Stories of empowerment: Dessa uses her love of language to empower others

Mar 07, 2019 | RBC Wealth Management


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To celebrate #iwd2019, we asked rapper, singer and writer Dessa to share her empowering stories of growth, leadership, and struggle.

Dessa talking in an interview

As a singer, rapper, writer and former record company executive, Dessa has appeared in front of crowds at Lollapalooza and Glastonbury festivals, performed with the Minnesota Orchestra and earned Billboard top-200 entries for her albums "Parts of Speech" and "Chime."

As a writer, she's been published by The New York Times, broadcast by Minnesota Public Radio and published literary and nonfiction collections.

To celebrate International Women's Day, we asked four trailblazing women, including Dessa, to share their empowering stories of growth, leadership, struggle and accomplishment during interviews with award-winning journalist Soledad O'Brien.

Here is an excerpt from the interview with Dessa, which has been edited and condensed.

What's been the most amazing thing and the most difficult thing about being a rapper?

There are plenty of both; I think it's a scale that's laden on both sides. I think one of the most glorious opportunities associated with being a rapper is the opportunity to travel. And because you're often hanging out late at night after a show talking to people, you get to have genuine conversations with people from a really wide range of fields, maybe like a taxi driver would. So you get just little glimpses through these tiny, evening-sized portals into a lot of ways to live a human life.

On the other hand, the travel is really hard; my knees are lousy, you're sitting still for eight hours a day.

You ended up as a medical writer.

I did. I was out of college, I knew that I loved language, I was attracted to the arts but I wasn't really sure how to get a foothold. And I knew I wanted a job that had a high hourly (wage) so that I could bail if I got a music opportunity. And so, I ended up as a medical technical writer doing a lot of the kind of implantation manuals for pacemakers and defibrillators. And then at night I was trying to get my art career off the ground with a rap crew named “Doomtree" based in Minneapolis.

Was it rewarding? When I hear medical technical writer, it doesn't feel like it would be creative and fulfilling, and maybe it's just a gig and it pays money.

It didn't feel artistically rewarding but it did feel like parts of my brain were being honed and those parts I enjoyed the sharpening of. So, learning how to take a lot of information that just sort of arrives in a Ziploc bag and then figure out a scaffolding on which you could file it, so someone else could learn it easily.

You talk a lot about vulnerability. And it's so rare that people talk about empowerment and vulnerability in the same sentence. Aren't they contradictory?

I think for a lot of us, there's a concern that someone, our bosses or the public at large, will find out our secrets, either what we're not good at or what we're scared of. For the most part, I've found that airing out even those intimate kinds of vulnerable details feels less scary than you thought it would, and then feels brave as hell later because you can't hurt me; you can't hurt me because there's no laundry to air.

I think real recognizes real; when somebody gets up and does something honest, we're really good as animals at sniffing that out. You can tell when someone is singing a song but they don't really have any investment in it, they just learned the notes. You can tell even when someone misses their notes that they feel it. And I think we're all the more inclined to give more leeway to that second category of person. When you watch the Olympics, and they're going, “Is she going to do the triple?", and your heart goes out if she or he stumbles. And then, when they finish the routine even after they lost the gig but with their arms out. That's a person that's easy to root for, at least for me.

What do you do that makes you feel most empowered?

For me, it's words. You know that phrase, 'A picture tells a thousand words'? As soon as I heard it I was like, 'No, it doesn't.' Being able to manipulate language almost anywhere; there's the page or the stage, I probably spend more time on audio, on stupid jokes and emails, because I just like it; I really enjoy language. So, any time I have the opportunity to do something innovative there, particularly if I have a shot to have access to a larger audience, it's really exciting.

Have you developed a positive self-image?

I'd give myself a B minus on a positive self-image.

Really? It comes across as a solid A.

I think there are parts of my personality I present really confidently. But I've been disappointed as an adult to realize that intellectually identifying a problem does not render that problem solved. I still sweat how I look in a swimsuit way more than I think is reasonable; that bothers me because it's a waste of time.

How do you advise other people — women — if you feel like you're at a B?

Well, maybe the question would also be, 'What advice would I take from other women who've gotten a vowel on their report card?' I do notice that in the same way you are what you eat, I think you think what you read. So, to imagine you can consume mainstream pop culture without it informing your standards of beauty, normalcy, decency, communications, you kind of flatter yourself; right?

In the same way, it's like reading a fashion magazine. That's in your head and it's redesigning the furniture there.

So, how do you wade there but not emerge radioactive? I don't know. But, I find listening to women who do not suffer fools makes me say, 'Yeah, I don't suffer fools either.' I think exposure helps; at least it does for me. So, the things I'm good at, okay; I hope I'm communicating those well. The things I'm not good at, I hope I'm seeking out people who communicate those strengths more naturally than I do.

Watch Dessa's interview in the video below.

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