Nicki Nicole: the star defying Argentinian rap’s macho culture

With a handful of hits back home, the Grammy-nominated singer and rapper has her sights set on the rest of the world

Viva la vida … Argentinian singer Nicki Nicole.
Viva la vida … Argentinian singer Nicki Nicole. Photograph: Sony Music
Viva la vida … Argentinian singer Nicki Nicole. Photograph: Sony Music
Fri 13 Nov 2020 08.00 EST

It is raining in Miami, but that hasn’t dampened Nicki Nicole’s spirit. The 20-year-old Argentinian is soaking up every minute of her three-day work trip away from home in Buenos Aires. Having established herself in South America (with three Argentinian Top 10 singles, 391m YouTube streams and a nomination for best newcomer at this week’s Latin Grammys), she now has eyes on the UK and US.

At 17, Nicki started following friends who flocked to guerrilla freestyle MC competitions in public squares around their home town of Rosario, Argentina’s third biggest city. Despite being enchanted by the quick-thinking versatility of the rappers, the machismo and aggression on display left her feeling out of sync.

“These environments were difficult for women,” she explains over Zoom in a long-sleeved, white T-shirt. “Lots of the men use sexism, it’s their easiest tool.” At a small event, while testing the water, Nicki went head to head with a male rapper who thought a victim-blaming line about violence against women, which is endemic in Argentina (official statistics state a woman is killed every 32 hours in the country), would please the crowd. “He basically said it’s our fault because of how we dress and act,” she recalls. “I came back and said: ‘No, people like you are to blame.’ The audience erupted into whoops and applause.”

Keen to experiment with other genres as well as hip-hop – and without men spitting misogyny in her face – she started to write, uploading her music to YouTube instead. She started out with 30 subscribers – friends and family – but one early original rapidly gained traction. “And boom,” she says, “things kicked off.”

Despite the best efforts of Google Translate, and my grasp of year 8-equivalent Spanish vocab, I have struggled to get my head round the abstract lyrical poetry in her tracks. That first single (Wapo Traketero), Nicki explains patiently, is about a handsome drug dealer; her new track Mala Vida riffs on life as a mafioso mobster with Billie Eilish-like intensity, its video filled with costumes stolen from the Peaky Blinders set. Some tunes are straight-up poppy, others lean more towards hip-hop, but each is a seemingly effortless blend of her skilfully smooth rap and silkily sung Spanish tones.

A few years ago, before the globalisation of pop that has seen K-pop and Latin music start to dominate, releasing music with Spanish lyrics to an English-speaking audience would have been a challenge. But having grown up listening to songs by American and British artists with no clue about their meaning, Nicki is not convinced we need to worry too much. “If you see someone screaming in the street,” says Nicole, “it makes no difference what language they’re yelling in: you’ll still feel the emotion.”

She believes the same goes for music, too. “Regardless of language, music can make me feel things: to sing or dance or cry. When you translate the lyrics it might have a totally different meaning. But so what?” The fact I wasn’t aware her song Plegarias is about a church fire didn’t make me enjoy it any less.

There is a tattoo on Nicki’s neck; I ask what it says as I can’t quite read it. She leans into the camera to show me. “It says ‘bullshit’ in English,” she grins. “Bull. Shit. Women in Argentina are told how to act, how they should dress. As soon as I turned 18 I got this tattoo to say: ‘Fuck that – I’ll do what I want.’”

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