Sitting at a rickety table outside Mamoun’s falafel restaurant on St. Marks Place on a recent August afternoon, neo-soul artist Destiny Frasqueri feels like she’s come full circle. “I used to read Next Magazine when I was 15 years old, in the middle of the Village,” she recalls. “When you hit me up and told me you wanted to put me in Next, I gagged, because that’s the queer elite. I was a little brown queer girl from Harlem, reading these things and knowing what’s good with downtown queer life and wanting to be a part of it. As queer children, that’s all we have: our dreams and our ambitions.”
Like the ballroom concept of realness, an illusion can be so flawless it transcends artifice. Now that Frasqueri has become a part of New York City’s queer elite, realness has become reality. “It’s really a 360 for me to be sitting here with you,” she continues. “It’s a true dream come true.”
For Frasqueri, that dream comes after a long road that’s seen the 23-year-old performer go through more transformations than most artists do in their entire career. Born and raised in Harlem, Frasqueri fell in love with classical music as a child, and by the time she was a teenager her tastes stretched to include Elton John, The Ramones, and Queen. At 17 she began recording music, singing and rapping into microphones in the basements or bathrooms of her friends’ homes. “Choosing not to sign with any big label was a very good choice because it let me develop myself as an artist,” Frasqueri says of her independent, DIY approach to music.
Regulars on New York’s downtown and Brooklyn scenes might be more familiar with Frasqueri as the artist formerly known as Princess Nokia, whose cyber-filtered R&B was spotlighted on sites like Vice, Bullett, and Dazed Digital. She performed tracks like the hip-shaking “Versace Hottie,” which samples the infamous line “No bra, no panties” from director Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen at last year’s AfroPunk Festival. Before that, she was putting out soulful hip-hop as Wavy Spice.
Frasqueri sees her transformative career not so much as an evolution of identities, but as separate projects. “Those are different musical chapters in my life,” she explains. As Princess Nokia, she explored the transition from childhood to adulthood; her 2014 album Metallic Butterfly, which she considers a musical graphic novel, played with fantasy and sci-fi concepts from a contemporary cyber perspective (the hip-hop-house track “Dragons” was inspired by the romance between Daenerys Targaryen and her warlord bae, Khal Drogo, in Game of Thrones).
Frasqueri now leaves behind adolescence once and for all, taking cues from old-school rock anthems and toying with a sound that’s more soul than cyber. Frasqueri’s new musical journey is centered on black pride, womanhood, and classic rock. “It’s all very feel-good, very vibrational, and very funky,” she says. “It’s nostalgic in a wonderful way—not cliché or trite but extremely representative of the modern black woman.” In a time of such extreme racial injustice and social unrest, Frasquers wants to empower women, people of color, and queers with her music in the same way that politically charged rock did for earlier generations.“I want music to represent youth subculture in a way that it did in the ’60s and ’70s,” she says. “Unfortunately, our society is mirroring that time of civil rights neglect, of murder. I wanted to make music that could make my community feel really empowered. I wanted to make music that was vintage and nostalgic, that made my community feel good, that they could relate to. Music is a way of healing, and it’s important to heal and have fun at the same time.”
The result is a retro sound that is tinged with soul, rock, and disco. “Soul Train,” the first single from Frasqueri’s new project, premiered with a sun-drenched video that has the artist sporting a flowing afro and bell-bottom jeans, dancing through the streets of Harlem and eating popsicles with laughing young women of color. It feels like a glimpse back at a time that we think of as simpler—a powerful reminder that, in many areas, the country has not progressed as much socially and politically as we might like to believe.
Existing at the intersection of so many identities—she identifies as black, Latino, Native American, and queer—Frasqueri has a unique insight into this struggle. Not content to spread change only through her music, she also heads the Smart Girl Club, a feminist art collective she describes as “a safe space for everyone—not just for women, but for anyone that is mindful of women’s rights.” She adds that it’s a place of “principles, not politics.”
LGBT rights are hugely important for Frasqueri, who specifically identifies as pansexual and has been tied to the community since childhood, when her mother died from complications caused by HIV. Growing up, Frasqueri had no shortage of positive gay influences, from her mother’s best friend to close friends at her Catholic school, where it took extreme bravery to be as loud and proud as they were. “Being a really weird, odd, flamboyant, punk child, I was always aware that being gay was the coolest thing in the world,” she insists. “Being gay, being queer, being trans was amazing, and I knew what pride was very early on.”
Frasqueri will finish her summer performing for the first time under her new moniker at a free show sponsored by Time Out New York on the historically gay Riis Beach along with Mykki Blanco and LSDXOXO. It’s another full circle moment for Frasqueri, who, at 18, worked for Blanco at VFiles. “He’s a really wonderful person I’ve always admired, because he’s an amazing artist,” she says.
Most of all, Frasqueri is looking forward to tearing it up by the beach with her girls. “We’re gonna have all the fab children there,” she says, slipping from her steady, assured voice into a bit more of the Harlem street bravado that fans of her early work will remember. “I’m gonna be titty out with the children. I’m gonna be pumping the beats, I’m gonna be there with all my gays, it’s gonna be moments.”