Pin It
Princess Nokia
Princess NokiaBeats 1

How Princess Nokia drew on her emo, metalhead roots for her new mixtape

The New York rapper on her angst-ridden new music, Beats 1 show, and why alternative culture has always belonged to black and brown kids

It’s been over a decade since emo music first spread its angsty songs and indelible aesthetic to communities across the globe. Within the last year, vibrant rap contemporaries like Lil Uzi Vert and Rico Nasty have echoed its melodramatic sound in their releases, while online boutique Dolls Kill is reviving the era’s rebellious fashion with its spiky accessories and buckle-adorned platform shoes. Emo’s timely return to culture has inspired new generations, and reawakened those who’ve grown with it since its peak, like New York rapper Princess Nokia. On her new Beats 1 radio show, The Voices in My Head, the multiplicitous Bronx native celebrates emo music’s legacy with her first episode, “Your Eyes Are Bleeding”. Nokia offers a nostalgic playlist (think Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Panic! At The Disco), interspersed with thoughtful dialogue about the genre’s impact on both herself and other black and brown youth.

Nokia has always been unabashed about the vibrant plurality of her identity. Her catalogue, as both Princess Nokia and under her real first name, Destiny, reflects the spectrum of her influences, from house, jungle, funk, hip-hop, and more. Last year, on her debut album 1992 (reissued by Rough Trade), Nokia channeled her emo roots somewhat on the eerie, sombre “Goth Kid”. But being a musician is one element of Princess Nokia, who also amplifies cultural narratives through her activism and general outspokenness — last year, she was recorded throwing soup on a racist during a NY subway ride.

Her radical openness and truthfulness has allowed Nokia to garner a bold fanbase, who are just as connected to their emotions (and emo culture) as she is. “The majority of all the goth kids, punk kids, ravers, emo kids, scene kids, hardcore scene kids existed in the hood,” she said on her Beats 1 premiere. “(It’s) really beautiful because you have all these hood-ass kids going to shows, dressing in bondage clothes, dressing in those ways and those aesthetics. And it just formulated an entire populace and subculture around the United States.”

In a phone conversation last week, we spoke to Nokia about black and brown youth reclaiming emo, and how she’s channelling the culture on her forthcoming mixtape A Girl Cried Red.

Before starting The Voices in My Head, you had your podcast/online show Smart Girl Club. Would you say that this new show is an extension of that? Or, how are they different?

Princess Nokia: A little bit, because I go to an office and the close production for my new radio show is done by an engineer. But with Smart Girl Club it was a lot more punk rock and DIY. For the first two years, it was live streamed, so the systematics of the show in comparison were a little different. Smart Girl Club was more riot grrrl-inspired, and that whole section of urban feminism, black and brown feminism, and reclaiming a voice within the radio network that I had been a part of. I wanted to differentiate myself, and make it very known that this was something radical and extremely femme-centred. There were so many intersections of it. A lot of it was done in my home, and I would just sit at my desk and talk to myself through a microphone. This one is like, I go to the office and hang out with other hosts who are awesome and it's like a job. I think I love that more than being alone.

What are you most excited about with the radio show?

Princess Nokia: I'm really excited to be about the emo resurgence that is coming from a genuine place and not just in the way that people are borrowing the word. I'm not one of those people who is saying, It's our thing and y'all don't know about that. But if there is going to be a resurgence, I want to be 100 per cent behind it because if there's anyone who knows emo music, it's me. So I have to be the first one to be like, Let me be a real representation of this era, because there's a lot to be said about this. I really wanted to connect to a generation like ours that still remembered that and bring this beautiful time in history that's about to be resurged. And I didn't just want to do only do that with music, but with a beautiful show that also talks about the personal experience that went with it. That's why I'm so psyched.

Why do you think emo is having such a resurgence in style, music, and culture?

Princess Nokia: Because alternative culture has always had a populace within the black and brown community. With every resurgence or generational turning, fashion and music becomes reiterated. In the early 2000s we were really into 80s retro. Then the (early) 2010s, we were super obsessed with the 90s and now we're obsessed with the millennium. Also, because we don't have those representations, so there's a lack of identification. We [emo fans] come from a place in the urban world where there are no boundaries. People still have stereotypical urban-identified communities, but at the same time boys have green hair and girls are lesbians. It's super alternative.

“Black people created punk — the band Death was way before The Ramones. Same with Bad Brains. If you think about it, the wool has been pulled over our eyes. This is our shit” – Princess Nokia

What about emo music speaks to brown kids? It seems to open up the space for us to express in a way that we weren't socialised to.

Princess Nokia: There's a vulnerability in associating with pain and sadness that has always lived in that narration. For example, the blues. Black people have always loved the blues — they basically created the blues. Black people created rock music, it's a fact. Black people created bluegrass and rock and roll way before Elvis Presley and The Beatles. Black people created punk — the band Death was way before The Ramones. Same with Bad Brains. If you think about it, the wool has been pulled over our eyes. This is our shit. Very naturally, that's why we return to it. It's ours, it will always be ours.

You've always talked about being an emo kid, and now adult. What about right now seems like the ideal time to incorporate the genre and its culture even further into your work? 

Princess Nokia: I'm about to release an emo mixtape in the next month and a half. I always wanted to make rock music, as well or as an element of what I do. The show is a prerequisite for what I'm about to show the world. 

The upcoming mixtape is called A Girl Cried Red. Who is she, and what does the colour red signify?

Princess Nokia: Blood, like a girl cried blood. It's taken from my favourite song, "The Robot with Human Hair". I have a lot of references from this Gavin Dance album, and the first line in the song is "Your eyes are bleeding." I always loved that image, and it's a big motif in my work. The mixtape name is supposed to mean a girl cried blood, or a girl cried fury. There's so many interpretations of what red is. But I can't give that out yet, baby. This is an exclusivo. 

So is emo the overall sound and vibe?

Princess Nokia: Yes, it's not just a little touch of it or it blended into hip hop. It's real alternative music. There's no features, it's just me. But I do have Elijah of Phony Ppl playing guitar on it, and I've got the wonderful producer Tony Seltzer who did all the production except for one song. We're all New York City kids and metalheads so I just like to hang out with my friends and listen to our favourite bands and work together. It's really lovely.

Princess Nokia’s The Voices In My Head broadcasts on Beats 1 on Apple Music bi-weekly. Episode two airs this Sunday 4th March at 8pm with a 2000s indie rock special.