Local Current Blog

‘No one had this lined up for me’: Maria Isa and Desdamona on the history of women in Minnesota hip-hop

Maria Isa hosts the Lexii Alijai tribute at First Avenue on Feb. 19, 2020. (Darin Kamnetz for MPR)

Rapper and spoken word artist Desdamona has shared stages with Wyclef Jean, Bahamadia, and Saul Williams. But when she first moved to the Twin Cities in 1995, she couldn’t find anyone to give her the opportunity to perform.

“When I tried to get into the hip-hop scene, it was very difficult,” said Desdamona. “There weren’t a lot of women who were getting onstage and rapping — I didn’t see one.”

In the ‘90s, Minneapolis and St. Paul were home to a thriving hip-hop scene. The new indie record label Rhymesayers was releasing its first projects. The seeds for Soundset were being sown at a warehouse party off of Lake Street. But for many women, opportunities were scarce.

After a few years of trying to break into the “tight-knit” hip-hop scene, a friend recommended that Desdamona take her lyrics to an open mic. “I took what I had been writing as lyrics and I started performing them as poetry,” she said. “I tried to find every single open mic I could find. I was on a mission at that point.”

She had never planned to write poetry, but Desdamona says performing her rap verses as spoken word helped define her style. “What was great about it was that being in a space where you just have your lyrics, I had to work harder and write better lyrics.”

“People would come up to me and say, ‘You’re an emcee, aren’t you?’ I was glad that it could be recognized. That people could actually see what I was doing — and I could see that in other women too.”

Ten years elapsed between Desdamona moving to Minneapolis and, at long last, releasing her first official album. But she says that in hindsight, she’s grateful for all of the struggles, which helped her strengthen her artistic skillset and help other women enter the scene.

“It was so good for me, because it really made me figure out what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it,” Desdamona said. “It helped me develop my writing skills; I had to become a producer of my own shows; I provided space for other people.”

Desdamona began hosting her own open mics and she co-produced a regular hip-hop series at Intermedia Arts. In 2005, she collaborated with Intermedia Arts to co-found the world’s first all-woman hip hop festival, B-Girl Be. Women from across the Twin Cities joined together to create and curate the festival, including Juxtaposition Arts co-founder DeAnna Cummings, choreographer Leah Nelson, and scholar and filmmaker Rachel Raimist.

B-Girl Be highlighted women in all four elements of hip-hop: emceeing, deejaying, break dancing, and graffiti. The festival brought together artists from across the Twin Cities and around the world, with performers traveling from South America, Japan, Germany, and South Africa to partake in the Minneapolis festival.

“I noticed a sort of shift that happened, with women coming together collectively,” said Desdamona. “I think in the past there was a feeling of isolation and being alone. You can only do so much when you’re alone. B-Girl Be was this incubator that was not only beneficial for the local women in the community but also for the women that we brought in.”

One of the women who took the stage at B-Girl Be was St. Paul-born rapper and singer Maria Isa. Isa grew up listening to the salsa and bomba favored by her Puerto Rican family, as well as the bustling hip-hop scene outside her door in West St. Paul. Like Desdamona, Isa saw few women performing in her local hip-hop scene, especially women of color.

“When you started going to hip-hop shows with women, it was mostly white women, or white-passing women who were a part of it,” said Isa. “It wasn’t until after the foundation of B-Girl Be being built [that] we felt a safe space as women of color to unify, and to inform white women who are rapping — or in any element of hip-hop — to be an ally and to utilize their privilege to be able to engage with venues who weren’t booking or who may not have known of these artists.”

Isa played her first show when she was just 17. She says that growing up, there weren’t any other girls in her neighborhood who rapped. “Nobody had this lined up for me as a young girl.” Now, at the age of 32, Isa has independently written and distributed 14 projects with her record label SotaRico, shared stages with the Roots, Kendrick Lamar, and Sheila E., and launched her own podcast.

Isa uses her experience to provide guidance to young artists around the Twin Cities and directs mentorships at the nonprofit the Twin Cities Mobile Jazz Project. One of the performers who Isa grew close to was the rapper Lexii Alijai, who tragically died at the age of 21 in January.

“She was a young girl that I was mentoring when she was just coming out with her first few projects as a teenager,” said Isa. “When I got the news of Lexii passing, it hurt my heart a lot because I loved her music and I loved her style, and so I hope that whoever this foundation of young girls out here in these scenes, they really study her, because she was about to blow it up and she was about to represent St. Paul.”

Isa says that one of the greatest benefits of participating in the arts is “to overcome trauma. Specifically, the trauma that we experience in our communities of color.”

“Hip-hop saved my life as a young girl,” Isa continued. “It allowed me to express the traumas that I had been going through as a kid. It’s a powerful, peaceful weapon, especially in times like this, when we have such a messed-up administration running our country that’s degrading not only folks of color, but specifically women.”

Isa says that now, the Twin Cities are becoming more inclusive towards women and people of color, compared to the when she began performing in the early 2000s. She finds inspiration in events like the woman-run dance party the Klituation and artists like the Lioness and DJ Keezy.

“I’d say, the scene for women back then, we just got electricity. That’s how I see it metaphorically. Now, we’re women who realize we don’t need electricity when we got the power of the sun and we’re doing what we do regardless of if people are awakened to supporting women’s rights. We’re running solar power.”

This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Current and The Growler, a monthly craft beer lifestyle magazine covering the best stories in beer, food, and culture. Find this article online and in print in the March edition of The Growler.

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