In The Fader’s short documentary, DESTINY, Princess Nokia, born Destiny Frasqueri, shares a traumatic story rife with hardships. This story is her own. Princess Nokia lost her mother to AIDS at a very young age, and from ages 9 to 16, she was in foster care, enduring abuse from her foster mother, whom she describes as a “succubus.” At 15, the verbal and physical abuse proved too much, and Destiny ran away from home with nothing but three dollars and a cell phone “with 75 percent battery” on her person.
Now 26, there is no stopping the New York rapper. “I have some really great new music coming out this summer, which I'm really excited about,” she shares. “I'm so excited because it only means that there has been such a growth and enhancement in my work and my creativity.”
Her aspirations expand beyond music. Now partnered with Platoon, Princess Nokia has just wrapped her first full-length feature film, is working on a YouTube series, and has a number of books in the arsenal. “I literally have my hand in every aspect of the art world that you could imagine,” she says. “That's what I've always done. That's what I will always continue to do because I really love my work. It makes me happy. I don't have much in life but my work is what makes me alive.”
Billboard spoke with Princess Nokia about creating feminist spaces at her performances, how queer culture inspired her from a young age and why she turned down multiple labels when her first single went viral.
You've expressed interest in both rap and punk culture, telling the New York Times, “I’m not a hip-hop head. I didn’t grow up obsessed with rap. Hip-hop lives in my soul in a very singular, isolated, personal way.” What do you mean by that?
When I think of hip-hop, I think of its origins in New York City as opposed to rap. I've always grown up loving hip-hop, but I think what separates me from my peers is that our interests were different growing up. I was an artsy bohemian kid that played jazz in the lower east side. When I think of my historical references for hip-hop, I think of the park. I think of poetry. I think of park jams. I think of DJs, break dancing, and the social-ness that it brings.
I was more into rock music. I think it's humorous that I became a rapper. I always identified with hip-hop and the culture but I think I started to grow more into it has an adult. In a lot of ways, it was something that was personal for me. Then I shared it with the world. I kept what I did very private and I was secular with it. Not to say that it makes anything I do inauthentic. What I'm trying to explain is that someone who has such a cornucopia of interest in chapters of life, it just really differs from a typical rap standpoint. I hope that's not too complex.
From a young age, you surrounded yourself with queer people and frequented queer establishments. What drew you to queer culture and what did you take from it in terms of your art?
Queer culture was introduced to me at a very early age. It was introduced to me with a semi-positive facet because no one in my family is remotely homophobic or closed-minded. We'd always had extended family that was queer and queer families that we knew. Then the identification of queerness was in my own self and the people around me came out at a very early age. I grew up in New York city where those types of introductions and normalities are quite common.
Growing up, I loved Boy George, George Michael, Annie Lennox, Queen, Freddie Mercury, Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross. I remember I had an aunt who collected Barbies, so I understood who Bob Mackie was from a really early age. It’s just something that was always around me. Through art, through culture, through music, through dance, through movies. I read Disco Bloodbath when I was 13. Everything that I could get my little hands on that was gay or queer, I did.
You're know for placing women in the front of your shows and men in the back, saying at a typical rap show, “It’s about men and their bravado.” How do you make this happen?
In order to ensure a safe place and to enable the type of energy and direction that I want to go into the show, I have to be very vocal about it. I grab the attention of the entire audience after my first song and I say, "Hey everyone. How y'all doing? This is the Princess Nokia Show. We've got a couple rules."
I think when you advocate for rules, principles and guidelines that should be followed through, they're really inundated. It's not guaranteeing 100 percent safety, but for a long time, I stopped my show and asked the women to come to the front, which is something that I've gotten from Kathleen Hanna in Bikini Kill.
I think that it’s an important thing for hip-hop and rap spaces that women were at the front of the shows instead of the back and sides or behind the stage. I grew up really wanting to glorify women in my spaces and make them the focal point, and ensure that they could see and feel protected and not be aggressively hurt in any type of way, unless it's of their own doing. I'm very friendly, I say what I want to happen in the show, and the people listen to me for the most part. We end up having a really safe, great show.
Much of your music is a narrative and deeply personal. Have you ever been scared to be so vulnerable on a song?
Not really, no. I think I've been honest with myself and my life story since I was a kid in public school. I've never had any shame about anything about my life and I've always been very eloquent with how I speak about my life because I've lived it so long. I'm not suffering from my trauma anymore, thank God. It's not vulnerable for me. It's something that I can eloquently talk about and be very open with in a positive light no matter how heavy the subject is and that's what my art is about. I don't know how to be surface level in music, either. I tried it out when I was a teenager and I just sounded dumb.
A Girl Cried Red goes into some really deep sentiments and feelings. It came from a really traumatic place, but working on the record made me happy again and gave me purpose. The dark clouds will always go away because music would always come in like the sun. That was really widely regarded by a lot of my favorite bands which I'm so grateful for, but what it ended up just being a saving grace and this really positive new chapter in emo music which is usually very deprecating and very dark. I said that A Girl Cried Red was an album of redemption. I think that all of my music or poetry is about redeeming myself no matter how humiliating or embarrassing or traumatic an experience maybe.
After “Bitch I’m Posh” went viral, you were approached by many labels who couldn’t wait to sign you, yet you turned them down because you weren’t ready. Why did you make that choice at the time?
I didn't think that I was creatively ready to take on that type of commitment. I made the right decision, I'll be very honest with you. I wasn't looking to be famous when I put out "Bitch I'm Posh," that was completely by accident. I really wish I had more confidence with what I wanted to do with my life, and who I was and where I was going. Because I'd be like some of these younger girls now, who have more of a hold on themselves and have a way better trajectory.
I was just a young kid trying to experiment. I had all this pressure, and I wasn't ready for it. I was very awkward. I didn't have any help. One day I just decided to just be really different, and go in a different direction that was expected of me. It's the best thing I ever did for myself.