Afro-Latino Fest: Trap Phones and Nuyorican Identity with Princess Nokia
Last week marked New York City’s fourth annual Afro-Latino Festival, a celebration of Black Latin American identity, history and contribution. Arriving at the last day of the festival on July 10th, it was clear that many who had gathered at Bedford Stuyvesant's Restoration Plaza were most eagerly awaiting the performance of Afro-Nuyorican artist, Princess Nokia. Walking out onto the stage alongside members of her collective— the two dancers featured in her “Tomboy” music video— the “mecca of New York underground” immediately made an effort to create a sense of community with and within the audience itself. She displayed her dedication to the values of authenticity, intimacy, and sisterhood that guide her work, asking that her mic be made louder and that the tech crew close the gap between stage and crowd— “I need to be closer to my girls!”— and announcing “girls to the front” as one of her cardinal rules. Nokia displayed a vulnerability and accessibility that is rarely seen in performers by speaking directly to us as if we were close friends, making physical contact, removing her clothing, and freestyling.
Appropriately, Princess Nokia also paid tribute to her Afro-Latino heritage, keeping the Puerto Rican flag close at hand and midway through her performance, changing from overalls into a flowy white skirt, traditionally worn while dancing the Puerto Rican Bomba y Plena. Addressing the ongoing issues of police brutality and the recent deaths of Black and Brown people— issues which were central to this year’s festival and which directly impact Afro-Latino communities— she told the audience: “It’s okay if you’re scared. No one wants to live in fear, but if you see people marching, go out and march with them. Get your friends together, make signs, and go sit in Union Square.” She stressed an ethos of community care and empowerment, asking us to dance together, to pay respect to our ancestors, and to be our truest selves.
La Liga had a chance to talk to Princess Nokia after her performance and she continued to emphasize healing, opening up to us about the identities that she holds and the experiences that have influenced her life and work, particularly her music and her feminism. Both on-stage and off, Princess Nokia embodied her own assertion that “being an artist means so much more than just occupying a mic.”
Alyssa Rodriguez: Why did you choose Nokia as your name? How is Princess Nokia different from Wavy Spice or Destiny?
PN: I chose the name Princess Nokia— it just was a hybrid of names that I was thinking of at the time. I was this underground artist that was doing a lot of business deals and I was making a lot of cool stuff happen. This is the story: I’ve been emancipated since I was sixteen years old and financially dependent of myself since I was sixteen. So around eighteen to nineteen— I didn’t have the financial means to have a phone so I had an Obama-phone— and that was a free phone that the government gives you; you got like 140 minutes a month and you could only write 140 characters in your texts. I was still Wavy Spice, and I was still kind of like touring around the states and stuff. So I was like, “Yo! Like, I’m the queen of this trap phone shit!” Like just doing business deals in the middle of the Bronx on a fuckin’ Obama-phone. Like getting a call from Sony on a little trap phone. I thought that that was a really cool story and I’ve always loved that concept and it’s very reflective of who I am, you know, just really punk and really poor and really of the inner-city. I just thought of this anime character, this little girl that just like rules the world off this little trap phone. So I put Nokia because it reminded me of the Nokia phone. Princess Nokia is the little girl who was making business deals in the middle of a bathroom stall.
AR: How has your identity and your experience being Nuyorican influenced your music and how is that expressed, particularly in your video for your new track, “Tomboy”?
PN: You know, I’m a Nuyorican. You know, we started Hip-Hop too. We had a big hand in punk, we had a big hand in disco, we had a big hand in the LGBT movement when they first started in the 70s in New York. I’m just supportive that that really great Nuyorican subculture from New York that’s been a part of every great creative subculture of the last 40 years. So, you know, when I think of myself, I think of the greats. I think of Rita Moreno, I think of Raúl Juliá, I think of Rosie Perez… and those are not even musicians. Those are actors, poets, writers— Miguel Piñero— those are all other people outside of music. Those are all Latino people and Nuyoricans and I just think like, wow, those people influenced me to just be weird and off-kilter and myself.
I think as Nuyoricans, we’re real rough around the edges. We’re not traditional. You know, our parents are not traditional. So I think we’ve got that real rugged, New York dirtiness to us. We’re real punk rock. We’re real poor. We’re real fucked up. We been victims of AIDS and crack and heroin. You know, we’re all rock n roll. We’re pain— we hold it. Being a Nuyorican person, I see that beauty— I see the poetry. I’m from Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side. I carry that Nuyorican pain, that real truthfulness, and I put it in my work, and it allows me to be able to be as interchangeable as I wanna be. ‘Cause Nuyoricans are very interchangeable, I think. We have existed in this city for a really long time and we’ve created our own Nuyorican culture based off of that.
AR: Could you talk a little bit about your work with Smart Girl Club?
PN: I started Smart Girl Club with Milah Libin. And we did Smart Girl Club Radio to show Brown and Black girls you don't have to be punk to be a feminist; you didn't have to read about feminism in college, you know, Audre Lorde and Gloria Steinem, to be a feminist; you don’t have to be radical; you don’t have to be anything. You know, I became a feminist because my boyfriend used to beat me and I sent him to jail. We were really inspired by Riot Girl and that movement. But there were no Black women in Riot Girl— not Black women that were seen, though there were many Black women that participated in the movement, like myself. I wanted to take what I learned from Kathleen Hannah and make it accessible to Brown and Black women and the LGBT community and teach about all these things like ancestor worship.
Princess Nokia is releasing a new EP this month called 1992. She looks forward to doing more visual work, releasing a photo book, and getting back into galleries and her roots as a photographer. Looking to the future, she told us, “People are starting to cultivate a really authentic New York— and that’s what I want to be a part of.”