Dessa is a rapper, singer, and member of the Doomtree hip-hop crew – she’s also a brilliant essayist with a philosophy degree and a keen interest in science. In her new collection of essays, My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science and Senseless Love, she examines love, science, and language.
In “The Fool That Bets Against Me,” she writes to Geico asking if they will insure her broken heart:
“I am a songwriter who makes her living writing torch songs. I’m able to do that well because I’m naturally melancholic and also because of unresolved feelings for a former romantic partner. If I were to find myself in a state of unchecked, protracted joy, I’d either have to re-career or take a lengthy sabbatical to acquire the skill set necessary for a new mode of self-expression.” Within twenty-four hours she got a rejection call from Geico.
In “Congratulations” she considers whether she will be able to make it in New York City. She finds herself traveling back to Minneapolis where she has an established network and reputation two or three times a month to play a show or give a lecture. “Making money in the Midwest to spend in Manhattan,” she writes, “Is like hustling backward. The exchange rate is against you; it’s like getting paid in pesos to pay rent in yen.” She needed to find a way to make money in New York, but it was slow going. Then someone picked up her chapbook and invited her to appear as a guest performer at a showcase in Brooklyn and read one of her poems. Someone else invited her to rap an eight-bar verse at a fancy hotel party where Jon Bastiste, the musical director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert heard her. And then she hit the big time – she got a call from Lin-Manuel Miranda asking her to cover a song for The Hamilton Mixtape. The mixtape hit number one on the Billboard charts the first week. It was streamed over a million times and though it wasn’t a rocket ship to stardom, it helped open doors to other opportunities.
Easily the most fascinating essay in the collection – and the one that reveals her amazing intellect and scientific curiosity, is “Call Off Your Ghost.” In it, she chronicles a project she undertook with a team of neuroscientists to try to clinically excise her romantic feelings for her on-again off-again boyfriend. “I was trying to change my brain to change my mind. If I could successfully modify the hand,” she writes, “Maybe the fist would let go.” She undergoes an fMRI and works with a neuroscientist, wired up in her father’s kitchen, to measure her brain activity to see if it was successful.
I recommend Dessa’s My Own Devices for fans of Patty Smith’s Just Kids. You don’t have to be a fan of Doomtree’s or Dessa’s music to get into her collection. If you appreciate intellectual curiosity, scientific theory, and philosophy, you should check it out.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews and other reviews on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais, Minnesota or on the web at www.wtip.org/superior-reads and www.superiorreads.blog.