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Looking for an Audience: Princess Nokia, Afropunk Festival, and the Cultural Politics of Sound

Written by Alexa van Abbema
Edited by Aimée Tian

The amplification of the human voice, particularly in the context of a music festival, illustrates how speaking and listening are political phenomena signifying gendered, racialized, and classed subjectivities. The Afropunk Festival in particular reimagines this; Afropunk is one of the most frequented spaces for black and Indigenous artists to explore how their myriad sonic practices present different possibilities across racial and class-based lines.[i] Located in Brooklyn, Afropunk is a festival dedicated to celebrating black punk alternative culture and activism.[ii] Demonstrating a proliferation of black musical expressions, the festival’s 2014 lineup featured the self-identified “Afro-Nuyorican” (African-New Yorker-Puerto Rican) [iii] alternative hip-hop artist Destiny Frasqueri. Popularly known by her stage name, ‘Princess Nokia’, the 25-year-old rapper grew up in Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side[iv]. Embodying what she describes as a type of “urban realism”[v] – evident in her music video Tomboy – Frasqueri’s experienced great tribulations in childhood.

After her mother passed when she was nine, Frasqueri proceeded to experience abusive foster care in various homes across low-income neighborhoods in New York.[vi] Speaking to a collective trauma and memory, Frasqueri’s experiences turn towards the self-preservation, pain, and pleasures of Afro-Indigenous communities in the past, present, and future. For the purpose of this essay, I use the term Afro-Indigenous as described by Frasqueri to refer to one of various ways of identifying with mixed raced Caribbean, Yoruba, Taino, and Puerto Rican cultural heritage, ancestry, and communities.[vii] As an Afro-Indigenous woman, Frasqueri negotiates different modes of listening through her performance, carving out an apt relationship between sound, body, and subversive pleasure. Simultaneously, her track, Bikini Weather/Corazon en Afrika,[viii] merges Yoruba musical traditions and popular forms of hip-hop to transform conventions of performance in the sonic environment of a mainstream music festival.[ix] I base this argument on the premise that the auditory terrain is one of cultural resistance and self-imagination. Forged out of the legacies, sounds, and movements of black and Indigenous voices, Afropunk Festival thus preserves hip-hop traditions of activism and alternative media production.

Figure 1. Milah Libin, Tomboy, 2016. Screenshot. YouTube.

On Sunday, August 24th, 2014, Princess Nokia performed at Afropunk Festival using technologies to re-mix Yoruba sounds and assert her West African cultural heritage. As Frasqueri describes, the term Yoruba refers to the tonal language of culturally related peoples occupying the southwestern corner of Nigeria.[x] Notably, Afropunk Festival amplifies the voices and desires of these distinct sonic and material histories.[xi] Emerging out of the inner-cities of New York in the 1970’s, rap music and hip-hop became a form of cultural resistance that responded to and challenged systems of marginalization and misrepresentation.[xii] In other words te rap and hip-hop genre recuperated the images and sounds of black bodies from mass media to “speak” their experiences.[xiii] However, the visual realm persists as a privileged site of cultural and political analysis, and the auditory terrain has deep historical roots with regards to race and cultural resistance.[xiv] Not unlike the context in which hip-hop first emerged, Afropunk catalyzes the continuing formation of hip-hop, using the auditory terrain to create space for black, Afro-Indigenous, and inner-city youth. Afropunk Festival rouses public attention surrounding the intersections of gendered violence, racial discrimination, and state-sanctioned violence. In particular, Princess Nokia’s performance of Bikini Weather/Corazon en Afrika addresses the cultural implications of listening for her own Yoruba-speaking communities and contemporary American audiences.

Such performance is a form of antiracist practice with powerful implications. Princess Nokia’s live performance uses Yoruba rhythms, techno beats, and the Nigerian flute (Oja). While Nokia performs with two female dancers, there is a white DJ playing her backing tracks, standing behind a Red Bull-branded speaker. Given the growing consumer profile of Afropunk festival as black-subcultural practices are commodified in mainstream culture, Nokia’s performance re-appropriates Afro-Indigenous and Yoruba musical gestures to articulate her own political subjectivity through sound. In doing so, she presents the possibilities for an alternative mode of listening on her terms.

 

Figure 2. Roger Kisby, Princess Nokia at Afropunk, 2014.

Princess Nokia adopts popularized forms of hip-hop as a tool of cultural resistance, particularly challenging gendered and sexual violence along racial and class-based lines. That is, Nokia’s affective desires are located in longer genealogies of articulation, recuperating controlling images of the “loud” black women as the root of pathology[xv] in terms that are antiracist and queer. As Murray R. Schafer concedes, a sonic environment or “soundscape” refers to any acoustic field of study which is applied to environments.[xvi] This is particularly apt for understanding Nokia’s performance at Afropunk festival. Through the soundscape of Afropunk, Nokia re-mixes Yoruba rhythms during her rap performance to assert her “Afro-Nuyorican” identity. Her affective musical gestures circulate to produce a sonic space. Subsequently, Nokia reclaims her Afro-Indigenous identity by controlling images used as justification for the subordination of Afro-Indigenous women and imagining herself in ways that are oppositional.[xvii] In her performance of Bikini Weather, Nokia deploys dubstep, hip-hop style-rapping, the Oja flute, and Yoruba chants to denote ways of being in and producing public space as an Indigenous, queer, and Yoruba woman at a music festival. Simultaneously, her backing track in Yoruba translates to, “She is the Earth”, encoding Indigenous epistemologies of the Earth as a sacred element of Afro-Indigenous life and sovereignty.[xviii] Notably, the backing track is structured around the repetition of “She is the Earth” throughout the performance. Hence, Nokia negotiates social meanings from an Afro-Indigenous worldview, exposing the cultural politics of water and earth to decolonize ways of listening and being in the world.[xix] Her tonal and musical expressions interweave Afro-Indigenous ways of knowing with hip-hop’s anti-racist agenda to shift how she is heard in everyday life. Thus, sound for Nokia circulates between different cultural histories and temporalities of resistance.

Nokia’s performance encodes black cultural aesthetics of play to create cross-racial participation for Yoruba and non-Yoruba speaking audience members. This is accomplished through the aural and corporeal communication of black and Indigenous self-determination. Sociologist Tricia Rose stresses the significance of social dances in African American culture and how they are tied to the construction of personal identity, by dancers and audiences that observe them.[xx] Namely, in a social dance, the female black body achieves a freedom from arenas of representation that govern legitimate corporeality: both visual and sonic. Similarly, Nokia and her dancers’ bodily gestures, performance of melodies sung like speech, nuances of vowels, and digitized Yoruba rhythms in Corazon en Afrika incorporates African American girls’ social dances similar to double-dutch. Whereby shaking their hips allows for pleasure, subversion, and protest. Subsequently, Frasqueri and her dancers imagine the capacity to see themselves in ways that are liberatory through the subversive pleasures of play.

Figure 3. Todd Owyoung, Red Bull Content Pool, Princess Nokia at Afropunk, 2014. Courtesy of Red Bull.

In this way, Nokia’s performance incorporates a phenomenological approach to understanding how the body is intrinsic to understanding and experiencing the world around her.[xxi] Further, their gestures circulate affectively between audience members initiated into black social dance styles.[xxii] Particularly, during the performance, she also asks members to raise their fists – a symbol in cultural history of solidarity and support. It is notable that members who are not initiated into cultures of black social dances may misread Nokia’s bodily gestures as a simply sensational. However, her palpable physical pleasure bound up with a racialized cultural history at Afropunk Festival forms an entry site to understanding the materiality of black embodiment at the crossroads of performance. Thus, Nokia’s adoption of African American social dances, Yoruba drumbeats, and rap-orality at the Afropunk Festival transforms implications of hip-hop performance to publicly reclaim and revalorize her Afro-Indigenous, queer identity.

Nokia performs in Spanish and Yoruba to communicate Indigenous epistemologies of spirituality and sovereignty in relation to mainstream festival’s cultural appropriation and monoculturalism. Yoruba and Spanish-speaking audience members understand Nokia’s performance as another transmission: as processes of acoustemology. Through ways of knowing and being through sound,[xxiii] Nokia negotiates the politics of the everyday by using the auditory terrain itself as a way of engaging with the world. Moreover, Nokia’s voice is an affective and geographical expression; through her performance, she produces public and political sites and temporalities of articulation and struggle. Nokia’s lyrics in Spanish translate to, “They grab the spirit, and speak of the Saint, People who call me, Magic resonating, My heart in Afrika”. Using hip-hop melodic sung-like-speech, Nokia’s addressees are the marginalized Yoruba, Indigenous, and Spanish speaking members of the audience. Notably, Nokia asserts an Indigenous and Brujera self-sovereignty of the Yoruba community through performative utterance. She names a form of cultural-imperialism exerted onto Indigenous communities through religious conversion. Hence, her vocal utterances preserve her West African cultural heritage and is an act resistance to the erasure of Indigenous spirituality in America’s dominant soundscape.

Figure 4. Roger Kisby, Princess Nokia at Afropunk, 2014.

Nokia finds new ways to remember the past, while imagining the future through sound. Moreover, in the present context of Afropunk as a mainstream festival and a site of cultural appropriation, she sustains a public dialogue of racial difference by asserting her Afro-Indigenous spirituality. This is particularly important given the interwoven histories of oral traditions and storytelling as a language of place in various Indigenous cultures. [xxiv] Thus, by adopting hip-hop orality, Nokia’s culturally encodes her voice in a historiography of imperialist-erasure. In this way, Nokia’s performance is a terrain of ideological struggle –  she allows for a nuanced exploration of the intimate relationship between embodiment, spectacle, and new emancipatory possibilities through popular music in and beyond the United States.

Princess Nokia extends the process of listening to consider the possibilities of a non-repressive future. Her performance turns to her communities – past and present – in order to formulate a paradigm for antiracist and queer survival. Perhaps now it is more urgent than ever to think through the premises of emancipation and freedom in the context of sound practices. Ultimately, Nokia, like those before her, builds on the articulation of the significance of orality a radical alternative to visual pragmatism. Yet it is more about the ways we must acknowledge the central role that sound plays in our coming to grips with how alleged public spaces are manipulated. If Afro-Indigenous and queer communities continue to be silenced and their stories ignored, we are doomed to have but a limited grasp on the full range of problems we currently face. Fundamentally then, Princess Nokia suggests that power is never completely successful.

 

Notes

[i] William Futon, “The Performer as Historian: Black Messiah, To Pimp a Butterfly, and the Matter of Albums,” American Music Review, Spring 2015, accessed January 12, 2018, http://www.brooklyn.cuny.edu/web/aca_centers_hitchcock/AMR_44-2_Fulton.pdf.

[ii] Afropunk Music Festival, “The Movement,” AFROPUNK, August 24, 2017, accessed January 12, 2018, http://www.afropunk.com/page/the-movement.

[iii] Ivie Ani, “Princess Nokia is Ready to Reign,” in Mixed Race Studies, March 29, 2017, accessed January 12, 2018, http://www.mixedracestudies.org/?p=54334.

[iv] Ibid,.

[v] Ibid,.

[vi] Ibid,.

[vii] Ibid,.

[viii]YouTube, “Nokia – Bikini Weather / Corazon en Afrika (Live at AFROPUNK 2014),” online video clip, 4 minutes and 50 seconds, last modified June 21, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ngg0eBEyV0I.

[ix] Murray R. Schafer, “Introduction,” “Listening,” and “The Acoustic Community,” In the Soundscape, Our Sonic Environment and the Turning of the World 3, no. 12 (Rochester: Destiny Books, 1994), 2.

[x] Destiny Frasqueri, “Divine Power: How Five Women Use Traditional Religious Practices to Navigate their Modern Lives,” The Fader, December 12, 2018, accessed January 13, 2018, http://www.thefader.com/2016/12/08/women-religion-fashion-faith.

[xi] Afropunk Music Festival, “The Movement,” AFROPUNK.

[xii]Murray Forman, The ‘Hood’ Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-hop, (Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2002), 22.

[xiii] bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992) 24.

[xiv] Jennifer Lynn Stoever, The Sonic Colour Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (New York, NYU Press, 2016), 50.

[xv] Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 2000), 25.

[xvi] Schafer, “Introduction,” “Listening,” and “The Acoustic Community, 4.

[xvii] Collins, Black Feminist Thought, 30.

[xviii] Melanie Yazzie, “Indigenous Peoples and the Politics of Water” Decolonization, February 3, 2016, accessed January 13, 2018, https://decolonization.wordpress.com/2016/02/03/special-issue-the-politics-of-water/.

[xix] Stoever, The Sonic Colour Line, 80.

[xx] Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Hanover: U of New England, 1994) 250.

[xxi] Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientation, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 23.

[xxii] Tricia Rose, Black Noise, 254.

[xxiii] Steven Feld, “Acoustemology,” in Keywords in Sounds (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 17.

[xxiv] Yazzie, “Indigenous Peoples and the Politics of Water.”

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