We have been blessed with one of the most diverse and successful independent hip-hop scenes in the country, but it didn't happen overnight. Most of the pillars of our scene have been recognized one way of another over the years for their work in building this community, but one pillar keeps getting skipped over. Go figure -- it's a female. Pretty common in the male-driven sport we call hip-hop. But she isn't about the recognition or the status, she just wants to help others and rock a stage.
We are talking about the poet Desdamona, who moved to Minneapolis in 1996 from the plains of Iowa with her best friend, and a strong desire to perform. At first, it was hard to break into the close-knit community dominated by males who would rather take her out on a date than let her step in a cypher.
Years later, she now hosts and runs one of the longest-running open mics in the city, The Poets Corner every Tuesday at the Blue Nile. For the past ten years, musicians, poets and rappers have graced the stage to test out material, read a poem or spit a line. Many successful artists from this city got their start from this very night. She also help found B-Girl Be, one of the world's most successful hip-hop festivals focused on the influence of women in hip-hop. And if that wasn't enough, she spends most of her days teaching workshops and classes in schools around the Midwest about the craft she loves so much.
But she better hope spring break is around the corner soon. Desdamona is headed for France -- the fifth time in two years -- to play at the famous Sons d'hiver (Sounds of Winter) Festival with Ursus Minor and her own group Ill Chemistry, which also includes the fast-tongued veteran Carnage. They just released their long-awaited, self-titled record in France on the jazz-heavy label Nato. The experimental, out-the-box flowicist has many styles she flirts with and develops to build a unique fresh brand of spoken word, hip-hop and jazz. We sat down with Desdamona and asked the ill chemist five questions:
Why can you land huge festival gigs and worldwide tours, but in Minneapolis you are still looked at like the local poet girl?
I don't know. But I don't really care. I make music, I do what I love. If I can go to France and succeed in France and people here don't gravitate towards it, I don't really care. If they do I think that's great, but the thing here with the States is that it's really about hype and having a team behind you. So if you don't have those things people are not convinced that you are worthy.
But basically, I just want people to think of me as someone who's worked hard in the community and helped make the scene here better and stronger by putting on shows, by doing B-Girl Be, by staying on the scene and not just disappearing. Obviously as a musician you want people to buy your stuff but that's not what drives me to do what I do. I would love to have a huge base here, but I'm not trying to trick people with hype.
....and the audiences are different over there right?
I think people that come to events over there to see jazz & hip-hop range from kids to elders and every show is all ages, even in the bars. Alcohol over there is not such an issue. So I do these shows where it's all kinds of people from little kids to old jazz heads and they like and appreciate hip-hop, it's just different on a lot of levels. It seems like more people go out to shows there also, it's a more social country.
Photo by HeliosPhotography
You can rap, sing and do spoken word, what do you classify yourself as? What is your favorite medium out of all the things you do?
I see myself first as an MC, because that's the first thing I performed when I came here. I had been a poet at that time but I never performed my poetry live until long after I was performing as a MC. But even when I am approaching a performance or something I am doing it from a place of the aesthetics of hip-hop. Presentation, stylistically, even my poetry you can hear the influence of hip-hop in my style. That's where I am rooted and that's whats always inspired and pushed me to be better and try something different.
And with singing, I've always liked to sing but I always felt like I never had a great singing voice. I know I have limitations but at the same time I think singing brings something to the work that rap doesn't. Sometimes rap can be just one dynamic and very monotone and I think singing can break that up. It also brings people into hip-hop who initially wouldn't like hip-hop, but it's an easier and less threatening way to introduce them to it, and it can open it up to more people.
You have toured and made music with the legendary Sly and Robbie, worked with Ursus Minor (which includes Mint Condition's Stokley Williams, Prince guitarist Mike Scott and Boots Riley of the Coup) and collaborated with many excellent artists over your career. What is something you have learned from each of them?
With Sly and Robbie I learned how much of an impact Jamaican music has made on the world and I am fascinated by the influence Jamaican music styles and techniques have had on hip-hop. I think Americans see Jamaican music and they think of reggae and ganja. I can't tell you how many people have asked me if I smoked with Sly and Robbie. There are so many stereotypes that cloud peoples perception of Jamaica and the music. I shared the stage with the duo, and for me that was a high that can't be matched. I stood on stages in front of 15,000 people, touring the southwest and Canada in 2007, and both Sly and Robbie are real and generous as well as incredible musicians. I feel lucky to have had the chance to tour with them and have their support on my projects.
Working with Ursus Minor has been full of lessons. Playing with the guys has allowed me to travel to France 5 times in the last 18 months and in the process I am beginning to learn French and a lot about French culture and food. Ursus Minor is a collective of are amazingly talented musicians who are so down to earth. I have had such a great time experimenting with them and I'm not sure that I have completely processed my time with them yet.
Have you ever thought of continuing the Too Big for My Skin campaign? Like maybe an awareness organization? It seems to connect with many women. For example, recently young women are more victim to bulling and social pressure because of social media and increased Hollywood sexual propaganda of women.
The campaign is always continuing. People can request workshops around the campaign and I have done work with the campaign through Intermedia Arts. On my blog, people can donate to the campaign. The donations support getting supplies for the workshops so I can provide notebooks and art supplies for participants. The campaign is very grassroots but I am hoping to keep it going for a long time.
Has the popularity of Nicki Minaj made female MCs focus more on fashion and sexuality than skills and talent?
I think it is clear that Nicki has talent, but in my opinion it's a little sad that women in hip-hop have to become a spectacle to gain mass appeal and there seems to be room for only one woman in hip-hop at a time. It does seem like it has become more about image and hype than the actual art.
How did you get involved with touring the schools and investing time with youth programs?
It happened really early on even before I knew what I was doing, and I got invited by students and teachers. Many times I would go in for free and they would give me money out of their pockets to do a one time thing.
Then I started to get residencies, like at Intermedia Arts who I am thankful for and Sarah Fox who I worked under kinda showed me the ropes and helped me a lot made me realize I could develop stuff around of what I like to do like hip-hop and spoken word and students and teachers reacted well to it so word spread around, and I get pretty steady work. I don't seek it out -- it pretty much comes to me. So that feels good, so hopefully I am doing something right.
It's taught me a lot, and made me a better writer and better performer. Being in front of a class is way harder than getting up on stage and doing something. My dad was a teacher growing up, my sister is a teacher and I have tons of teachers in my family so I have so much respect for the craft and I think it's pitiful right now with schools, teachers and students not having the resources and that we don't value that at all. We don't support our schools and its a sad situation.
How far do you see your career going?
I don't really see what I do as a career but more of a mission. It started for me, through my grandmother who inspired me to think creatively from a very young age. She did so many things that fed my imagination and what she did for me, I would like to do for others. She provide a blank page and let me fill it. She gave me guidance and freedom to express. She didn't limit me or force me. Does this sound like a poem? It's all her fault. I've said before that I'm gonna be that old lady, sitting on a stool rapping. So, that's how far I see it going. Til it can't go no more.
Copies of the Ill Chemistry album can be purchased here. The Poets Corner is every Tuesday night at The Blue Nile.