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"Sitting at a bus stop, sucking on a lollipop, and she feels more than disturbed/Standing on the curb/Because everyone, including the media, is sure that they know her/Yet they haven't heard her say a word"
--Desdamona, "Don't Listen 2 the Lyrics"
The first time I heard Desdamona perform that song, she was literally trying to be heard over male voices. It was the summer of 2004, and the poet was reciting her verses a capella during the Twin Cities Celebration of Hip-Hop, competing with louder rappers on a second stage at the other end of East River Flats Park. The crowd, however, looked spellbound. Here was a new topic in hip hop--how all those "bounce, baby, bounce" songs on BET Uncut might make female fans and artists feel "worthless" even as they enjoy the beats. And it was all coming from the mouth of a freckly white girl with Queen Latifah's bearing.
A year later, Desdamona was performing the song again, this time during the open mic she hosts every Tuesday at the Blue Nile. Backed by local jazz drummer Kevin Washington and others, she ended her statements with those question marks characteristic of spoken word. "People try to bring her down unconsciously," she rapped, "Saying they don't understand why she's so angry/Ask her why she hates men/Try to become her friend, not because they really want to know her, but because they want to try and figure her out, like she has some secret that no one else knows."
Then came her punch line: "And maybe she does. But it has nothing to do with this."
Dealing with sexism's many layers is hardly virgin territory in the Twin Cities spoken-word scene, for which Desdamona has become an icon, taking that category's prize four years in a row at the Minnesota Music Awards. But the Mount Pleasant, Iowa, native has a directness and eloquence that feels distinctly pop. And her funky forcefulness has made her a hero in the local hip-hop world, where she organizes events such as this summer's B-Girl Be festival (named for one of her lyrics), plays diplomat on the DUNation.com message board, and regularly joins Carnage, Mazta I, and other respected talents onstage. (She's now performing Thursdays at Bunker's backed by the funk band New Congress.)
In front of her crowd at the Blue Nile, she looks much as she did when she first took the stage at St. Paul club Jazzville in 1997--lost in the song, with her eyes tightly shut.
"I get criticized for closing my eyes," she tells me at the bar, explaining how she visualizes songs as she sings and chants. "But I'm not closing my eyes to be cool or anything. I'm closing my eyes because I need to go find it."
Desdamona doesn't consider herself an MC or a singer. But five years ago she turned heads with her startling guest verses on Brother Ali's "We Will Always B," and these decidedly musical observations about male hip-hoppers: "They are blind to the signs that the rhyme combined with the mind connects them to their feminine side/The groove slips between their thighs and makes their hips wide like mine."
There is only one song without music on The Ledge (Zlink Entertainment), the debut album she released to quiet acclaim this summer. With six of its twelve tracks produced by Jamaican music legends Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, with whom she shares a manager, the CD is savvy enough to lift an old reggae bass line from Carl Cannonball Bryan's "Soul Scorcher," and shameless enough to borrow a line--"Some dance to remember/Some dance to forget"--from "Hotel California."
Mostly, the beats are a dose of club-ready, electro minimalism designed to make Desdamona's rebukes as danceable as possible--the kind of banging bleeps that the depressed girl in "Don't Listen 2 the Lyrics" might find solace in. "They say unity's the only answer, then they turn around and alienate me," goes the note-perfect R&B hook of "Get By." (Who knew the word "alienate" could swing like mad?) Another highlight, "Faulty Fuses," is the tale of a woman killing her husband after years of abuse. For years Desdamona has been playing the piece live, with Carnage doing human beatboxing, but on the album it becomes an eerie dance dirge. "I don't want no relationship to trip all my faulty fuses," goes the indelible chorus. "I just want to be who I am, without fear or the force of your hand."
Desdamona says she's been performing since she was a child, and her father was an early inspiration, dressing up like Dracula to tell her bedtime stories. She also mentions her grandmother, Irma Ross, a published poet. "She's still alive," she says, "and she really likes the album. My dad says she starts to cry when they play it, because she really would have liked to do what I'm doing now. She was a teenager back in the Depression, and for women, that wasn't an option."
Seeing Desdamona interact with young amateurs during her open-mic night, you believe her ambiguous refrain on "I Don't Stop"--"This music is all I got/This music is all I am." She appears encouraging without being fake, joking without losing her uncommon steadiness. All she is seems like a lot.
"I don't like to organize things," she says. " I don't feel like I'm really an organizer. But I know all the people who should be involved in these things. So I don't organize, I just kind of stand there."