Princess Nokia reinvents the rap show (and herself) at the Cabooze

Princess Nokia puts her foot down at the Cabooze.

Princess Nokia puts her foot down at the Cabooze. Tony Nelson

It’s not every night at the Cabooze that a young rapper reimagines the revolutionary possibilities of ’90s riot grrrl for 21st-century hip-hop.

“We need to address some rules,” Princess Nokia announced two songs into her Friday night set. “This is a safe space for everyone.” Everyone, the 25-year-old New York rapper explained, meant women, first off. (“This is not date night,” she lectured any bros with the wrong idea. “This is not a college party.”) Everyone meant her LGBTQ fans. And primarily, she concluded, everyone meant people of color. “If they want to come to the front, you got to go to the back,” she told the many white folks in attendance, putting a race-conscious twist on the old Bikini Kill directive that encouraged women in the audience to move closer to the stage.

Far from preachy or dull, Nokia’s speech was as exciting as the rest of her performance—a reminder that a live music event allows an audience to rethink and reorder the space we live in, just as it allows the person on stage to recreate a new identity for herself in real time. “I’m chic but I’m always hood,” the woman the government knows as Destiny Frasqueri rhymed on “Excellent,” summing up her aesthetic. She was rowdy yet kind, foul-mouthed yet socially conscious, arty yet pop-savvy, nerdy yet sexy, heroic yet vulnerable. She didn’t reconcile these supposed opposites—she proved they were complementary attributes to begin with.

At the start of her set, Nokia sprinted on—and across—stage in a red bandanna, striped pants, and a green T-shirt with a lengthy feminist message, just long enough past her scheduled set time to rouse an anxious twinge in fans who’d been disappointed when she’d failed to make a 2016 show at the same club. She was accompanied only by a DJ; the stage was decorated only by a rainbow arch of balloons. (“Isn’t it pretty?” she would ask with comically affected pride, late in the show. “I spent a lot of money on that shit actually.”)

Nokia led off with the witchy genealogy boast “Brujas,” lines like “I'm that Black-a-Rican bruja straight out from the Yoruba/ And my people come from Africa diaspora, Cuba” proudly laying forth her multicultural ancestry and heritage. Then the proudly jackhammered repetition of “wit’ my little titties and my fat belly” of “Tomboy” gave the finger to gender bullies and the identity police. Both tracks, musically rich and defiant on Nokia’s 2017 debut studio full-length, 1992 Deluxe, slammed with a giddy immediacy live.

After “Kitana” sliced through the club like its namesake’s steel fans with its chant of “I don’t give a damn and I don’t give a fuck,” Nokia switched up rhythms for the almost taunting singsong hook of “Mine”: “It’s mine/ I bought it.” A lecture about keeping any and all questions about a woman of color’s hair to your own damn self, the track doubled as a celebration of non-white tonsorial ingenuity.

A half-dozen songs in, Nokia left the stage and her DJ had something for your punk ass: Two full verses of Sublime’s knuckleheaded alt-jam “Santeria,” which turned out to be an odd if appropriate lead-in to the song Nokia returned with: “Saggy Denim,” a tribute to ’90s fashion styles and music that she would have been too young to have appreciated in their day. Then came two childhood reminiscences, “Bart Simpson” (man, this girl loves the ’90s) and “Green Line,” both describing her life as a stoned, “mischievous as shit” teen cutting classes to browse comics at Forbidden Planet and wander up and down Manhattan on the subway.

Nokia popped offstage again while A Tribe Called Quest’s “Find a Way” maintained that East Coast vibe, then reappeared wearing a fuzzy hat and a sundress. New York City is not exactly under-documented in hip-hop, but “ABCs of New York,” which trumpets its diversity and disses its cops, finds new nuance to add to the old subject, and Nokia’s performance of her brilliant hometown travelogue was enriched by her doughy New York vowels and crisp delivery. (Kool Moe Dee would surely give her an “A” for “articulation.”)

Nokia then halted the show for an important announcement: A woman had lost her wallet, and it was our responsibility to help out. “This is a reminder that stealing does no one any good,” Nokia told us as we dutifully shined our cell phone lights downward. “Unless it’s from a corporation.” This lost-and-found interlude was prolonged even further when the search turned up someone else’s ID and a missing iPhone. A break that could have killed the show’s momentum instead bolstered the sense of community, turning packs of bouncing and shouting individuals into a cooperative unit.

Once as many items had been returned to as many fans as possible, there was only one way to rev the show back up to full speed: a Nokia-led singalong to Panic! at the Disco’s “I Write Sins Not Tragedies.” Then came the grimly comic “Goth Kid,” a song that shouts out darksider icons like Emily Strange and Wednesday Addams while addressing the real-life nightmares of abusive foster care that she fled after the early loss of her mother and grandmother. 

To round out her set, the performer who began her career as SoundCloud oddball Wavy Spice returned to some earlier tracks. The romantic nerdery of “Dragons” was inspired by Daenerys’ cross-cultural romance with Drago on Game of Thrones, (and also by, you know, her dragons). Then to introduce her dreamy anthem “Young Girls,” Nokia waxed utopian about the potential of her millennial cohort, concluding, “We are a generation of healing in a time of chaos.”

Nokia wrapped up with an extended, improvisatory, a cappella version of “Apple Pie,” a track she’d recorded as Destiny, and her jazzy singing co-mingled the spirits of Erykah Badu and Lana Del Rey. She stayed on stage afterward to sign autographs while everyone grabbed their coats and shouted nostalgically along with her DJ’s final cut: Sum 41’s “Fat Lip.” The pop-punk oldie’s irresistibly cartoonish anti-authoritarian jerkoffery didn’t feel like an incongruous finale at all—that’s how inclusive a Princess Nokia show is.

Check out our full photo gallery from the show here.

DJ interlude: Santeria (Sublime song)
Saggy Denim
Bart Simpson
Green Line
DJ interlude: Find a Way (A Tribe Called Quest song)
ABCs of New York
DJ interlude: I Write Sins Not Tragedies (Panic! at the Disco song)
Goth Kid
Young Girls
Apple Pie
DJ interlude: Fat Lip (Sum 41 song)