Dessa w/ MONAKR, ION
Gabe’s — Tuesday, April 3 at 8 p.m.
Music fans worldwide have come to know Dessa over the past year from “Congratulations,” her track on the wildly popular Hamilton Mixtape, which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 when it was released in December of 2016. However, Midwest music fans have long known and loved her both for her solo work and as a member of Doomtree, the Minneapolis hip-hop collective she has belonged to since 2005. A talented rapper and singer, Dessa has also published collections of poetry and essays; her first hardcover collection, My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love, is out on Dutton in September.
What ties this broad and successful career together, Dessa said, is love of words.
“For me the through line is language — since I was tiny, I’ve been captivated and compelled by words,” Dessa said in an email. “Whether I’m writing a ballad or a rap song or a short story or an essay, it’s almost always the compositional style that I’m most excited about — more so than plot or character development or a thesis statement. I’m a sucker for a well-turned phrase.”
Those well-turned phrases are in full effect on her most recent solo album, Chime, which dropped late last month. “I’m the phoenix and the ash/Red eyes shining in the camera flash,” she sings on the chorus of track two, “5 out of 6,” her sleek cello voice sliding seamlessly into tune from her rapping on the verses. “My secret is I don’t keep none, see/Something go ahead and say something/I ain’t afraid of it.” It’s true — the album is her heart on her sleeve, no secrets kept and nothing held back.
Chime had its genesis in neuroscience. Dessa was stuck in something of an emotional and psychological Chinese finger trap — the more she tried to escape the effects of a relationship that had ended, the more she sunk into it. She learned about neural research looking into where love sits in the brain, and found herself incurably curious.
“So much of our subjective experience can be expressed or investigated physiologically — and that continually blows my mind,” Dessa said. “When I learned that the brain demonstrates predictable patterns of activity when a person contemplates someone with whom they are in love, I thought, ‘Now here is a novel, interesting lens through which I might be able to examine a feeling that looms large in most of our lives.’”
Soon after, she was working with the University of Minnesota’s Dr. Cheryl Olman and clinician Penijean Gracefire on what she calls a “passion project.” Dessa lay on her back in an fMRI machine and looked at photos of an ex-boyfriend, all in the service of science and art.
“Romantic love gets quite a bit of coverage in the arts — a good reason to respect and admire artists who work in less trafficked themes. In my lived experience, though, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to make love work; I was compelled to express the challenges of forging lasting connections, because that’s the particular wrestling match I was in,” Dessa said.
That’s not all Chime centers on, however. Family stories weave through as well (“I Hope I’m Wrong” leans into her grandmother’s death); she digs headily into philosophy with “Velodrome;” and on “Fire Drills,” the album’s spitfire track three, she talks about “navigating the world as a woman.” A powerful contribution to the Time’s Up conversation, the songs lyrics — “I beg to differ with it/I think a woman’s worth/I think that she deserves/A better line of work/Than motherfucking vigilance/Don’t give me vigilance” — are unrelenting.
For all her examinations of love and more on the record, she said she never found a resolution. She doesn’t expect anything to feel truly settled for any length of time. “You just get hit sometimes — by new love, or a medical bill, or a windfall, or oncoming traffic,” Dessa said. “I think I’ll know my next fascination when it stumbles into the room to say hello.”
That’s an appropriate philosophy for someone who is constantly pushing herself into new areas. Dessa has taught at McNally Smith College of Music, spoken on ethics and hip hop as part of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize Forum, written for New York Times Magazine and, last year, performed arrangements of her work and a prose story with the Minnesota Orchestra.
She keeps herself open when it comes to artistic exploration — a phrase or image will come to her, and she’ll decide based on the scope of it whether it’s best suited for a poem, or a song, or a story. “If this thing is gonna take 10,000 words to convey — well, that’s just too damn long for a song,” she said.
Dessa gives credit to her work with Doomtree in driving her growth creatively.
“I was pretty damn green when I joined Doomtree: P.O.S taught me what a snare was,” Dessa said. “I’m not entirely sure I would have ended up in music if I hadn’t found those guys. They balance aggression, humor and kindness in a really unusual way — and they made a cultural space in hip hop that I could see myself fitting into.”
She gives a shout out to Lazerbeak, Andy Thompson, Paper Tiger and Cecil Otter at Doomtree, too, who she calls “major collaborators.” But she’s certainly given back to the collective, both collaboratively and in her own work. Chime, for example, which was released on the Doomtree Records label, has skyrocketed. As Lazerbeak wrote on the Doomtree website, “We run this operation about as bare bones as you can get, and to have a release crack the Billboard Top 200 and #3 on the Independent Albums chart is no small feat.”
“I still often find collaborating with other lyric-writers challenging,” Dessa noted. “I write more slowly than most rappers and it can be difficult to find a cohesive spot of intersection between varied voices.”
“But,” she said, “sometimes a challenging process can make for great work.”
Genevieve Trainor was once taught that a poet gets a maximum of five times in their career to use the word love. As a concept, however, she thinks the sky’s the limit. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 239.