Monday, September 24, 2012

A Practitioner’s Perspective: Doomtrees songstrees Dessa talks about what it means to be an ethical emcee

“I’m not here as the college-educated white girl who saved hip-hop,” Doomtree MC and poet Dessa said in opening her recent presentation at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, “Ethics and Hip-Hop. “I learned all of this from the practitioners already doing it.”
She need not be so modest. The only female in the local hip-hop collective, Dessa has made it a point to create art that does away with negative stereotypes and offensive prejudices. Amid a storm of oft-derogatory emcees, the decision seems to have only enhanced her spitfire image and further separate her from a pack.
And if there was any doubt about her influential role in the hip hop world, it was wiped clean last week, when she delivered a powerful op-ed in The Star Tribune and appeared on MPR’s Daily Circuit before addressing the a crowd of around 800 people at Augsburg College.
In moving from the First Avenue stage to the lectern, Dessa acknowledged her gender could make it seem as if she was speaking out of self-interest. But she says homophobia and misogyny shouldn’t be embraced by either sex.     
"I don’t mind if you say, ‘You fucking suck. Get off the stage.’ That’s an aesthetic response,” Dessa says. “The slurs are not.”
To address the thematic shortcomings and people’s responses to them, Dessa urges consumers to research lyrics before purchasing music to make sure they reinforce their own ideals. But she also says people should abandon their “hyper self-righteousness” and not allow a few artists to define the genre.
“It’s hard to say any one true thing about an art this big,” Dessa says.
That doesn’t mean hip-hop should be a universally cheerful art form, though. Passionately delivered lyrics, Dessa says, should not be equated with violence on the part of the artists or the art form. In fact, most hip-hop personalities have deep feelings of social responsibility.
But even if service “is just part of the deal” there is a gap between perception and reality, she says.
“We impart our biases into hip-hop,” Dessa says. “We see The Killers [a white indie band] and it’s not threatening because we know they’re kidding. Black artists aren’t perceived that way, and that’s our [problem of] perception, not theirs.”
Still, there is no denying the potency of an emcee’s words and it’s important to realize that they have agency, “and not just when it’s convenient,” Dessa says.
+ Dessa’s latest album, Castor, The Twin, is out now. Learn more about Dessa, and see video from her speech at Augsburg here.