else, managing to release not one but two new albums before their momentum was interrupted by coronavirus. The works — one entitled Everything is Beautiful, the other Everything Sucks — dropped simultaneously, the atmospheric and sonic dichotomy between the two serving to illustrate the artist’s multifaceted emotional and creative outlook.

“All of the songs that I made originally — they just didn’t go with each other,” they explain. “So it made sense; it was the smart thing to do to realise two projects.” Nokia has long been a master of atmospheric manipulation; just look at the way in which the instrumental from their 2017 song, “Bart Simpson”, shifts from first verse to second. In the first, synthy, almost vintage-sounding melodies provide a bedrock for fondly nostalgic bars, like “Writing on my sneakers / Being sneaky with my teachers / Smoking weed under the bleachers / Cutting out and glueing pictures”. However, as the first chorus ends there is a switch, Nokia now channelling horror movie-esque soundscapes, with the change also signifying a switch in subject matter. Summery wistfulness is swiftly replaced with visceral lines like “I lie a lot from getting beaten, and put off food, I’m not eating / Eczema so bad I’m bleeding, standing in stark juxtaposition to the rose-tinted verse immediately prior.”

It is fascinating to see how “Bart Simpson” acts as a microcosmic foreshadowing of Nokia’s 2020 double-drop, their experimentation with duality now undertaken on a larger scale, and this is something that was firmly in their mind when they made the decision to split the projects. “There are two sides to these moods,” they ruminate; “there are shadows and there is light, there is up and down, there is happy and sad, there is crazy and peaceful.” Interestingly, it is not always the melody that leads Nokia lyrically; on the contrary, they explain how, in many instances, the melodic and atmospheric path chosen are dictated by the bars and flow. Everything is Beautiful’s lead single, “Sugar Honey Iced Tea (S.H.I.T.)”, is one such example: “Before I put [the song] to any type of beat, I always rapped it and sung it. Even the very first time I wrote the poetry, I was just like ‘Sugar honey iced tea / These bitches don’t like me’, so it [already] had the soulful cadence and feeling to it.” Nokia is apt to label it “poetry,” explaining how they find inspiration in both literature and rap, from Maya Angelou to Lil’ Kim, Hurricane G and Nicki Minaj. “I’m not a proper songwriter,” they explain. “I didn’t go to writing camps and I don’t know about creative songwriting or anything like that, so the best way for me to use my voice — to express myself lyrically — is to write poetry first, and then sing or rap [it].”

princess nokia polaroid
Princess Nokia drinking milk

All clothing Nokia’s own. Photos by Robot MoonJuice

princess nokia polaroid
All clothing Nokia’s own. Photos by Robot MoonJuice
Princess Nokia drinking milk

What is more, the poesy doesn’t just reside in Nokia’s words, but in the way are delivered, their arsenal of eclectic flows and metres deployed tactically to enhance and mirror a given instrumental or vibe on a track. On “Gemini” for example, their voice blossoms into something akin to a nursery rhyme when they rap: “Little zodiac, ginger snap, pretty little shorty with the snapback, tarot deck”, the rest of the verse wrapping itself around the beat structure to create something addictively catchy, and instantly nostalgic.

Nokia is also prosopopoeic in their lyricism, subconsciously manipulating the lyrical ‘I’ throughout the albums and evoking the voices of various important figures throughout their life on the songs, ephemerally teasing what is almost a ventriloquistic shared experience before reasserting their own unique perception. “I think that I speak in different ways because I am directly influenced by the people that I was growing up around,” they muse. “So, I’ve got a little bit of the way my foster mother talked, I’ve got a little bit of my father — how he talked. My uncles, the friends around me… people always ask me ‘Why do you have so many different accents? Why do you switch a lot?’ It just never even stood out to me.”

As a queer person, Nokia extolls the creative inspiration they gain from the LGBTQ+ community, jovially exclaiming, “Oh, honey, I’m inspired by the gays!”, when I ask what stimulates them creatively. “When I tell you that I’m the gayest person in the world… I’m too gay to function,” they laugh. “I grew up with nothing but queer friends, queer people around me. I am a queer person. When I’m with my best friends, my girls — even if they’re boys — my girls, they inspire me. When we start dancing in the mirror, that inspires me. That zest for life, that non-stop laughter, that fun that we are always cultivating and creating… I’m so inspired by my experiences with my friends and how happy they make me; how much love we share and how much laughter we have.”

Princess Nokia Polaroid
Princess Nokia Polaroid
Princess Nokia Polaroid with knife

All clothing Nokia’s own. Photos by Robot MoonJuice

Princess Nokia Polaroid
All clothing Nokia’s own. Photos by Robot MoonJuice
Princess Nokia Polaroid
Princess Nokia Polaroid with knife

New York (and specifically being Puerto Rican in New York) is also clearly a source for material. From their days as Wavy Spice with songs like “Puerto Rican Judo” with RATKING, to “ABCs of New York” on 1992 and “Soul Food y Adobo” on Everything is Beautiful, Nokia has always been dedicated to sharing their ‘Nuyorican’ experience in their records, and their voice fills with warmth when discussing their diverse upbringing, extolling the positive effect it has had on their music. “Being raised Puerto Rican in New York has shaped me to be a really diverse, eclectic person,” she says. “I was raised around so many cultures in New York, so it’s allowed me to be able to immerse myself in many walks of life. To be a Puerto Rican person in New York growing up… It’s everything. From your childhood, to your family gatherings, to your coming-of-ages. From the old school, old traditions and conservativeness, to the new school and progressive liberty, there is just so much going on and all of it has shaped me to be that type of New York person. I am very proud of it.”

Sonically too, New York imbues Nokia’s records, comparable to works like Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died” and Virginia Woolf’s essay “Street Haunting” in the way they illuminate the physical, tangible fabric of a city through words and sound. The manner in which Everything is Beautiful meanders and surprises almost gives the sensation of walking down a busy New York street, and one of the album’s great strengths is the way in which it gives the listener various sonic experiences to immerse themselves in, rather than just songs. The engagement is active rather than passive, and this is something Nokia is keen to communicate through their music, explaining: “I want my record to sound like a fully fleshed concept soundtrack

There are so many ideas, personal experiences and concepts that come from these albums that I make, and I want them to sound great, and continuous from beginning to the end. I don’t do it overtly on purpose, but it always ends up happening. Metallic Butterfly, ’92, A Girl Cried Red, Everything is Beautiful, Everything Sucks… They’re their own Netflix shows — and the soundtrack is great.”

Princess Nokia Polaroid
Princess Nokia Polaroid
Princess Nokia Polaroid

All clothing Nokia’s own. Photos by Robot MoonJuice

Princess Nokia Polaroid
All clothing Nokia’s own. Photos by Robot MoonJuice
Princess Nokia Polaroid
Princess Nokia Polaroid

Production obviously has a huge part to play in creating these experiences, and the production work done on both albums is impeccable. In Houston, almost exactly a year before our chat, I listened to Solange bemoan the fact that female and non-binary artists are not given enough credit for the work they put in behind the scenes on their albums, and I ask Nokia if they feel like they have experienced a similar oversight. “You hit that question on the nose,” they reply. “There is a frustration with female and non-binary artists not being given credit enough when they work so much behind the scenes — I am really at the forefront of that. I have directed maybe 17 out of the 20 music videos that I’ve done, 16 at least. I have done everything from costume design, styling, wardrobe, directing, casting, production, editing. I have paid for literally almost everything in my career.” They continue: “I want to be recognised as a business powerhouse and a production powerhouse, but that is not acknowledged in me. It’s not acknowledged in a lot of pretty women. A lot of women in my position are just believed to be divas that have the whole world revolve around us, and that we just come to show up, to perform and to entertain. That may be the case with some folks — and that’s fine — but I want to be acknowledged more for it, because I take pride in the merit of my work […] It’d be nice to be told: ‘You are a hard worker. You are more than just an artist. You are a marvel.’”

More than ‘just’ an artist Nokia certainly is. Aside from music videos, they have, among other things, hosted a radio show on Beats 1, been the face of a Calvin Klein campaign, and recently made their acting debut in Peter Andrew Lee’s beautifully poignant Angelfish. “A lot of these things are just my hobbies, that I get to make money off of now,” they meditate. “Sometimes I feel like I’m just the luckiest person in the world, and I say that because I can’t begin to tell you how empty my life used to be and how much I used to long to do these things. Now that I get to do them in my day job… It’s kind of mind-blowing.” This ability to be themselves and honestly communicate their personality through so many different mediums is the cherry on the icing for Nokia, who is aware of how far they have pushed their self-expression. “Being a Puerto Rican girl from New York City and being the face of Margiela, of Calvin Klein, of Macy’s, Target… I don’t wanna get emotional but, like, that’s a dream come true,” they explain. “There I go, just being my normal self and being celebrated for it. It’s a way for me to take Princess Nokia and make it make sense all over the world.”

Princess Nokia Polaroid in funky hat and jacket
Princess Nokia Polaroid
Princess Nokia Polaroid drinking milk

(LEFT) Glove BALENCIAGA via MYTHERESA Nokia’s own clothing (MID+RIGHT) Nokia’s own clothing. Photos by Robot MoonJuice

Princess Nokia Polaroid in funky hat and jacket
Glove BALENCIAGA via MYTHERESA Nokia’s own clothing (MID+RIGHT) Nokia’s own clothing. Photos by Robot MoonJuice
Princess Nokia Polaroid
Princess Nokia Polaroid drinking milk

They must be doing something right. While TikTok is saturated with more content than ever before in the worldwide lockdown, one of Nokia’s songs — “I Like Him” from Everything Sucks — recently went viral. While musical purists may look down on the app as sugar-coated commercialisation of the art form (looking at you, Drake’s “Tootsie Slide”), it is impossible to ignore the impact the platform is having on the industry, with the swift ascent of major key players thanks in part to the viral nature of the app. In Nokia’s eyes, the platform is quickly becoming a key vehicle for the self-expression of brown and black young people. “Let’s all be honest, TikTok is the genius wonder that it is because of black youth and brown youth dancing, sharing their creativity, sharing their subculture, sharing their flavour, their attitude, with the world,” they say passionately. “You see these white kids dancing, copying little black kids. It’s like, fuck, that’s how powerful black youth is. I think it’s fucking fantastic. I think it’s genius, you know? It’s really a beauty […] they can take a music app, and make it a completely third-party art medium. It’s very fascinating, and it’s very smart. I just think it’s cool that I get to be a part of it and this part of musical history.”

As far as musical history goes, you can guarantee that Nokia’s name will transcend the annals of TikTok, and this is very much a reality the artist has come to terms with. “I don’t wanna toot my own horn, but I think what I’ve done — Princess Nokia and what it stands for — has definitely been impactful on the art world,” they say matter-of-factly, their New Yorker’s talent for just telling it how it is overriding any semblance of arrogance one might gage from another artist speaking the same words. “I came into this business and really solidified myself as an independent woman, as an independent artist, as a self-sufficient creative, and as a resourceful human being, you know? And the industry, they really respect me for that! Even if sometimes they don’t understand me or include me, they understand it, honey. The world around me understands it.”

They pause for a minute, the silence heavy with genuine heartfelt pride and awe at how much they have accomplished so far, before continuing. “In a world where patriarchy is huge, where women are treated as objects, sexual beings who have shelf lives […] I am in college dissertations all around the world for the themes of my music. There is so much going on; there is so much to be said. I kind of surpassed rap in a way. That’ll be the legacy. We all come from the mud, and I came up the mountain, and I’m just happy because it continues to help young women be inspired, to take those paths in their careers, and to stand for something really powerful.”

Photography
Drew Reynolds and Robot MoonJuice
Creative Director
Robot MoonJuice
Words
Francesco Loy Bell
PRINCESS NOKIA