A Walk Through Zion with Princess Nokia

The Smart Girl Club’s Oracle welcomes us into her Matrix.

By Nina Mashurova

The 6 train slows down when it gets to the Bronx, sneaking quietly past residential neighborhoods. The Soundview neighborhood looks a lot like Bushwick: an aboveground train track rattling over bodegas and 99 cent stores, a pizza shop with a video game arcade, and a Caribbean restaurant. The motherly cooks look worried when I don’t order meat, but offer an extra helping of sweet plantains to make up for it.

All photos by Dylan Johnson.

It’s Sunday. A makeshift market is set up in front of the Fine Fair grocery store, clothes hanging on the parking lot fence, shoes and handbags displayed on blankets. The sounds of Latin radio blend with the rumble of the Bronx River Parkway. Beyond the train, Soundview is residential, made up mostly of two-story row houses interspersed with occasional housing project developments.

“When I come back to the Bronx I feel really happy,” says Destiny Frasqueri. “It kind of looks like Puerto Rico. It’s all built on hills and there are all these small houses with clotheslines and gardens and all these mystical people who live here.”

When Destiny opens her door to meet us, she is dressed all in white, holding a futuristic white helmet which she tells us she found on the Upper West Side. “When I woke my boyfriend up, he told me I looked like a stormtrooper,” she laughs. “I thought we could shoot the photos right here… something simple, something afrofutrist,” she says, gesturing to the only empty white wall in bedroom otherwise covered in posters and photos.

Crisp winter daylight floods in through two large windows that look out on backyard gardens. Destiny’s voice is gentle, patient, and thoughtful. Her ideas always seem conceptualized deliberately. When she’s passionate about something she mythologizes it, gives it history and weight.

In the corner of her room, a bookshelf holds The Giver beside The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a book on spells and rituals, a book about Cleopatra. Video game detritus is scattered around. I spot a Pokemon lunchbox. An orange boycat named Goldie prowls around sleepily. An amorphous collage of cut-up flower images grows on one wall.

Destiny Frasqueri is Princess Nokia, a project in which she synthesizes complex ideas into a free-flowing whole. 2014’s Metallic Butterfly was her debut album, a prismatic project drawing from drum n bass and jungle sounds, on which she inhabits various personas: clever hacker girl, fearless cyborg, spiritual earthen goddess, indigenous woman. Princess Nokia is as much a project of self-creation as it is a way of exploring identities: as a “digital native,” a native New Yorker, and a Native in the indigenous sense, via Puerto Rican and Taino culture. By simultaneously looking forward and honoring her roots, Nokia’s work feels vital at a time when internet-based conversations are shifting towards unpacking intersecting identity matrices, and investigating how to be human in a digitally mediated, tech-driven society.

2014 has been busy. Since the release of Metallic Butterfly, Destiny has released a track with Mykki Blanco, and a new track called “Anomaly.” There have been hints at a new EP and possibly even LP in the works for later this year, but Destiny is keeping quiet about it. She is more concerned with discussing her feminist collective Smart Girls Club, the intricacies of her new video that they all worked on together, her renewed interest in late 90’s sci-fi, and more importantly, how she plans to move forward as an artist. She talks about the importance of spiritual and indigenous themes in her life and explains that in the new year, she would like to move even more towards that direction.

Where Donna Haraway once famously claimed “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess,” Princess Nokia is fiercely, adamantly both.

My adolescence was a movie. Growing up, my whole life has been this cinematic kind of clusterfuck.

Unlike many artists bearing the “based in New York” tag, Destiny has lived in New York her entire life, growing up between East Harlem and the Lower East Side, balancing traditional Nuyorican culture with the downtown party world.

Both of her parents were born in New York, though her family’s roots are in Puerto Rico. “They were a little young for disco, they grew up more in the 80s,” she explains. “Hip hop, crack, all of that.” Destiny, 22, had an artistic upbringing. Her mother passed when she was young but her father, an actor, supported her artistic pursuits; her grandmother took her to Symphony Space and Carnegie Hall. She grew up playing music, as did her brother and sister.

Destiny never graduated high school, but relished learning and working on projects: practicing writing and journalism, reading up on feminism, getting involved in the American Civil Liberties Union and developing an interest in grassroots activism.

As a teenager, she developed an interest in more experimental music and culture. She went from listening to Bach and Beethoven, to CocoRosie, Bjork, and MIA; from playing violin and singing in the chorus to doing spoken word and theater and working as a go go girl at 16.

She grew drawn to New York’s punk and club scene, which was addicting and inspiring, especially in comparison to the relatively sheltered lifestyle of her childhood. Punk, rave, and hip hop were all thriving: all-night warehouse dance parties, punk matinees in Tompkins Square Park, tireless DJs, cheap ecstasy and two dollar forties. UK rave hit big. On any given weekend you could catch some DJ sampling “Welcome to Jamrock” or “Sound of da Police” over dubstep, drum n bass, breaks, jungle.

“My adolescence was a movie,” Destiny muses dreamily. “Growing up, my whole life has been this cinematic kind of clusterfuck. I see life as a movie with a soundtrack. And my ideal intro to a movie is on some hacker shit, just like, drum n bass, and all these skaters skating down Tompkins Square Park, and all these kids moshing.”

Destiny began frequenting Ninjasonik shows, hanging out at 13 Thames, the Brooklyn Zoo, Club Yes. “My friends and I just used to hang out in Union Square and cause ruckus and go to the function and fuck everything up and dance all night and be out for days,” she reminisces. She fell in with the WCK kids, Matt Cuba, and others who inspired her and gave her insight about how to turn the nightlife hustle into a tangible career.

She dated Ease Da Man, who took her to her first Brooklyn Party. Watching him do his thing inspired her to push forward with doing hers: “This was before I told anyone I wanted to make music. I was writing raps in secret. I knew I could do it, I realized that I had a way with words and I could write all these really cool rhymes and stuff. I remember he was rapping to me in bed one time and I was like, ‘I can rap too!’”

“I would see what he was doing in this really male dominated kind of world, and I said, I’m gonna take that, and I’ma flip it, and I’ma be bigger than anything he could ever have imagined.”

The inspiration she had found in the drum n bass cyber raves of late 2000’s New York came back to her when she met Wiki and started hanging out with the Letter Racer collective, reading comics and making art and zines together. “I was getting re-inspired and finding myself musically.” For the first time, she was surrounded by artists and musicians her own age.

I would see what he was doing in this really male dominated kind of world, and I said, I’m gonna take that, and I’ma flip it, and I’ma be bigger than anything he could ever have imagined.

Destiny performing with Ratking at Governor's Ball.

In the summer of 2014, Destiny’s boyfriend Wiki (of Ratking) introduced her to producer Christopher Lare a/k/a Owwwls, a friend of Ratking member Sporting Life. Lare had been making rap, pop, and R&B instrumentals under his “government name,” producing a few songs for Azealia Banks, licensing music for commercials, doing the label grind. He was looking to work on a different sound and Destiny had been looking to leave behind Wavy Spice (the moniker under which she used to make music), to do something more cerebral with Princess Nokia. They had been talking on Twitter about working together for some time, but once they met in person they hit it off quickly, listening to beats bonding over shared musical influences, all of which they would pour into the first Princess Nokia album, Metallic Butterfly, recorded in Lare’s home studio.

“The whole process was a mashup of me emailing her stuff that she writes to, and making stuff from scratch in front of her,” writes Lare in an email. “It’s all super collaborative and we make all the final decisions together up to the mixes, etc.”

The album’s influences are wide-ranging: rave, drum n bass, breakbeat, scratch, jungle, house, grime, 90’s, trip hop. “I’ve always been a fan of everything and went to a lot of classic underground raves when I was a teenager, so I’ve been into it for quite a while,” writes Lare. “Destiny is an old soul, and appreciates a lot of eclectic things, so we share a lot of affinities. I will say we didn’t want to jack these influences, we wanted to do it the right way. Pay homage and make it sound new. The first Metallic Butterfly song we considered for it was “Dragons”, which came together entirely effortlessly, and that gave us the blueprint.  We went from there, and the rest came together in about two to three months of writing and recording.”

“I don’t have a sopranic voice,” Destiny explains, “I have a soulful kind of weird experimental voice. Jungle is so beautiful. When I was making this music, I kind of just saw it as old 90’s shit with all this old film, old visuals.”

Conceptually and visually, afrofuturism largely informed Metallic. The roots of afrofuturism date back to the 70s via Sun Ra and Parliament-Funkadelic, but the term was coined in 1994 by writer Mark Dery in his essay “Black to the Future” and explored throughout the late 90’s by scholar Alondra Nelson. Afrofuturism refers to a utopian sci-fi aesthetic which explores spirituality, magic, space, and technoculture as it relates to black culture and African diaspora. Afrofuturist works alternately draw on images of space aliens to explore racial alienation, while looking aspirationally towards the limitless horizon of space age possibility. Princess Nokia’s imagery directly references its moment in the late 90’s: Hype Williams-directed emancipatory sci-fi music videos, including Missy Elliot bossing up in robot armor in “She’s a Bitch” and Fan Mail-era TLC as sexy misandrist space aliens in “No Scrubs.” Michael & Janet Jackson blowing off earth to hang on a spaceship in “Scream.” JLo in the nightmarish virtual reality of The Cell. And of course, the prophetic culmination of all our Y2K hopes and anxieties, The Matrix, which Destiny references often in her work.

In the context of our fragmented cyborg reality, The Matrix is actually strikingly relevant. In an essay for the “Domain Errors!” cyberfeminist anthology, media scholar Lisa Nakamura gives a racial analysis of The Matrix, calling attention to the multicultural nature of the city of Zion, a “warm, living, multi-racial resistance” taking on the white male uniform hegemony of technology (as embodied by the Agents). Even when characters construct alternate avatars for themselves in The Matrix, outfitting them with alternate skillsets and class markers, race remains constant.

“[Zion] is very primal and indigenous even though its set in this postmodern society, and I’m very primal and indigenous,” says Destiny. “I spend a lot of time in nature. [I’m interested in] all these goddess themes that come from being proud to be a woman… Humanism, life, earth,  planetary spirituality… all those attributes and dire parts of life should be explored.”

[Zion] is very primal and indigenous even though its set in this postmodern society, and I’m very primal and indigenous.

A still from the "Young Girls" video shoot.

“I’m a Gemini,” says Destiny. “I embrace duality.”

Although the album is equally informed by biology and technology, people have been exposed mostly to the “metallic” part of Metallic Butterfly, largely because that is the persona Princess Nokia has been putting forward: a digital native, a cyber raver, a child who grew up painting futuristic cities, a gamer who kicks butt at fighting games and Target Terror. Less immediately apparent but perhaps more important is the “butterfly.”

In the December 18 segment of Smart Girl Club radio on Know Wave Radio, Destiny describes taking trips to Puerto Rico as a child, where she spent time with Taino cultural groups and performed at powwows and tribal gatherings. These experiences shaped a lot of the Nokia album: Multiple songs are sung at least partially in Spanish. The final track is called “Yaya,” which Destiny has said means “Great Spirit” in Taino. Vivid AfroCaribbean drumming, pan flutes, and tribal chants are at the forefront on “Corazon in Africa.”

“Young Girls” is her song that most strongly channels this energy. The song was inspired by Destiny’s own utopian vision of a self-sustaining female community, based on experiences camping on New York’s Bear Mountain as a child and the protective instincts she feels towards the women in her life.

As Destiny explains on said Know Wave segment, growing up without a mother led her to want to recreate a family on her own terms and to surround herself with women and female energy: “I always wanted to take care of them and help them out, so when I wrote this song, it was kind of like writing a place where they could raise their children and be happy and live amongst each other. And there would be no men and there would be no technology, there would just be us and the children. It would be very harmonious and holistic.”

A triology of videos directed by Milah Libin has played a crucial role in conveying Metallic’s narrative. The first two were heavily overlaid with anime footage and video game references: a “nerd love” video for the song “Dragons” depicting Destiny and her Wiki hanging in an arcade, a cyberpunk video for “Cybiko” in which Destiny is a hacker girl fighting Agent Smith opponents. The third and final video off her album is for “Young Girls”, and the visual is a straightforward celebration of nature and womanhood.

In the video, Princess Nokia and a group of women and children in tribal garb play in waterfalls, carry baskets, live out an idealized village fantasy. It’s an earnest, literal depiction of the song, which has lines like “dancing and singing / no phone is ringing” and “young girls, they need their own respect / young girls carry babies from their necks.” About 30 women are involved, most her friends, some who she just knew from the internet

The babies are present in full force. “Where I come from, all my friends have children,” says Destiny. “It’s very beautiful and I embrace that life because that’s what Caribbean people do. We breed early, we start our lives very early. I intend to have a big family.”  So much of contemporary feminism is structured in opposition to the idea of having children young that it’s easy to forget that taking pride in motherhood is feminist in its own way.

“Working with Destiny is really cool. She knows exactly what she wants,” says Libin over the phone. “And we’re really good friends, so it’s like a fun art project that we get to do together. I can offer my input about what is feasible and what things could actually look like. But she definitely has a very strong input.”

“The first two videos were very different from the third one,” adds Libin. “A lot of post-production, a lot of the video happened in the editing. We used a lot of found footage, a lot of images that inspired her. For the third video it was very different. We had a huge cast, a crew. It was a bigger production.”

The “Young Girls” video was shot in North Woods, a lush, secluded area of Central Park, full of deep woods, waterfalls, brooks. It’s a rare instance of wild nature in the city and one of Destiny’s inspirations for the album. The setting is beautiful, but the real power of the video is in the emotional energy between the women and the girls. Although there were some men present on set, there are no men in the video, meaning not only does it pass the Bechdel test, but it offers a rare depiction of women, mostly women of color, spending time in each others company and existing comfortably in their own skin. The footage shows women with natural hair and skin, with tattoos and muscles and cellulite and various body types. As if to challenge National Geographic tropes of tribal objectification, the women in the video are neither fully nude nor fully clothed, present not for the male or the colonialist gaze but as embodied assertive humans. To drive this point home, scenes of collectivity are broken up with close-up video portraits, each woman confronting the camera as individuals.

“They all came,” marvels Destiny “despite having children, some of them had two children each, and all these girls are 20, 21, not more than 23 years old, with two children, coming at eight o’clock in the morning with their carriages, and with patience. I have to really give it to them. That video would have never been possible if it wasn’t for the women who wanted to support me and Smart Girl Club and give something back to the urban feminist community.”

It’s about making women feel safe, making women feel equal to their male counterparts. It’s about teaching women to counteract misogyny with art and with empowerment and with confident vigor.

Princess Nokia performing at Impose's 2014 CMJ showcase.

The Smart Girl Club was Destiny’s own creation, a collective reflective of her drive to create positive and supportive spaces for women. She already prioritized working with women on all Princess Nokia productions, from organizing shows to managing finances. But inspired by her time spent with the Letter Racer crew, she wanted to push further. “There are so many male collectives in art and music. It’s important [to create] female collectives,” she says. “I thought, it’s gonna be their own sort of riot grrrl, their own sort of safe space to vibe out to without feeling pressured into a certain aesthetic or category,” she adds.

And the collective is growing: There’s Libin of course, who, on top of making videos, currently studies creative writing at Sarah Lawrence, writes poetry, and makes zines. There’s Arianna Gil, a street skater and SZA’s bassist. Naomi Jamillet, the co-host of the radio show. Musicians such as Elizabeth Bruja, Tamara Davidson, Marz Lovejoy, Wynter Gordon, Kay-Rizz, JunglePussy, Maxine Ashley, and Suzi Analogue.

As Destiny describes it, it’s a rad crew of urban female witches, representing art and activism with a futurist punk aesthetic. It’s also inclusive of supportive male allies and decidedly non-dogmatic. “I believe in all forms of feminism but my feminism comes from personal experience,” explains Destiny. “I just wanted to incorporate a place that was kind of non-denominational and didn’t have any rules or hierarchies. It’s not about that. It’s about making women feel safe, making women feel equal to their male counterparts. It’s about teaching women to counteract misogyny with art and with empowerment and with confident vigor. It’s not about who read what book in college. That’s beautiful and important, but this is something closer to home, so that women who are being abused by their boyfriends find strength in their feminism and leave him and go on and make something better with their lives. That’s my experience with feminism – counteracting misogyny, counteracting the tragedy thats been put against me in my life and using my female counterparts as my support system.”

I’m a Gemini. I embrace duality.

As Destiny sits in her apartment explaining the inherent feminist messages of her new video, I get lost in thought connecting the dots between the Nokia battling with Agents in “Cybiko” and the Nokia dancing with children on “Young Girls”. I absentmindedly start saying that it’s like she’s gone from being Neo to being the Oracle.

Her eyes light up. “I am the Oracle! I’m both.”

The Oracle in the Matrix was an older woman of color who lived in the projects and took care of psychic children. “I knew a lot of people like that growing up,” says Destiny. “She’s clairvoyant, she took care of children, she took care of the people of Zion, and she was a machine. She was the most  prophetic, most divine, most supernatural being in that movie, but she was also the most superficial. She didn’t exist. She was a program. And that’s how I feel sometimes.”

The Oracle, we agree, is archetypically cyberrealist.

There are no psychic children in Destiny’s house but it smells like I imagine the Oracle’s house would: the warm familial smell of human lives lived in old houses when the heat is on and the windows are closed, cooked food and candles, cats and wood and bodies and home.

I want to be a multifaceted artist, not just a musician, but an intellectual woman.

It’s the last Sunday of 2014, a new moon in Capricorn, a time for looking inward, focusing. Destiny is making plans to paint her room in preparation of the new year. It’s “too Kawaii” right now. She’s thinking white, plants.

“I’m going into a creative hiatus and doing a lot of soul searching,” she says. She suggests that the her next project will incorporate even more elemental and New Age ideas, earth, indigenous values and languages and aesthetics and sounds. “I just want to be a better musician. I’m always striving to be a better something.”

Towards this end, despite being an active social media user, she deleted her entire web presence for a month or so—the Princess Nokia Twitter, Facebook, everything—in an effort to remove herself from the often-draining noise of constant communication, to guard her energy, to let her work speak for itself. She used to think of the Internet as a way to escape. “But what am I escaping from? I don’t need to escape from nothing anymore.”

As we pack our things, she shows us giant jars of sea glass collected up by Clason Point and other secret New York spots. They’re separated by color – green, turquoise, violet.

“I just want to decompress and I want to read and I want to study things,” she muses, her words hanging in the physical space of her room, glowing softly in mid-afternoon light. “I want to be a multifaceted artist, not just a musician, but an intellectual woman. I have my life enriched by all these wonderful things that sometimes you lose sight of when you’re really fast and you’re traveling a lot and you’re focused with an image and an aesthetic. And that’s not who I want to be.”