WHAT DO YOU CHAMPION: PRINCESS NOKIAAugust 14, 2017
What do you #Champion? This month, we teamed up with Champion to ask a group of inspiring interdisciplinary creatives what matters most to them. From art to politics, storytelling to authenticity, get inspired by the causes that are prompting them to dream big.
Princess Nokia needs little introduction. One reason for that is her unwavering commitment to transparency and unapologetic honesty throughout her career thus far. Nokia is not represented by a label, although not for lack of industry attention. She insists on full control over her art, and she has seen the benefits of taking those risks— tenfold in her favor. Since completing her album, 1992, and releasing it in the winter of 2016, she has risen quickly and with power in international rap and hip-hop circles. The addictively fresh visuals accompanying the album have been viewed millions of times, and The Fader’s short documentary, Destiny, about her biography and creative process, all stand as testament to her unique influence.
Princess Nokia grew up splitting time between Harlem and the Lower East Side, settling in the LES when she was a teenager. Her vision of New York— its endlessly textured cultures, contradictions, efforts, communities, safe spaces, and spirit— seems intrinsically connected to Nokia’s multi-faceted artistic interests. When experiencing the songs and videos from 1992, it becomes clear that Nokia is focused on championing a complex narrative surrounding femininity, especially for women of colour. Each conceptual video embraces and subverts stereotypes about self-expression— she grabs these monikers, attaches herself to them, and then within the span of a few minutes she has completely transcended any simple definition or limitations of the terms: tomboy, bruja, kitana, G.O.A.T. It is this beautiful identity-cosplay that her fans find so exciting and, frankly, enormously empowering.
Just recently on Instagram, she sent out a vulnerable message to her followers encouraging them to resist comparing themselves to other girls, and to not let one kind of beauty or image dictate their self-esteem: “What I’m trying to say is although [through social media and the internet] we have this great access and way to express our beauty thru fantasy and technique (again slay queen slay), it is all a f*cking illusion learnt by hours of obsessive tutorial studying, mental breakdowns at aisle 5 in CVS, and trial and error, and we shouldn’t feel inadequate by what we can not achieve or truthfully represent or resemble.”
In a society so eager to limit and define who women are, it is freeing to see a proudly complex women say she can be everything, nothing, and that at the day it’s still really none of our business.
Interview by Katherine Noble, Photos by Laurel Golio
What do you Champion? How did this become a passion?
I champion community, especially safe and joyful spaces for Black and Brown women. In all of my projects— my music, my videos, my podcast, my live performances— I encourage women to feel empowered and embrace a sense of bravado that is often discouraged or denied Black and Brown women. I want to champion safe communities for self-confidence to bloom without ego or a sense of superiority— just self-love, inclusivity, and healing.
Describe your current personal style. What’s a favorite clothing piece of yours?
I go through different moods and styles all the time. Since I was young, I’ve used fashion and style as a way to express another part of myself. I like challenging the idea that femininity is one thing, you know. So, sometimes I want to embrace being androgynous and sporty— baggy, sweats, jerseys, buns, Versace glasses and gold chains. I like channeling a lot of masculine energy on those days.
Other times I want to dial it in the other direction and look like Monica Bellucci. You know, I’ll put on a ton of floral and 60s silhouettes and peep toes. I’ve always been a lover of fashion— I think it stems from my time in the downtown art, fashion and rave scenes when I was a teenager, you are just constantly surrounded by so many beautiful people doing completely different things with style and self-expression. So I don’t flip flop— I just oscillate within an expansive identity, I’m comfortable with a ton of different things. I love the richness and history of different styles, being conversation with that legacy. I’ll go from 90s Tomboy to 70s European to 60s Harper’s Bazaar. It reflects my current sense of self, my current interests.
Please share a ritual that helps you recenter.
Prayer. Surrounding myself with women I trust.
We’re huge fans of your music videos— especially in giving visibility to such a wide spectrum of women. How did the concepts your videos come about?
My videos for “Tomboy”, “Kitana” and “Brujas”, are connected in that they all feature strong groups of Black and Brown women, but highlight different aspects of femininity and matriarchal power. In “Tomboy”, directed by Milah Libin, I wanted to show neutral ideas of feminine strength and androgyny. I wanted the girls in the video to be depicted as their relaxed selves, inhabiting both stereotypically male styles while also being proud of their bodies. In “Kitana”, I wanted to show respectful sportsmanship in female spaces, something our society emphasizes so strongly for men and boys, but discourages in groups of girls and women. Women and girls also need that space to work through their aggressive energy or frustration or power dynamics with respect and competition rather than violence or abuse. That kind of female sportsmanship and collaborative energy is a theme across the whole album, really. In the music video for “Brujas”, which was directed by Asli Baykal, I wanted to show the symbolic magic of a group of Black and Brown women channeling their spiritual energy. That’s a big deal for me.
What’s your process for writing?
I take my phone and my journal and I walk around the city all day. I used to write and perform a lot of spoken word poetry, so I am a believer that you have to say it out loud to write it. I am always rapping to myself in the park.
You are such an admirable self-made artist. This stands out in a very commercialized industry, that has so long relied on a power-structure between labels, agents, and musicians. What do you think are some benefits for rap and hip hop artists coming up in 2017?
It’s an incredible time to be a female artist right now. There is such a wonderful opportunity for women to own their artistry, careers, and power and make their own creative choices— which is huge for shifting the messages and representation of women in the genre. I feel like with more women rappers and artists in charge of their music and message, they can help encourage girls to be their own age and not over-sexualize themselves. There is potential for women to establish themselves based on their talent and brains, without having to give over their power or their bodies. We are creating sustainable, lucrative careers on our own merit, without groups of men owning our art. It’s a beautiful, exciting thing.
When do you feel most like your true self?
Without a doubt, it’s when I’m on stage.
Can you name a couple key turning points on your journey so far? What are some things that have determined who you are today?
In 2016, I started writing my album 1992— in that creative space I could just feel myself maturing. I knew as I wrote those songs that I was creating something really special. That rich sense of pride came into my life, opening up a new depth of happiness and confidence. The day after I debuted the album independently on my website, I got an overwhelming response. I can’t even describe the feeling, knowing it connected with so many people. The next week, I booked my first European tour, and it’s all just kept moving from there. I’m so blessed to get to perform for so many incredible audiences. I know that.
What do you hope to be doing in five years?
In five years I hope to be creating new music and art, and still traveling to perform for new people. I already have my sights on projects spaced over the next six years, and I want to expand that to television and continue with my Smart Girls’ Club podcast. It’s a space for women of color to talk about urban feminism, spirituality, power, art, and magic. Another goal of mine is to make my tours even grander experiences for the crowds who come to watch me perform. I want to push the culture, energy, and design of each show.
What are a few things we can do to champion community?
It’s simple. Go to your local park and clean up garbage. Have people over for a meal. Grab speakers and throw a party outdoors for your friends. Be present with other people.
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