As her bio says, Dessa has been described as "Mos Def plus Dorothy Parker." As her lyrics say, she's "half Dorothy Parker, half April O'Neil" (a nod to the famed poet and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' truth-seeking sidekick, respectively).
However you categorize her — scrappy, rappy, or writerly — the Minneapolis-based emcee, poet, writer, activist, and veteran member of the hip hop collective Doomtree is busy. In the last year, she's published a chapbook of poetry (launched at the Walker in October), released the solo album Parts of Speech, performed an NPR Tiny Desk concert, performed in the ninth annual Doomtree Blowout, published the "miniature book" Are You Handsome?, conducted some excellent interviews on music and food for the beer magazine The Growler and gave some excellent interviews on topics from homophobia to humanism, toured the country with her band, and got going on a new project, a collaboration with classical composer Jocelyn Hagen: commissioned by Minneapolis Public Schools, it'll be performed in April by a student choir and orchestra. To name a few.
Given the nature of the work she did last year, Dessa — aka @dessadarling on Twitter — offers a fittingly diverse best-of-2013, covering her favorites in religion and TV, politics and hip hop.
1) Marriage Equality in Minnesota - I spent much of 2013 in a Ford van nicknamed MOUNTAIN, touring the country with my band. During the long drives, I usually work on my laptop, Joey plays video games, Aby dons headphones to read her book, and the driver enjoys DJ privileges. On the day that Minnesota announced the official legalization of gay marriage, however, we all leaned forward in our seats to be a bit closer to the pair of working speakers. Everyone stayed still and silent as we listened to a streaming feed of MPR. I remember wiping my eyes with my sleeve, and making happy eyes at all my friends reflected in the rearview.
2) The "Control" Verse - Kendrick Lamar wrote a guest verse on a Big Sean track and sent the question "Did you hear it yet?" ringing 'round the world. In this verse Kendrick challenges the rap community, even calling out good friends by name, to up the bar. His contemporaries scrambled to write responses and recorded them before morning; veterans spoke of a healthy jolt to the system. Rap is a contact art.
3)Pope Francis - I left the Catholic Church pretty early, but it's been heartening to watch the first few months of Pope Francis' term. (Term? Appointment? Reign? I dunno. I left early.) He declined the opulent papal apartment, skipped the gold ring, and emphasizes the centrality of mercy, compassion, and humility — big things. (Though of course Pope Francis would not have been with me making 'happy eyes' in the van.) Plus, we all got to watch CNN cover smoke signals.
4) Breaking Bad - The hype. It's for real.
5) Malala Yousafzai's Nobel Peace Prize Nomination - It's tempting to reduce Malala to an archetype, a Joan of Arc. That archetype is enticing because the weakest societal players (females, children) prove capable of prevailing over the strongest. Most of us identify, at least privately, with the underdog, so it comes as welcome news that the meek might not have to wait until the end of the Earth to inherit it. But try as I might to caution myself against undue romanticism, dammit, this girl is a Joan of Arc. She's fearless and kind and she makes me want to be a better person.
6) Kanye West BBC Interview - He's a megalomaniac, yes, of course. He also makes some strong, smart arguments about race in America. (The interviewer Zane Lowe, however, may be irredeemable.)
7) Washington Initiative 522 - Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, got me by the gills. I started that book with some interest in the environment; I finished it with a lot of interest in how the business of food affects the distribution of power in this country. Since reading it, I've interviewed small farmers, market directors, organizers, and activists. It's complicated stuff, and I've reconsidered several long-held positions. My ears perked up in the autumn of 2013 when Washington state held a vote on whether or not companies should be required to label genetically modified food. The initiative did not pass, but I have a feeling that the conversation is just beginning.
8) Lady Lamb the Beekeeper - This recording artist has been active for years, but I only discovered her in 2013. Her song "Between Two Trees" and the one-take video that accompanies it reminds me how well rules can be broken.
9) Mac Miller Settlement with Lord Finesse - Hip hop production has historically been a collage art, at least in part. Producers use snippets of other musical works to assemble a new song, and in doing so they create a a genre with a rich subtext of references and cross-references. Finding a new, unusual context for a particular riff or drum beat is part of the skill of production. So, how do you make room for this recombinant form while still making sure the original, sampled musicians get compensated? We have no blessed idea. And when Mac Miller settled with Lord Finesse last year, it seemed to emphasize how far we are from a solution. The short story: Mac sampled one of Finesse's songs from the '90s to create a track that Mac posted online, for free. This was a big deal; most producers thought that free, non-commercial downloads would not be vulnerable to sample suit. Some news sources said the case signaled the death of the mixtape. Congress is now in the midst of reviewing US copyright law.
10) Nelson Mandela - Rest in peace.