Hip-Hop was born in the Bronx, out of the art of scratching, mixing and sampling (Swanson). Princess Nokia, a Bronx local, was born out of the very culture that laid foundation for the genre. A Native-American Afrolatina, she represents and explores her identity in her song Brujas. Openly queer and a firm supporter of intersectional feminism, Princess Nokia has been vocal with her stance on numerous sociopolitical issues, especially on social media. Princess Nokia represents the new generation of American artists who come from viral fame on platforms, such as SoundCloud, and use their resulting platforms to discuss current issues. With her identity that literally embodies the American idea of the ‘melting pot’, Nokia’s music is influenced by numerous communities that amount to the American culture. Nokia is currently signed to Rough Trade Records, an independent London-based record label established in 1978. Nokia’s contribution to American music is incredibly vital due to her alternative outlook, brave lyrics, and outspoken presence. Brujas is a song on Nokia’s debut studio album titled 1992. Meaning “witches” in Spanish, Nokia explores how the word witch has been associated with black culture, Latinx culture and women. Thus, the question arises, “how does Princess Nokia use her song Brujas to explore the American identity through hip-hop?”
II. Theories and Methodology
In this essay, Princess Nokia’s Brujas and its music video will be analysed sonically, lyrically, and visually while keeping its cultural dimensions in the foreground. To culturally explore Princess Nokia’s Brujas in more depth, this essay will make use of a few theoretical approaches. Firstly, to analyse Nokia’s own feminist intent, I will use her interview with Alexis Petridis for The Guardian titled “Princess Nokia: ‘At my shows, girls can take up space the way men do’”. Secondly, to analyse the portrayal of POC women in hip-hop and mainstream music, I will use works such as I Got Something To Say by Matthew Oware, in his section titled “Bad Bitches?”, where he explores feminist approaches in hip-hop. Thirdly, to analyse lower-class, black identity, I will use “My City, My ‘Hood, My Street: Ghetto Spaces in American Hip-Hop Music” by Lidia Kniaź.
Nokia and her song largely relate to current developments in American music, especially with the uproar of female and black empowerment-based music that is becoming more mainstream. Radios often play and YouTube’s trending artists often include female rappers and hip-hop/R&B artists such as Beyoncé, Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, Missy Elliot, Kehlani, and SZA. Female hip-hop is becoming a part of the mainstream musical canon as of 2019, thus making it incredibly relevant to analyse.
Brujas currently has 6,337,486 views on YouTube and 6,499,656 streams on Spotify as of June 2019. Similar to many mainstream rap songs, such as DNA by Kendrick Lamar and APES**T by The Carters, Nokia uses a riff (consisting of four notes) and a syncopated beat that is repeated throughout the entire song. She creates distinctions between the verses by playing this riff in different octaves, but it is accompanied by a steady sampled beat that is also repeated. To make her voice occupy space in different ways throughout the song, Nokia uses filters and distortions to make it sound deeper, creating a masculine effect when she raps “I’m the supreme” and an other-worldly feel when she raps about “Orisha” (meaning Gods and Goddesses in the Yoruba language). Nokia makes a further reference to her African roots by featuring the African oral tradition in the brief Yoruba song that plays in the beginning of the music video.
Lyrically, Nokia uses a blend of classic rap diction and feminist language while featuring symbols from the various cultures she explores. For instance, Nokia begins the song with the lyrics “I’m the supreme” repeated three times. As many rappers do, Nokia establishes her dominance and power at the very beginning of the song. She goes on to rap lyrics such as “bad bitches,” “long weaves,” “long nails,” “cornrows,” and “baby fathers still in jail”. By listing stereotypical black female iconography while taking the position of the powerful masculine rapper, Nokia subverts the derogatory portrayal of women in rap music. Nokia’s choices are important and radical due to how women artists are treated in the hip-hop world and music industry in general. Fore example, in the interview with Alexis Petridis, Nokia talks of how she is featured in hip-hop blogs. She says “the commentary is really negative [...] because [she speaks] highly of [herself], people think [she’s] really pompous, or that [she’s] really narcissistic. But [she’s only speaking on [herself and her accomplishments], and [she] only speaks like that because no one else is doing it.” This is a huge double-standard when considering how most male rappers approach their lyrics from self-confident or even cocky perspective. By supporting herself and uplifting other black women who identify with her descriptive lyrics, she “[deploys] black male hegemonic rape tropes—violence and bragging—but simultaneously carve out space for their needs, wants, and desires as women.” (Oware 116).
Nokia’s exploration of the black identity also features famed diction. She repeats the same verse four times as she raps “we is them ghetto bitches.” The use of the words “ghetto” is easily recognizable due to how iconic it is amongst rap and hip-hop listeners throughout generations. “Being focused on the ghetto life with all its dangers seems to be an inherent part of the state of mind of all black New Yorkers.” (Kniaz 121) Furthermore, she uses colloquial language and grammar typical of rap music such as “we is them” to position herself within the genre. Through her lyrics, Nokia uplifts herself and other women whilst still staying true to her roots and her upbringing in the Bronx, amongst other Latinx and black people who used the same language in lower-class areas.
In addition, in her lyrics “North, East, West South shit,” she demonstrates her comfort in identifying with various ethnic groups and communities. Nokia mixes the West Coast “smoother, more laid-back style of rapping” (Starr 501) with the “old school” and “edgy” delivery of New York hip-hop (Starr 501). However, the addition of her Yoruban tradition and ancestry mixed with the calling out of her different ethnic backgrounds in lyrics such as “Black a-Rican,” Africa diaspora,” “Cuba,” “Arawak, that original people,” “Black Native American,” “from an island and it’s called Puerto Rico” shows the dimensions of American identities. Therefore, Nokia shows how complex she is and how she can not be pegged to one identity, category or stereotype. Finding fame in a worldwide audience through the internet, Nokia represents a new generation of rappers that goes beyond the East and West coast of rivalry and styles.
Moreover, Nokia’s exploration of witchcraft, as alluded by the title of the song, is dominant in lyrics such as “sage on the door”, “speaking in tongue,” “shapeshiftin’ bitch,” and “witchcraft.” However, Nokia highlights how she only associates herself with white magic, contrary to the streoetype created by postcolonial and sexist stories surrounding black witch figures such as Tituba that villainize black magic and voodoo. Instead, Nokia uses words such as “good witches,” “light magic,” “cast a circle in white,” “vanquish your spite,” “conjure the light,” “I ain’t no queen of the night” and “Imma’ dress in all white.” This is also evident in the beginning of the music video, which features a visual of Yemoja (Figure 1), a water deity associated with the moon who is “the patroness of motherhood, childbirth, the womb, giver of life and all things relating to femininity.” (Bennett) Nokia references to deity to show that her power is pure and Godly, and that it is entirely connected to her identity as a woman.
The visuals continue to represent many dimensions of femininity as Nokia shows different black women praying, playing, and loving each other (Figure 3). Nokia also highlights how the women embrace not only the nature around them, but also their own natural attributes as they wear their hair in their natural texture - something quite revolutionary as many female rappers and black female artists often wear their hair in Westernized styles. Natural beauty is further shown in shots of an elderly black woman dancing with a snake and a young girl laughing. Therefore, Nokia uses themes that surround purity, anti-hate, and kindness to uplift women, girlhood, sisterhood, female energy and witches while representing women of various ages and in their natural form.
Nokia ends the song with the repetition of the lyrics “I’m the supreme” and a sample from American Horror Story: Coven (2011), an American television show created by Ryan Murphy that is famous for its feminist iconography. The show centers around the descendants “from the survivors of the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in 1962” (Lonergan) as they compete for the title of Supreme Witch. One of the characters in particular, Queenie, is a descendant of Tituba and the end of the song ends with a sample about the witch.
“Tituba! Voodoo slave girl who graced us with her black magic/ You made her a slave/
Before that she came from a great tribe, the Arawak/ She gave it to your girls of
Salem/ A gift repaid with betrayal/ Maybe you ain't heard the news about civilization
starting in Africa/ We more than just pins in dolls and seeing the future in chicken
parts/ Been reading too many tourist guides, hm/ Everything you got, you got from us”
The sampled excerpt intersects the witch identity with the black, postcolonial identity. The excerpt references Africans as the original people and rewrites Tituba from a passive slave to a powerful witch with agency who indulged in vengeance - a trait that is rarely attributed as lady-like or feminine. Furthermore, Nokia seems to make a reference to the gang of four women from American Horror Story through the group of four women she is a part of. Together, they lean against a wall with bored, empty stares as they mouth “don’t you fuck with my energy” while Nokia takes center stage and raps the lyrics. Later in the music video, they all join to point the middle finger at the camera, and subsequently, the audience. Their behaviour is actually very typical for “the transgressive, rebellious sensibility of the genre” (Starr 495). Therefore, Nokia combines the rebellion of hip-hop with the rebellion of feminists who defy the standards and roles set upon them by society.
Princess Nokia uses her song Brujas to redefine the American identity by giving power to underrepresented and non-”mainstream” voices. The fame of Brujas and Princess Nokia herself is largely attributed to a relatively new development in popular music. Popular music no longer lays only in the hands of large record companies, television and radio stations, or DJs. Through the internet’s democracy of influence and reach, artists such as Princess Nokia are able to achieve an audience that goes beyond the mainstream, or even American, sphere. Yet, the American identity in itself is very much complex as it is rooted in the genocide of Native Americans and built upon the backs of African slaves. Americans, especially Americans of colour, seldom have a distinct, homogenous identity as many people are descendants of different ethnicities and cultures. Nokia embodies this in her song Brujas as she almagalmates and represents her various views and beliefs as a black, Native American, Latinx woman.
Bennett, Humphrey. “Moon Goddess Yemoja.” Liberty Voice, 13 April 2014.
Criminal Justice Fact Sheet. NAACP.
Kniaź, Lidia. “My City, My ‘Hood, My Street: Ghetto Spaces in American Hip-Hop Music.”
UMCS UP, February 2017.
Lamar, Kendrick. “DNA.” Youtube, directed by NABIL and The Little Homies, 18 April
Lonergan, Meg. “Witches, Bitches and White Feminism: A Critical Analysis of American
Horror Story: Coven.” Carleton UP, 2017.
Nokia, Princess. “Brujas.” Youtube, directed by Asli Baykal, 7 November 2016
Oware, Matthew. I Got Something To Say. “Bad Bitches?” DePauw UP, 2018.
Petridis, Alexis. “Princess Nokia: ‘At my shows, girls can take up space the way men do’.”
The Guardian, 8 September 2018.
Starr, Larry and Christopher Waterman. American Popular Music. 3rd ed, Oxford UP, 2010.
Swanson, Abbie Fentress. “The South Bronx: Where Hip-Hop Was Born.” New York Public Radio, 2 August 2010.
The Carters. “APESH**T.” YouTube, directed by Ricky Saiz, 18 June 2018.
© Selena Soemakno. All rights served unless stated otherwise.