Dessa: Acclaimed local musician speaks on hip hop, sexism and ‘moral responsibility’

 Minneapolis-based rapper, singer and essayist Dessa recently had  an album that charted in the Billboard Top 100. Photo by Charles Hallman Minneapolis-based rapper, singer and essayist Dessa recently had an album that charted in the Billboard Top 100. Photo by Charles Hallman

Dessa’s remixed Parts of Speech debuted  in May, nearly a year after its original release, in Billboard’s Top 100. The Minneapolis rapper, singer and essayist, and Doomtree collective member easily displayed “her writerly sensibility, wit and honesty” in a MSR one-on-one interview after a scheduled appearance with Russell Simmons at the University of Minnesota.

“I do what I love. I got plenty of friends. I’m in a romantic relationship with a dude who loves me very much and never raises a hand to me,” said the young female hip-hop artist, smiling and relaxed.

Hip hop has its supporters and detractors. When asked, Dessa both defended as well as pointed out some of hip hop’s shortcomings.

“I think the hardest part for a practioner of hip hop,” she explained, “is the fact that sexist, homophobic, racist people can still make good music. It could be real easy not to listen to all the morally offensive stuff if it didn’t sound good. But unfortunately artistic talent and moral integrity are not always twins.

“There always have been parts of music that are offensive but I don’t think that becomes an argument to throw our hands up and say, ‘All right, I can’t stop it so there’s no use to fight it,” Dessa continued. “Music is culture, and will culture ever reach a point of spiritual perfection? I don’t know, and I don’t care …

“I don’t want to make rap music Sunday School. I don’t think music has to be the start of moral destruction [either], but I don’t think musicians are released from the normal moral responsibilities.”

During her stage appearance in June with Russell Simmons for Minnesota Public Radio, Dessa asked Simmons on his thoughts about women, given his reportedly womanizing reputation. He tried to deflect her serious inquiries by using humor.

“I think Russell is one of hip hop’s greatest philanthropists and one of hip hop’s best communicators,” observed Dessa. “But as much work [as] he has done … the fact that he struggles with women and sex negates his philosophies — it certainly does not.

“He can talk about it in a funny way, but I think he will agree it is not a joke. But is it worth talking about when we discuss moral authority — I think it is,” she continued.

The artist also didn’t mince words when asked on how it is being a female rapper.

“Yes, there are challenges I face because I’m a woman that I would not face if I was a man,” admitted Dessa. She recalled having to deal with some promoters who were supposedly interested in advancing her career, but instead she encountered “a lot of sexual interest masqueraded as professional interest… [or] maybe [it’s] someone you admired [who seemed] interested in your work, but it turns out they aren’t getting it enough.

“On the other hand, I’ve had some benefits in being a woman in hip hop,” Dessa surmised. “A woman’s voice in a rap will silence a couple of conversations because it’s novel. Nobody sells records on novelty, but novelty can get you a 15-second audience you need to sell that record.”

Nonetheless, Dessa doesn’t back off — when it comes to female rappers, gender differences in hip hop do glaringly exist: “Sometimes I wish I was a man when I talk about sexual equality. I think there is probably suspicion that I am arguing for gender equality because I am a woman. I’m concerned about gender equality [but] not because I feel slighted.”

Dessa is proud to call Minneapolis home, and equally proud to call the city the independent hip hop capital of the musical world, an opinion shared by many in her genre. She vividly remembers as far back as five years ago running into potential hip hop artists, recent arrivals to the Cities, here “to try to make it.”

“I think there is a magnetic [pull] for a certain kind of rapper — one who’s willing to work hard and develop some of the business acumen” to come to Minneapolis, she surmised. “You have to do a lot of this yourself.”

When asked if she believe she’s reached her peak as an artist, she said, “I hope I haven’t maxed out. I hope not.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to