Princess Vitarah walks into an unmarked L.A. warehouse that’s decorated to look like an old-time speakeasy updated with colorful lighting. The 20-year-old rapper needs to change into her performance look, which will require a brief trip to the makeshift dressing room — the bathroom. Although such a space comes at a premium at this sort of underground event, the Princess won’t employ any strong-arm tactics. Generally speaking, Vitarah is low-key. She looks like a cool black girl you might see on 125th Street — not terribly outlandish in skinny jeans, sneakers and a satin-y, bright orange puffer jacket.
Until, that is, she transforms into the veritable sex goddess her fans — the Vitarahians — know and love. Now, her orange puffer is open, and beneath it, she sports a black bra, panties and an Ankara fabric garter (sent to her by one of her fans). Her shiny black hair drapes over the shoulders of her jacket, which she girlishly smoothes as she walks out into the audience.
Vitarah is a shrewd internet rap purveyor. In recent years, she’s amassed a large grassroots following of 50,000 on Instagram and just under 20,000 on Twitter. Not to mention, she’s been featured on World Star Hip Hop three times in the last year alone, and the video for her viral success, “Nigerian Pussy,” the song that thrust her into the spotlight when it was featured on World Star Hip Hop in January 2016, has been viewed more than 600,000 times.
This is all without a record label or promotional team. “I’ve been going viral since last year, and I don’t expect anyone to help me,” she says, un-pitiable. “It’s just about fighting to stay afloat. We’re all in the river, and the current keeps coming at you. Every time the wave comes, you just gotta stay on top of it.”
Tonight’s crowd is a diverse, fashionable collection of L.A. scene folk — artsy, queer, and, encouragingly, black and brown. The more dedicated fans at the party clear a space for the Princess to do her thing. She walks to the makeshift stage in front of the DJ self-possessed, professional and cool. If anything, she seems embarrassed by the warm, loud reception. Typically laid-back Angelenos are about to lose their shit for a moment and fan out.
She launches into her set of hits, including “Tell Your Husband,” “I Want a 20-Inch Dick” and “Masturbate.” The crowd grinds, giggles and raps along as Vitarah holds the microphone out to summon the audience to scream along. Later, I raise my hand above my head and rap along to “I Wanna Fuck Donald Trump”: “I wanna fuck Donald Trump, ’cause my pussy kill niggas.” For all the seeming lightheartedness, the political pussy power anthem ends in grim solemnity and abrupt (rhyme) scheme rupture:
When you cum you’ll never leave
Give the world a little peace
Your whole campaign been nothing but a joke
But guess what, it’s not funny anymore
Especially when live, the kernel of activism throughout Vitarah’s writing swells. Her brand of resistance is silly, sexy, and ultimately, irresistible. But it’s also a Trojan horse. At once, the music inspires listeners to sing along, act ratchet and lewd and protest current political regimes. “The reason that I do wrap it up with a little bit of humor is so that people can digest it, because the internet is so much stuff grabbing your attention,” Vitarah explains when we meet in the week following the after-hours warehouse gig. “If I had wrote a serious song, no one would have listened, so I have to wrap it up for them, so it can move across social media quickly, so the message can be spread. I’m like, how can I make this palatable for them?”
Naturally, social media prowess gives Vitarah a leg up, but it’s also proven to be a sizeable responsibility to manage. “My approach to social media is just to be 100 percent myself and honest, because there’s nowhere to hide on the internet, especially on Twitter,” she says. “You can get called out on Twitter so fast if you try to pretend to be someone you’re not. If I ever try to act like I’m too intelligent or tweet too philosophically, my followers, will be like, ‘Princess, where did you Google and copy-and-paste this from?’” she says, laughing warmly.
Still, it’s not always easy. “Nigerian Pussy” might seem like a playful ditty, but a Nigerian woman giving explicit pussy-eating instructions with rhythmic precision upset a lot of people in Lagos, which is where Vitarah spent her adolescence. “Growing up in an African household, we don’t talk about sex at all. You’re just expected to go to school, eventually find a husband and get married,” she recalls. “How? We don’t talk about it. Do you date? We don’t talk about it. American black girls are a little bit more confident and free in their sexuality, but African black girls, no — not at all. In the U.K., America and Africa, if you have African parents and you’re a female, sex isn’t even something you think or talk about.”
Case in point: “When I first did ‘Nigerian Pussy,’ they were afraid to even say they like me, they were afraid to claim me or acknowledge me,” Vitarah says of her fans in Nigeria. “Now, more and more of them are starting to be like, ‘I like you, I love you, keep representing us, you’re doing it!”
A closer listen to Vitarah’s music clarifies how sex fits squarely within her activism, how the songs with even the most crude titles are actually meditations on negotiating by means of pussy power. “Obviously it’s fun to be sexy, but that’s a power we hold over men,” Vitarah explains. In “Nigerian Pussy,” for example, she spits:
But I never let you hit
I let you buy me shit
Then I leave you with your blue balls sitting in a fit
It’s not the forfeiture of sex, but the inherent supremacy of her Nigerian pussy that brings her riches. “I want the girls to know to get something with your sexuality, don’t just allow guys to use you.”
Open sexuality and the possibility of misinterpretation weigh heavily on Vitarah, and to that end, her most recent single, “Pussytime Sadness,” confronts the issue of sexual assault. In classically astute form, Vitarah lures her audience in with references to the Lana Del Rey song “Summertime Sadness,” which is about a friend of Del Rey’s who committed suicide, to tell the true story of her friend who was raped. The song is a rarity — for as rampant as the problem is, Vitarah can only think of one other song, Rihanna’s “Man Down,” that addresses the issue.
“It does tie into sexuality,” she explains, “I want women to be comfortable with themselves and to be sexual, but that doesn’t mean men have the right to your body in a forceful manner. I want young girls to know that rape isn’t okay. They need to fight back, in whatever way they can.”
The song ends as a challenge to the all-too-frequent narrative of rape, where women are socialized to remain silent. Instead, Vitarah imagines a more gruesome future:
She was like, “Oh my God Princess, it’s okay”
I said, “No it’s not, we can’t let him get away”
Now he’s buried in the woods, I chopped his body into four
Nothing scares her anymore
Vitarah’s unique voice on sex and sexuality resonates in particular with a large queer following. “Sexuality can be oppressed. Even seeing Princess Vitarah rap about her heterosexual encounters with people, it’s still very open. She’s almost experimental,” explains Trey Harvey, a 19-year-old from Texas who’s a vocal Princess Vitarah supporter. “I think the LGBT community appreciates that because it boosts our confidence.”
In return, she’s showed support for gay rights — not just in the U.S., but in Nigeria, too, where doing so comes with heavy consequences. For instance, when popular Snapchat drag personality Bobrisky was arrested in Nigeria after coming out as gay, Vitarah took to her platforms to express solidarity. “I tweeted, ‘Free Bobrisky! Being gay isn’t a crime,’ and it blew up. A lot of people were mad. They were like, ‘It’s illegal. When you come back, we’ll deal with you.’”
“Not all Nigerians are close-minded like that,” she continues. “Some are open-minded. It is scary, [but] if there’s no risk, there’s no reward. You have to stand up for something. I have this platform — it would be a shame to not use it for anything, and even though I do think about sex, I want to represent something and have a positive legacy.”
Her legacy also includes a desire to travel around West Africa, continuing a mission she began earlier this year when she brought school supplies, clothing and candy to an orphanage in Nigeria. (One day, she plans to open her own orphanage). “Stop sleeping on me: I feel like people judge me just based off the viral, sexual songs, because that’s all they wanna see,” she says.
That, though, would be ignoring what makes her true royalty.