Dessa Darling, or just plain Dessa as she is known, is an inspirational force in the underground hip-hop music scene. She almost accidentally came into contact with the rap collective Doomtree whilst studying Philosophy at University, eventually going on to release a solo record under her own name on the Doomtree label, 2010's A Badly Broken Code. As well as this she has written and had published creative non-fiction book 'Spiral Bound', become a teacher of lyric writing and 'The Language of Rap and Spoken Word', and involved herself in all female acapella group The Boy Sopranos. Most recently she performed at Soundset, a festival in Minnesota that specifically specialises in hip-hop acts. Lydia Parry caught up with Dessa to find out what she's up to at the moment.
Q1. Where are you right now and what are you doing?
I am standing in a nest of boxes, having recently moved into a new apartment. I’ve eeked out a little workspace in a living room that otherwise seems to be made out of cardboard.
Q2. First off I've noticed you seem to convey very powerful ideas in your work. Do you think the poetic side of lyrics should be appreciated more, and not treated as lazily as some people get away with?
I’ve argued with close friends about the relative importance of a song’s rhythmic, melodic, and lyrical components. At the end of the day, all I can say conclusively is that people listen to music in very different ways. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to try to foist my preferences on other listeners, but for me lyrics and harmony are the most magnetic components of songwriting. I spend a lot—maybe too much—time trying to get my own lyrics just right. So, yes, it’s gratifying when a listener has paid close attention to the words and ideas on my albums.
Q3. Do you ever transfer ideas from your raps into your prose and vice versa?
If I’m in the throes of a major fascination, it’ll surface in whatever I’m working on. I’m attracted to metaphors that involve flight, for example, and so flight appears as a theme in both my prose and my songwriting. Oftentimes, however, the size of an idea determines if it ought to be expressed musically or as an essay or a poem. Large, involved ideas take more words to express—more words than I may be able to include in three or four minutes of song.
Q4. Name one thing you love, and one thing you hate, about the music industry.
I love working with people who have invested the whole of themselves into their passions. I like that my vocation and my social life and my free time all revolve around art.
I dislike the fact that the most popular artists don’t seem to have much to say. I like dance music, and I like some pulp—but I wish the art of our popular culture was informed by a few more intelligent, discerning voices.
Q5. You often get asked about women's role in hip-hop, what do you think of men's role?
I’m an ambitious woman and hip hop is a culture that doesn’t ask me to pretend I’m otherwise. In that way, I feel at home in a culture that’s been shaped by men. Rap music is often an aggressive, competitive endeavor. And I like that too. I like stepping outside of our codes of courtesy and expressing our experiences with urgency, confidence, and in a way that sounds better than the way the last guy put it.
But I do object to male artists who oppressively put down other classes of people in order assert their own position as the alpha of the pack. The way some rappers talk about women and gay people is a juvenile bid for social superiority and it doesn’t do anybody any good.
Q6. What kind of music do you listen to outside of rap, if any?
I’m a sucker for a beautiful voice—either male of female. I like Jeff Buckley, I like some Beyonce, Florence and The Machine, and Bon Iver. Generally, I’m drawn to sad ballads or music I can dance to. Not too much in between. I have no idea why.
Q7. Do you get jealous of other acts, or are they more likely to be jealous of you?
My dad says that jealousy is a complete waste of time. I believe that to be true. I don’t like thinking badly of others. So when I do find myself envious of others, I try to redirect that attention in a way that can help me reach my own goals. (Man, this sounds hokey to write down.) For example, if another artist is awarded an opportunity that I’d hoped for, the graceful response would be to bear down and focus on my craft—get better at the piano, or spend an hour writing—so that I’m better equipped to pursue the next opportunity more aggressively. That whole thing sounds a little “All I Really Need To Know I Learned As An Indie Emcee.” But it’s true.
Q8. I've heard you cut your hair after finishing each project in order to donate it to a children's charity, what other causes are close to your heart?
Gay rights. I think we’re missing the boat on that one in a major way. I’m eager to see legislation in America that reinforces equal rights for people of all sexual orientations. Incidentally, hip hop culture could go a long way toward leading social change on that issue.
Q9. So, what makes a good teacher? Did you personally make any mistakes along the way?
I made mistakes at the beginning of my career, I’ll make mistakes in the future, and I’m sure I’m making mistakes now that are invisible to me. I think the most we can ask of ourselves is to handle those mistakes gracefully and to clean up the messes we make. “It’s my fault and I’m sorry” goes a long way, at least for me. I ought to say it more often.
I teach composition and a course on hip hop poetics at the McNally Smith College of Music in Saint Paul. I don’t believe there’s a single formula for success in this business. People who say there is one are naïve or selling something. That said, I take pride in crafting engaging lectures. I work hard to resist the impulse to use the patterns of my own career as a template for the students I teach. I aim to provide my students with the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that will allow them to find their own approach to music and music business. I don’t connect with every student, but so far I think I’ve got a very good batting average.
Q10. Do you have a partner or kids? What do you think of the world kids are growing up in today?
I live by myself in third-story apartment in Minneapolis. I’m not a parent, so imagining raising kids in our world, is more an exercise of imagination than an informed position. But if I were parenting now, I’d be concerned about how much of our culture is designed to provoke immediate, impulsive responses. Advertisers want you to buy, even if doing so brings you financial collapse. Popular artists seem more interested in the advertisers than in their audiences. Audiences—the public—seems wooed by vacuous nonsense, much of it deleterious to our culture. That’s certainly not true of all our cultural contributors, in fact maybe it’s only true of our loudest contributors.
Q11. How important is Atheism to you?
Atheism is profoundly important to me. It’s not a position that I try to convince others to adopt, but I have found myself defending it passionately at the odd dinner party. I think life can be meaningful, and our decisions can be moral even without deriving those values from a religious paradigm. As I understand the position, I’m a humanist. The way people think and feel; the opportunities they have; and the degree to which their needs are met—these are the variables that inform my worldview.
Q12. Have you got any live dates coming up, maybe even some UK shows?
I’d love to play the UK, but so far all this year’s tour dates are in the US or Canada. If there are any promoters out there looking to book an American, atheist, indie rapper with a literary bent, I’m your girl.
Q13. You've mentioned plans for a new album; how is that coming along? Can you let slip any details about it, and will it be as long in the making as the last one?
If I take another five years to make an album, P.O.S will kill me. I’m working on a few songs now, and I’m flush with the excitement that a new project entails. I’m sure by the end of the process, I’ll be riddled with all the doubts that accompany the completion of a big endeavor—but for now I’m indulging all of the enthusiasms. It’s too soon to say for sure, but I think the next album will feature piano more heavily than the last one did, and I’m doing more layered vocals. I’ll be working with the other members of the Doomtree camp, and have already started writing to a couple of new Paper Tiger beats.
Q14. Will you always stick to releasing records under the Doomtree label?
Doomtree is a music label, an arts collective, and a group of very tight-knit friends. Some Doomtree artists are working with other labels to release their music, though they’re still part of the collective and social unit. I’m fiercely loyal to Doomtree, and an offer would have to be pretty good to attract my interest elsewhere—but I don’t want to make any sweeping decisions about a future that I know very little about. As is, I plan on working with my friends to make the best music I can, and to continue to build the way we always have—one show at a time.