Dessa's Nobel Peace Prize Forum presentation at Augsburg College, 03/02/12
Nobel Peace Prize Forum, Kennedy Center at Augsburg College, Minneapolis
March 2, 2012
It seemed that both Dessa and the nearly 800 fans who packed Augsburg's Kennedy Center on Friday night were in somewhat uncharted territory as we gathered to hear her present as part of the three-day Nobel Peace Prize Forum. Dessa said that when she was initially approached by the event's Executive Director, Dr. Maureen Reed, to take part in the forum, she thanked Dr. Reed for the invitation, and joked that "This presentation could be really cool...If Brother Ali gave it."
But despite Dessa's claims that there are "other people in the city with more meaningful expertise in this field," she still delivered an insightful, intelligent presentation titled "Mic Lines: Art, Ethics, and their Contested Connections," that surely opened some people's eyes and hopefully helped launch many further discussions about how acceptance and tolerance has a place in the world of hip-hop and beyond.
Dessa took to the stage feeling the effects of a lingering case of laryngitis, which sadly would keep her from performing her scheduled mini-set after her presentation. But while her voice might have been a bit raspy, her words and the weight behind them rang loud and clear. She approached her speech making a clear distinction that it was from the point of view as a practitioner of hip-hop, and not as a scholar of the genre.
She opened by discussing the powerful impact of the people in the Twin Cities hip-hop community who initially took her under their wing: Desdamona, Toki Wright, Big Quarters, I Self Devine, and, most recently, Brother Ali. All of them helped inform her "what this art form was, and also the social fabric that accompanies it." They also made clear to her that once she got involved in hip-hop, "community action, community service, and social justice was part of the game." She further explained, "I have never been part of an industry where the cultural expectation is that you give back, and you are as active in social justice sets as this gig. It's part of the deal. It comes with the territory."
And within that world, Dessa has encountered some unsettling realities, one of which is that, "Homophobia exists in a lot of places, but it certainly exists with an unsettling vibrancy in hip-hop." She further explained, during one of her presentation's many evocative segments, that we do need to give artists room to create, up to a point: "Talking about sex and violence is part of an artists' imagination. I think it would do us a service, when we have these conversations, to really be conscientious of giving artists the room that they need to work. And some of that room is probably a bit noir, some of it is probably a bit adult. But that said, even when we provide that kind of benefit of the doubt, and that kind of leeway, we still find a lot of examples in hip-hop of blatant and flagrant trespasses against some pretty basic standards of human decency."
At that point she put inflammatory quotes up on the screen from the lyrics of Lil Wayne and Tyler, the Creator, mentioning, "Those dudes are talented dudes, so it's complicated. It's not always binary, at least those are the conclusions I'm coming to. You ask is hip-hop a force for good or bad? I think the answer is yes." But Dessa said the way to properly address those concerns isn't to immediately label the artist a "Villain!" "It's to say, 'That language is ridiculous and regressive, and I'm not buying your album.'" But she went on to say that, "Being distasteful or crass I really understand as being distinct from being morally objectionable," and that the latter offense is "making culture worse in a way that is not victimless."
Dessa made it clear that rappers have no special moral authority to uphold, "But, you are not excused from your normal moral authority just because you know how to rhyme." She went on to powerfully disprove, in her own way, many defenses that today's hip-hop artists use to defend their objectionable lyrics, like "Lyrics just reflect real life" and "People recognize rap as fiction, and it doesn't influence real life." She brought in her own experience, claiming "People tell you how much your music means to them, and how it has changed their lives. Music has agency, and not just when it's convenient."
She closed out her stimulating presentation by warning us to "Be careful what you let into your head." And she finished with a quote from Kool Herc to show that "These are not ideas that I'm making up, and this is not a white girl commenting all on her lonesome on black culture." And Herc indeed echoed many of Dessa's points from her presentation, "It ain't about keeping it real, it's got to be about keeping it right. We've got the power to do that...I don't want to hear that they don't want to be role models. You might already have my son's attention. Let's get that clear...You have the kid's attention, I'm asking you to help me raise them up."
During the engaging Q&A which followed, facilitated by the amiable Chris Roberts from MPR, Dessa was able to connect a bit further with her fans while directly answering some of their questions, during which she addressed her trepidation leading up to giving the speech: "If the choices are: feel discomfort for sharing well-considered, fundamentally held moral views, or feel discomfort for NOT having shared well-considered, fundamentally held moral views, than I choose the former discomfort." And we are all quite glad you did, Dessa. Hopefully, this will be just a part of an ongoing discussion that brings about some real change and tolerance that extends far beyond the hip-hop community.
A full video feed (in two parts) of Dessa's presentation can be found here.
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