Destiny Is the Empowering Disco Queen We Need
Upon the release of her new music video, "Soul Train," VICE talked to the artist formerly known as Princess Nokia about her upcoming mixtape, urban feminism, cultural activism, and intellectual spirit.
It's been a minute since we heard from Princess Nokia, the artist who owned last summer with Metallic Butterfly, the genre-jumping mixtape that we're still streaming everyday on SoundCloud. Yesterday, she finally returned to the internet with a music video for her new song "Soul Train." This time around, she's going by the name Destiny and she's traded in the Matrix vibes for the aesthetic of a disco queen.
The new video, which premiered on Dazed Digital, offers a carefree vision of young New Yorkers wearing 70s-inspired outfits and hairstyles, licking banana popsicles, and dancing in the streets. It's a nostalgic ode to the summer block parties of Destiny's youth and the Saturday mornings she spent learning how to do the hustle with her father.
I caught up with Destiny at her brother's studio in the East Village a few days before she dropped the new video and I could tell that she felt she was on the brink of something big. "I'm the happiest I've ever been," she told me, with her hair worn in a high ponytail and her eyelids glittered. "I've worked really hard. I'm taking care of my body, my artistry, my life."
She was telling the truth. This year she's been creating at a breakneck pace, playing shows all across the country, hosting her Smart Girls' Club radio show, and giving lectures at places like Harvard University and the New School. Not to mention, she's also been working on a brand new mixtape and three additional music videos that will drop later this summer.
But as much as things have changed for her, she still knows exactly who she is. "I am Destiny, a woman, a feminist, a cultural activist who is just trying to make my culture as relevant and as celebrated as possible," she told me with pride. I used our meeting to ask her about her new mixtape, her cultural inspirations, and the direction of her new body of work. Here's what she had to say.
VICE: Your new track "Soul Train" and your new mixtape has a whole 70s disco vibe. What is the story behind this new direction?
The mixtape incorporates a lot of positive aspects of my upbringing such as black power, brown power, Puerto Rican culture, community value, and community lifestyle. The whole soul disco era is very reflective of my personal self. Looking at the musical renaissance of the 70s and at these different parts of my upbringing made me think of the sociology of today. I thought of block parties, watching Soul Train, and television that was made for black and brown youth and the fact that these images are not available to our community right now... They are, but in an underground way.
The video for "Soul Train" is a day in my life, learning a dance and dancing with my father. It's seeing brown people on television being celebrated, being happy and dancing, and being liberated and empowered. I wanted to make music that reflected that. I wanted to speak to the community of young brown kids who are making and re-narrating these stories of radicalism and happiness through music and art.
As an artist, you go through an aesthetic transformation in the "Soul Train" video. Can you talk about the aesthetic value of the video and why it's important?
It's a vintage nostalgic aesthetic that is in line with my free spirit and inspirations. I really love and am inspired by Puerto Rican culture in New York in the 70s, rock n' roll-inspired street gangs like the Black Spades and the Savage Skulls. Also salsa groups like Fania records, and Woodstock.
That time period was one of the first ages of enlightenments in the last 100 years with psych culture, disco, and soul. It was a period of time where brown kids were finding themselves and finding freedom and fighting against a systemic oppression, and that's what kids are doing now. Today, they're so empowered by new ageism, by Afrofuturism, and by community and friendships.
In the video, you and your crew march down the street with solidarity fists raised in the air. Considering this reference to social unrest, how related is your new work to the Black Lives Matter movement and the daily stories we hear of police brutality happening toward people of color?
I'm very empathetic to what's going on right now. My community is hurting; they're bleeding and suffering. I've thought about what I can do, and as an artist, I can contribute art through which people can live vicariously. I want to create work that celebrates us as people because I see that we are being brought down. When I made the video for "Soul Train," I wanted to make a visual that showcased black and Latino children being happy, just being happy and funny.
Images of kids having a good time seems like it should be commonplace, but thinkers like Bell Hooks talk about being "Tired of the naked, raped, beaten black woman body" in entertainment and media. Are you drawing from that idea and from the general lack of positive images of black people in the media?
Yes, absolutely. We are constantly portrayed as angry or as the victims. Urban life, women, and children are disrespected, demonized, dissected, and stolen from constantly. There are many communities across the entire United States who are fighting in our own ways. We're joining together with friends and family and creating these adhesives to make our environment better.
I wanted to make a video that showcased black and Latino youth creating a party in the neighborhood for each other. The video touches on those community aspects of friendship, love, and neighborhood values. Everybody in that video looks beautiful and happy.
How did you cast "Soul Train"?
A lot of women in the video are from my art collective, the Smart Girls Club. Many were my friends and some were casted from Instagram. I invited whoever wanted to come. All those kids are hippies, radicals, and activists. And they all have beautiful minds and are involved in the emotional aspects about what the song is about.
Where was it shot?
It was shot on 7th street at my brother's house. We had a team and the car with the music. Every stoop was taken up with children of every background and race. It was just all love. It was so emotional because it showed a lifestyle that isn't really appreciated or available right now. I grew up going to block parties, street jams, and hanging outside until the lights went out. There would be kids dancing in the street, loud music playing, and dominoes—all simplistic values that are undervalued as much as our culture is undervalued.
You were recently invited to Harvard University to give a talk on afrofuturism and the concept of urban feminism. How did that come about?
I was performing in Boston and in the audience there happened to be a queer Afro-Latin professor who does a class on the demonization of witchcraft at Harvard. Her name is Professor Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús, and she's a Santera and author of a book called Electric Santería. Afterwards, she came up to me and said, "I'm so touched by the themes you're talking about in your show. You're in a nightclub and you had a song about African spiritualism in Spanish, one about female empowerment, and another about utopian native community value... Who are you?!"
In two weeks, she had set up a talk at their beautiful hip-hop archive at Harvard and I spoke about new age spirituality, Afro-Caribbean spirituality, and witchcraft in her Voodoo class. I did a Q&A, and her class was assigned my album Metallic Butterfly. Later on, I gave a talk about urban feminism and afrofuturism.
The music, art collective, and radio work you've done until now is very heady, intellectual, and based in a lot of historical research. How do you feed your intellectual spirit?
I'm an extremely spiritual being. I read a lot of holistic health books because I'm always trying to constantly evolve my higher self and accept organic matter and raw beauty into my life. I really take it day by day. I wake up; I pray; I meditate; I do magic. I always cultivate protection and I'm always trying to expand my dreams and ambitions.
Recently, I've read the autobiography of Assata Shakur, and re-read The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, The Diary of Anne Frank, House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, and Maya Angelou's poetry. Also seeing Nina Simone, Audre Lorde, and YouTube clips of female Black Panthers. I'm inspired by their revolution and radicalism. I have surpassed every statistic that has been put in front of me, so I wake up very grateful. In the last couple of years, I have become really woke in my consciousness and my culture. I am a proud Afro-Latina and Native American woman, and there are many aspects of my pride. It's not just a deep cultural pride; it's a pride in my ancestors.
How does this ancestral pride function in your work?
People expect us to forget and not over-exaggerate the pain and sadness of oppression and genocide, and I think that's bullshit. I have an obligation—not only to the women in the last two generations of my family—but to my ancestors, so that they are proud. I incorporate my love for their values in my work. I'm black as hell, and I'm so prideful to be a black woman.
Do you think your music can help us go a step further in terms of social progress?
There are more things I wish I could do. I wish I could go to the South and do more protests, but it's really unsafe and I'm very scared. Sometimes it's hard for me to want to fight because I'm afraid for my life. I think we can be as vocal and expressive of our beauty and of our fight as we can. I have songs on my mixtape called "Happy and Brown" and others that speak about black pride and black genocide. Time will tell what will happen, but it's not just me. There are so many amazing acts right now that are accelerating the community. Afropunk is an excellent example, bands like Oshun, Lion Babe, Wynter Gordon, and even Kendrick Lamar's " King Kunta" on the radio are pushing a different narrative. "Soul Train"—even though it's lighthearted and may not be the most radical song—is a contribution.
Any advice for other artists on the come-up?
Work really hard, be consistent, make a decision, and treat your body good. Physically, be in shape. Eat good things and be aware of what's going in and out of your body. Have good friendships, make good memories, appreciate the people in your life, forgive, and have compassion and kindness.
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