Mall Rat to Rap Star
Nova Rockafeller shakes off the haters to take her spot in the hip-hop spotlight.
Photography by Curtis Comeau
Whoever said “don’t read the comments” didn’t tell rapper Nova Rockafeller. Not only does she read them, she saves them. Sitting on the edge of a disorderly mattress on her bedroom floor, Nova recites from screenshots collected from a now-defunct Western Canadian hip-hop forum frequented by Edmonton rappers. “Pretty nice, but you’re kidding yourself thinking this is some groundbreaking shit. Go back to drinking your face off … that’s the Nova we all know and love.” She pauses, vigorously chewing her gum for dramatic effect. “And show some tits!”
The 26-year-old Edmonton native has many screengrabs just like it. In no time, she brings them up. They are scathing, humiliating and violently misogynistic. “These are my driving force,” she says, smirking under a backwards ball cap. It’s a hot August morning in her South Central Los Angeles home – the weather is perfect for a tank top and booty shorts and, better yet, a creative day off. But with her major-label debut EP two months away, she can’t afford many of those.After our interview, Problem Child is released by Boardwalk/Island Records as a freebie in hopes that Nova will capture the world’s attention. She’d already won the praise of music writers from LA Weekly, OK! and Vibe, and was declared “the next big thing” by the Houston Chronicle. With dance synths, rock kicks and pop hooks, Nova goes where most rappers are afraid to for fear of selling out. Yet she can tear into a beat with rhyming wordplay that stuns even hip-hop purists. On one hand, it’s enabled a collaboration with Treach, one-half of the group behind the ’90s classic “Hip Hop Hooray;” on the other, a remix by blink-182’s Mark Hoppus.
“She’s a beast MC,” her manager, Jensen Karp (who had a brief and promising rap career as Hot Karl), writes via email. Karp produced her songs when she arrived in California in June 2012, but has since moved into a business role. “I’m not allowed to leave L.A. right now because [the label] is trying to kill me with studio sessions,” jokes Nova. “It seems glamorous, but when you’re signed, it basically means you’ve got the hardest job you could get. It’s competitive, cutthroat. You’re being creative with all these other individuals and taking input that sometimes feels like an attack.”
She can take it. By now, she’s got skin thicker than 50 Cent’s bulletproof vest.
Born Nova Paholek, she was raised in ritzy Laurier Heights. Her parents owned the Western Boot Factory (you know, the one with the giant boot), but their real passion was watersports. The certified dive masters would pluck Nova out of elementary school to live for weeks or months at a time in the Caribbean, until they just decided to move to Jamaica. Nova, then 10, stuck out as perhaps the only Caucasian kid in a massive school. “Everywhere I went, it was this huge event.” She remembers walking through the courtyard as children on either side, up on balconies and sticking their heads out of windows, hurled insults like “ugly white girl” at her.
She’d go home and unload her creativity by writing in composition books. But home wasn’t much better. Her parents were divorcing and her father, distracted, started fumbling the watersports business. By the time Nova was 14, they were broke and boarding a plane back to Edmonton. Her mother stayed behind. “I went from experiencing everything you want to nothing that you want,” she recalls.
Nova and her father have a strong bond today but, at the time, she was a belligerent, self-destructive student dropout. After she trashed the house in a rage, he asked social services to take Nova off his hands. She rotated through group homes and, for a brief period, was one of the fabled mall rats at West Edmonton Mall (she can still recall the best stairwells for overnighters). The Youth Emergency Shelter was another haunt. It was outside those brick walls that she discovered rap for herself.
During the mid-2000s, rap battles had entered the mainstream, thanks to the movie 8 Mile. “A lot of the boys would freestyle outside,” says Nova. “I was just observing.” In cars with drug-dealing boys, she’d quietly watch them spit clunky, vapid rhymes over The Game or Eminem. She’d later go to a computer and write something much more clever in battle forums, which are like the fantasy football of rap. Once she was confident enough to let out her creativity, it was like a cap had been popped off an agitated Pepsi. “I’d annoy people by just rhyming for hours on end.”
Online, she found local artists who were doing more with their talents – recording albums and throwing shows – and started collaborating with them. Within a year, she was performing a cameo at Red’s, the former West Edmonton Mall venue, with the opening act for Yasiin Bey, then known by his now-retired Mos Def stage name (perhaps better known as Dante Smith, co-star of The Italian Job). Nova Rockafeller was making a name for herself. And not just a name, but fans. And not just fans, but enemies.
It’s no secret that hip-hop is diseased with misogyny. Edmonton, even with its alt-rap, pseudo-intellectual stylings, was no different. Enter Nova: brash, bold, sexually free, dressed in an endless array of miniskirts. She says other hip-hop artists acted as if it gave them a free pass to slut-shame her, especially on message boards and comment sections. She played it up anyway (mockingly, she said), but hip-hop being what it is, some interpreted that as an affirmation of their insults. “Even if I had sex with 300 guys and wore my underwear outside, it’s not OK to call me a slut,” she rants. “It was like high school. I never went to high school. So I guess I had to experience it anyway.”
She’s cool about it now, but it took an emotional toll. “From the River City, I ain’t ever going back … Gloves hide the scars and the blunts numb the pain,” she raps in “Call Me (Batman),” a music video she shot in L.A. just days after Karp offered to help launch her career. The invitation came at an urgent time for Nova, who’d ended up back in Jamaica, where she’d gone to piece back her life during a severe bout of depression.
Directed by Kavan the Kid, “Call Me (Batman)” has amassed over 430,000 views and quickly got her the attention of the U.S. recording industry. She and Karp spent the summer of 2012 meeting with interested music executives until she was signed by Evan Bogart of Boardwalk/Island, a Grammy-nominated writer of songs for Beyonc, Britney Spears and Rihanna.
Karp learned about Nova from his New York friend, underground New York rap legend R.A. the Rugged Man, whom Nova briefly dated and toured with in the United States, Germany and Czech Republic. “She’s just oblivious to what’s ‘hot,’ [making] for a clean slate where she just makes what she likes. And it comes out very original in what is a stale genre of hip hop,” says her manager. “I knew a whole different set of her influences was ’90s rock: Weezer, Smash Mouth, Good Charlotte. These bands are technically pop. So I knew with some guidance, she could mould these two worlds together and that’s what we’ve done with this record.”
Her self-motivation and business acumen also impressed him. Not only does she design her own jewellery brand, Toys on Chains, but she’s now directing her own music videos. For the intoxicating track “Lunch Special,” in which she inexplicably raps entirely in a British accent, she filmed a massive, sexy food fight in her own living room. “It got wild,” she says. “I was up ’til 7 a.m. covered in food, trying to clean food off my floor.”
With Problem Child getting passed around the Internet, and a full-length album planned for 2015, Nova is preparing her North American tour. “I’m definitely coming to Edmonton, and I’m sending all the haters front-row tickets.”