Destiny Frasqueri empowers both herself and her fans through her music and lyrics. Here, Alix Moussy delves into her ethos.
Growing up in New York, Destiny Frasqueri, known by her stage name Princess Nokia, went through some tough times, spending time in foster care as well as suffering abuse from her guardians. She recounts her childhood in songs and interviews, because this is what shaped who she is today. Experiences of isolation laid the foundation for her work: a place of creative exploration as well as liberation from hardships and exclusion.
In the nineties and early noughties, New York was home to a variety of music scenes, which Frasqueri explored in order to escape – punk rock, ska music, hip hop, and house. She talks about the varied influences on her music: gothic clothes, the queer underground music scene, and voguing.This early dialogue between herself and various creative environments led to her making music. She creates positive and compelling messages through her lyrics, which reflect on her life and delve into themes of self- acceptance, peace, and general empowerment in different forms. At her concerts, she creates an energetic yet safe space for her audience.
Her personal empowerment finds its roots in the decisions she has made throughout her early career. In 2012, when her song Bitch I’m Posh went viral, she was own out to Europe by record labels – but rather than taking the deals, she decided to follow her own rhythm in her art. Doing otherwise, she felt, would hinder her creativity and leave her exploited for money. Over five years she turned down five labels, before finally signing to independent music label Rough Trade. These choices affect her personality as well as her music. On the one hand, it enabled her to determine the course of her career and life. On the other, Frasqueri respects and preserves music as a fantasy world that people escape to, an especially pertinent idea given the commoditisation of so much talent that continues today.
Many other artists do choose to follow the money and opportunities presented to them, and that probably also feels empowering. Take Cardi B, who in her massively successful I Like It declares, “I like million dollar deals, where’s my pen, bitch I’m signing”. However, Princess Nokia went in a different direction, because the rapper wanted to replicate the positive environment of the music scenes she had been a part of earlier in her life. Her lyrics in 1992, a mix-tape that she originally launched on Soundcloud, showcase this. This was later expanded and re-released as a studio album, 1992 Deluxe.The picture she paints isn’t perfect, but rather beautifully awed. “Eczema so bad I’m bleeding, but I smile and keep it cheesing” rolls off the beat in Bart Simpson, followed later by “I really like Marvel ‘cause characters look just like me, and women don’t have roles that make them look too sexually”. In Brujas, her words glorify her Puerto-Rican origins: “I’m that Black a-Rican bruja straight out from the Yoruba”. She explores her femininity and beauty, and her acceptance of them, when she chants “My little titties and my phat belly” in Tomboy. All of this builds up a positive image of herself. It is flaunted for others to see, understand, and replicate.
What she’s doing in her lyrics, she also does live at her concerts. It’s so much more than creating music for sales. She calls women to the front in her shows, and explains that they can feel safe in the space she creates. She talks with her audience and treats her fans as individual human beings. She defeats the endless pursuit of pro t and puts value back into music and what it can achieve. For Princess Nokia, a message of positivity goes beyond the stage; she hosts events and radio show Smart Girl Club, and delivers talks at universities. She talks about intersectional feminism, about her experiences and those of other women, about art and what it means. Together with her shows and lyrics, she demonstrates that difference and originality are valued, and attempts to reflect on the imperfection of the world. Everyone is empowered in their own way: it’s up to individuals to decide what they do with this experience.This isn’t to say she’s all sweetness, since she’s had her fair share of scandal – from throwing soup at a racist on the subway to attacking an abusive audience member at a gig in Cambridge. She certainly stands up for what she believes in. Even if some people don’t like her songs, there’s still an important lesson to learn from her journey. The message of empowerment she represents and spreads isn’t limited to her music, it touches all aspects of her life.
Empowerment is agency. So many factors can get in the way of that – financial issues, mental illness, natural disasters, to name but a few. We crave perfection and stability but the world seems to give us just the opposite.We feel bad, so we need an escape in the form of drugs, gambling, TV, parties. Escapes are spaces and activities that take up our time and money, and they divert attention away from what’s not going so well. They also come in varying forms. Drugs give you a chemical high and let you avoid reality, but the psychological risk and economic cost is high. Art is the opposite. We all have some sort of connection with art, whether it’s feeling the rush of energy owing from your headphones when you tread through grey London, or sharing your grandpa’s nostalgia as he plays you an old favourite song. If what artists create is honest and positive, then our escape is too – art can’t make you addicted or overdose, rather, it prepares you to take on reality.
There’s a catch, though. Selling art can transform it from an escape to a money- making machine. Making music is like cooking: when the ingredients are good, the cook is talented, and the focus is the taste and the experience of the food. The result is delicious. However, commoditisation shifts the focus away from these things, and from the creation of something truly valuable to something which is purely a product to be sold.This leaves the audience with an experience which isn’t as rich as it should be.
Princess Nokia avoided this shift. She empowered herself and made art that empowers others. Her music shows pain, loss, hardship, difficulty to cope, but also honesty, beauty, care, hard work, and positivity. People can relate to it and come back being more aware of the beauty in their own lives too. Our ability to better our own lives depends partly on our ability to relate to the world peacefully, and that includes knowing how to escape healthily, in a constructive manner, when we feel cornered by worries and negativity.Art can be a healthy route to doing so – the direction in which we take our lives can be influenced by our interaction with it. All this matters because, constantly around us, there are serious issues at hand and immense suffering that we need to deal with. Tackling these issues also requires positive ways of escaping this same reality that we have to work on. That’s when we breathe as individuals and explore what we want from life. Everyone will have their own ways of coping, and music is an escape route for many.
Unfortunately, the never-ending thirst for high returns does exist in the music industry, and it has a huge impact on the art that is created. It makes it, and therefore us, subjected to false ideas, to constructs of perfection and violence.This actually makes us weaker in our lives. It takes away our breathing space; the space we need to reflect on our lives before acting. Princess Nokia is a strong countercurrent to this. She reminds society that certain things are more important than money and immediate gratification: care, love, self-acceptance, honesty, and bravery all form her as an individual, and they all shape her music.
This article was originally published in Issue 723 of Pi Magazine.