As far as style goes, Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, and other goddesses of the rap scene are from Venus, and Bronx native Princess Nokia is from, well, somewhere beyond Pluto. A self-proclaimed loner and intellectual, she grew up mesmerized by New York’s downtown punk scene and to this day feels more connected to its DIY ethos than to the canon of R&B and hip-hop feminine sexuality.
Speaking to an intimate gathering of students and fans on April 11 called “Tea Time with Princess Nokia,” hosted by the Student Assembly for Gender Empowerment at the University of Southern California, Princess Nokia reminisced about the roots of her aesthetic. Growing up in the Bronx, she said, “Every time my dad would pick me up, I’d get off the train and we’d walk through St. Mark’s, and I’d see all these punks in front of Kim’s Videos and Trash and Vaudeville, which are all these punk fashion stores. That was the flyest shit to me. Jordans? No. I thought mohawks, leather jackets, studs, piercings, colored hair, leopard print, platforms, all the bondage wear, I thought that was the coolest thing.”
Princess Nokia’s childhood disdain for mainstream markers of cool has carried over into her musical persona. Instead of red bottoms and ‘Raris, she raps about saggy denim and Timb boots, all while making it very clear that even without the couture, she could steal your man in a heartbeat. “I’m really into the fact that I could walk into any room and snatch any man in there like it’s nothing,” she told Mass Appeal in 2016. “A-cup, baggy sweatpants, and a fucked up ponytail and they’ll still love me.” (This is a recurrent motif in Cardi’s music, too; if there’s one thing the landscape of contemporary female rapper style tells us, it’s that there’s no wrong way to dress if she’s on her way to steal your man.)
The prevalence of no-frills street brands like The North Face, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Vans in Princess Nokia’s music videos reflects an egalitarian and even austere approach to fashion, a style now cropping up on “cool girls” in enclaves like East LA, Brooklyn and Chinatown. When she’s not rapping in her Calvins, Princess Nokia’s wardrobe reflects strong ties to the places and cultures that have shaped her, imbuing her work with a specificity that makes her seem less a symbol of celebrity success and more a concrete individual. In “Tomboy,” she dons NYC and Puerto Rico t-shirts and a New Hampshire sweatshirt, while in “G.O.A.T.”, her Our Lady of Guadalupe chain hints at her longtime affinity for Mexican culture (her roots are Puerto Rican). Her evil eye necklace is a sly nod to the witchy ancestry that she raps about in “Brujas”: “I’m that Black Native American, I vanquish all evil / I’m that Black a-Rican bruja straight out from the Yoruba.”
If there’s one thing the landscape of contemporary female rapper style tells us, it’s that there’s no wrong way to dress if she’s on her way to steal your man.
Princess Nokia’s wardrobe has also become a platform for her to demonstrate her multiplicity of musical influences, from metal to punk to emo. In “Your Eyes Are Bleeding,” from A Girl Cried Red, the “emo mixtape” she released on April 13th, she sulks in the backseat of the car in a Slipknot t-shirt and raps onstage in a Sublime tank. At one point she flashes us her phone screen playing “I Wanna Rock” by Twisted Sister. Nor are her shout-outs limited to musicians of the past: in the all-female boxing match of “Kitana,” she bounds around gleefully in a white t-shirt that reads “Show Me the Body,” a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to the NYC hardcore band whose 2017 song “Spit” she appeared on.
At “Tea Time,” Princess Nokia offered several links between herself, her community, and the traditionally white world of rock music. She was surrounded by rock fans growing up: “My uncles liked Red Hot Chili Peppers, my brother loved Queen, David Bowie and the Beatles,” she said. And she had a natural taste for anything outside of the mainstream: “The attraction was that it was different, and I didn’t like the things that everybody liked.” But there was also a transcendent motive. “I think that brown people are attracted to rock music because it speaks on the spectrum of pain that brown people are predisposed to,” she said. “So I think that there is emotion—emo music, indie music, rock music—there is emotion or a form of escapism or pain that translates what makes brown kids put on stud belts and straighten their hair and be rockers in school. I think that’s where it comes from. It’s not just me. It’s an entire population from the last 30 years of kids that are responding to an emptiness in their hearts.”
Perhaps the most jarring quality of Princess Nokia’s videos is their hyperrealism. Her look is not about being groomed or polished, but rather about the kind of person we typically hide beneath that veneer: hair undone, makeup nonexistent, belly rolls out on display, blood coating her gums. “A big reason why I wrote 1992 [Deluxe, her debut album] was because I was like man, everyone around me is a fucking glamazon and I just can’t get it no matter how much I want to,” she confessed in last week’s talk. “And I’m just gonna show the world that I just travel around in a big t-shirt and a backwards cap and a messed-up afro and a messed-up ponytail, and I wear really dirty sneakers, and I sometimes smell, and I wear a lot of the same clothes over and over again, and I don’t wear makeup, and I don’t mind looking a little crazy, looking a little smelly. It’s just me. My ugliness was my shield of beauty because it was strong and I could own it and make it beautiful. And that’s where ‘Tomboy’ came from.”
In this way, she dares to “capture a rawness that people are sometimes too afraid to capture,” as she put it last week, revealing who she is and where she comes from and inspiring others to do the same.
For this, Princess Nokia has become a rallying point for a growing youth subculture that seeks acceptance beyond the limits of culturally defined identities. Students at her USC talk lined up to ask about the ways she practices self-care and about finding community as a queer person of color. “I’m a big believer in letting your freak flag fly,” she said. Preaching radical love and acceptance in her saggy denim, Princess Nokia is a modern punk queen who refuses to be labeled—except, presumably, if it’s just a label that reads “Calvin.”