Online and Unmoored: In Search of PRINCESS NOKIA
In the middle of “Nokia,” the eponymous song off Princess Nokia’s full-length mixtape Metallic Butterfly, Destiny Frasqueri suspends her performance persona as an incoming phone draws the music to an abrupt halt. Her cell phone rings several times before she picks up the call. The short skit does not appear in Princess Nokia’s new music video for the song, but it’s not easily forgotten. The ringtone is unmistakable. It’s “Nokia Tune,” a short musical phrase from Francisco Tárrega’s “Gran Vals” composition for classical guitar that became the world’s best-known ringtone. It’s unclear which Nokia model it sounds from. Since it’s monophonic it must be a model made before 2002, the year “Nokia Tune” turned polyphonic.
By the time cell phones could accommodate polyphony, the ringtone market was growing at an astonishing pace. According to a 2004 article from The Economist,“Ringtone sales were $3.5 billion worldwide last year, up by 40% from 2002.” Citing record profits, the magazine speculated, “Could mobile-phone ringtones spawn a new music market?” When Billboard finally began tracking ringtones towards the end of that same year, the Usher and Alicia Keys duet “My Boo” ranked number-one. “Nokia Tune” was displaced by glossy R&B, but the ringtone’s inclusion in Princess Nokia’s nostalgic arsenal reveals a kind of brand loyalty no radio hit can match.
In fact, it’s not just the rudimentary jingle we remember—the clunky devices are just as vivid. The echo of Nokia sentimentality is a point of contention for British artists Oliver Payne and Nick Relph, who regard the impulse to canonize our personal consumer history with suspicion. “Heard something the other day about the comeback of the Nokia brick. ‘Nothing has comebacks anymore,’ I thought to myself. Today, everything is always ‘on’ at once, simultaneously forever—we’ve simply run out of past,” the duo write in their statement for their 2014 reprise of “Ash’s Stash” at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. They claim we’ve reached a “plateau,” wrought by the ceaseless collision of “cultural zeniths and nadirs…the pendulum moving between all possible points at once.”
If what they say is true, one is inclined is to wonder: How does one cut through the fog, particularly as an artist who’s built an aesthetic by sourcing from the past? Princess Nokia is unfazed, though. The pervasiveness of tech nostalgia propels her forward and stokes her imagination. “My approach to music and the arts is not something that is cut and dry or black and white,” she says “It’s a cornucopia of everything. It’s the abyss. It’s infinite. So when I think of what I do, I think of it as limitless or infinite because that is what true art is—not thinking about it, but creating something that is beautiful or that is tangible or that is electric.”
In her latest music video, Princess Nokia traverses empowering imagery and ebullient visions of the future. Notwithstanding the pastoral opening scene, Destiny explains, “The video is set in Harlem 2050, where a group of neighborhood girls are hanging out in a metallic girl’s bedroom. Holographic butterflies fly around as they play with their Tamagotchis and RoboPups.” The neighborhood girls happen to be Dai Burger, Junglepussy, and Kay Rizz, friends and fellow artists, who like Princess Nokia, all hail from New York City. They initially gained followings through social media channels and have recently buoyed their online presence with music that’s just as idiosyncratic. Ranging from rap to pop to reggaeton, they imbue their music with uncompromising bravado and lyrics that embrace sexual freedom and even holistic health. Aside form casual accolades, they often voice their solidarity in music videos. In the case of “Nokia,” the video weaves together clips of the friends chatting, laughing, and playing with their virtual pets. Framed up close, their faces grinning and distorted by the hallucinogenic trailing effects, the “Nokia” video is like an abbreviated version of Ryan Trecartin’s film CENTER JENNY, replacing destructive mania with futuristic optimism.
The bedroom setting is not an inconsequential detail either. According to sociologist Paul Hodkinson and media scholar Sian Lincoln, the way we manage our lives online more and more reflects the way we orient our personal space, especially as young people. For many people, the bedroom is the first space one is able to assert control, continually rearranging like a “[three-dimensional] canvas on which symbolically to explore and make sense of one’s identity.” The bedroom is the substrate on which Princess Nokia anchors and exhibits the things that inspire her. The scenes from old television shows and music videos that flit across the “Nokia” video are fleeting apparitions of the posters you would expect to see in her real bedroom. As a patchwork of creative stimuli, the “Nokia” video is deeply self-referential, which defines Princess Nokia’s practice as a whole. Even with a stage name, she does not shroud herself in mystery. She connects with her fans because she lets them in.
It easier to enshrine the past than live encumbered by the present, but Princess Nokia draws from her childhood for more practical reasons. “When we were little, we had a lot of encouraging women we looked up to, cartoons as well. I put footage from The Proud Family, Destiny’s Child, and Taina because it was sentimental to remember a time when there were a lot more positive women of color on TV and in the media,” she tells me.
Princess Nokia’s new song, titled “Anomaly,” takes a more autobiographical approach than the anime-inflected world she created with Metallic Butterfly. She came up with the idea of the song while reading Goth fiction like Emily the Strange: Dark Times and Tanya Hurley’s Ghostgirl. “I like the idea of these conflicted and dark protagonists. I saw myself in them,” she says, recalling the period after her mother passed away. “When you’ve spent as much time in graveyards and funerals as I have, you develop this secondary air to you.”
Princess Nokia explains “Anomaly” as a series of contradictions: “garish minimalistic beauty,” “Christian motifs with eerie Victorian undertones,” “creepy Disney princess,” “dark but cute.” Her willingness to rattle off references is often misinterpreted. As an artist whose through-line is characterized by these creative leaps—remember, she was known as Wavy Spice not so long ago—detractors are quick to assume that her knowledge of these outsider tribes is just cursory. Although, in person, her conviction appears sincere, “When I wanted to change my name from Wavy Spice to Princess Nokia, it wasn’t like changing my name, it was just that I was over Wavy Spice. I’ve done the rapping. I’ve done the DIY rap-punk shows and I was like, all right, what’s the next step? How can I expand my sound and the vision of what I want to create? People were so vexed—‘It’s such a great name’ or ‘It’s so catchy.’ I’m not looking to be a catchy, trendy pop star.”
These latent assumptions mean she’s also forced to confront the double standard of constantly having to defend her practice, “If I was a really minimalist White singer, and I started doing all these avant-garde things, which I do with my music, people would think nothing of it. But because I’m brown, and because I’m young and have all these different personas and things that I’m interested in, and especially where I come from, being from Harlem and the ghetto, people think it’s too farfetched. Like, ‘Oh, she’s not an artistic person. She’s not avant-garde because she’s brown or because she talks a certain way.’ But this is exactly how I am and this is my expression.” Critics are not wholly out of touch by casting doubt. It’s difficult to place what Princess Nokia means by avant-garde at a time when content-gathering has become a form of artistic production. However, the aversion to the accessibility of her source material is tenuous. Found images from the darknet are not inherently more sophisticated.
Despite the mimetic approach to her visual concept, by amassing layers of signifiers, Princess Nokia ends up complicating the music—in a good way. For one, the chorus in “Nokia” includes a hook that incorporates Spanish, Japanese, and gibberish, making it difficult to parse. Princess Nokia says she drew inspiration from “Japon,” a song released in 2006 by Calle 13, whom she cites as her favorite band. “‘Nokia,’ was written to create a visual picture of the women where I come from and to celebrate their beauty as well as incorporating my love for Japanese culture,” she says. She straddles continents, using language to provoke a kind of fragmented imagery that’s distinctively “foreign.” It’s not so different from the way Fatima Al Qadiri produced Asiatisch, culling Asian themes from Western music to create “a virtual road trip through ‘imagined China.’” The gibberish in “Nokia” caricatures listeners’ aural perception of the foreign and bears a likeness to Al Qadiri’s recording of “Shanzhai,” which features Helen Fung singing a nonsensical version of Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” in Mandarin.
The growth of the Internet has been a boon for Princess Nokia. “This is the digital age and I’m just a cyber punk living in it,” she quips. The Web is a conduit for disseminating what she classifies as urban feminism, “I really like Bikini Kill as a band and I’ve always looked up to Kathleen Hanna as a child and the entire riot grrrl movement. What I did for myself as a progressive radical feminist and woman of color, I really broke down that radical feminism isn’t a thing for brown women unless they themselves are punk or into those kinds of things. I wanted something that could translate to women like me from the inner city, women who didn’t listen to Bikini Kill or punk, but still needed something to identify with. It’s about understanding the values within themselves and applying it to their social standing and their personal lives.”
While her artistic work seems to champion what cyberfeminist scholar Donna Haraway identifies as “the subversive potential of a cyborg future,” it simultaneously chips away at “the problematic construction of women of color working in technology manufacturing as quintessential cyborgs,” a predicament Andrew Norman Wilson begins to subvert with the ScanOps series. The Princess Nokia undertaking recently reached a tipping point at the 20th anniversary party for Rinse FM held at Fabric London. Even though Destiny was born and raised in New York City, in some ways, it felt like a homecoming: “In my life I’ve cultivated this fantasy world that I always envisioned for myself as a child. So, when I am actually living vicariously through the things I’ve created in my imagination as a child, it’s very emotional and overwhelming. The whole crowd was just young girls from the ages of seventeen to twenty-six and they were all screaming my name and crying. I don’t think I’ve ever performed so well in my life because the audience gave me so much.”
In the face of these tangible gains, Princess Nokia has been feeling the need to take a step back with her visual output. “A lot of my new visuals are chibis I made online on digital cartoon makers that look like different versions of myself. I kind of get tired of photographing sometimes and I stray more and more to anonymity these days. So I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if I could have chibis and animated versions of myself so I wouldn’t have to show up anywhere,” she explains. Is she shirking her commitments by becoming a ghost in the shell? Or is she deftly hedging her bets? By delving further into the recesses of doll maker websites, she evades the suffocating gaze of critics and corporate co-optation. It’s as though she is encrypting her work to weather the type of debilitating speculation that beleaguers underground artists whose careers unfold on the Internet, a strategy that has some drawbacks. The hollow chibi avatars may not suffice for the fans who have grown accustomed to the simulated intimacy that over-sharing sows. She’s offering us reproductions when we want the original. If you look back at “Nokia Tune,” the computerized refrain endures because of its anthropomorphic simplicity. For now Princess Nokia has not packed up her earthly belongings and departed for the virtual realm. When the time comes for her holographic hiatus, let’s just hope she’ll be able to make it back to earth.