May Artist Spotlight: Spoken Word Phenom Desdamona

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Hey Desdamona, thanks so much for taking the time to tell us more about yourself. Can you tell us about your artistic background and what the art form you teach is?

 My mother put me in dance classes at the age of four and I took ballet and tap at JaNeal’s Dance Academy. As I got older, I also studied modern dance and acrobats and was asked to be an apprentice teacher at 13. Once I was old enough to have a job, I taught acrobats to 4-6 year olds and later taught modern to young teens. Dance helped to build my confidence and was a great outlet for all my creative energy. During this time, I was also very involved in the art forms of writing and drawing, two things I was introduced to through my family as well. My grandmother was a very creative person who was a writer and did carvings, paintings and made apple dolls. I remember many days at my grandmother's house after school, creating paintings and poems. She really helped to encourage my inquisitive mind and taught me how to use my imagination. My grandmother was a magical being and I feel so lucky to have had so much time with her.

Both of my parents are artistic as well so I grew up in a very creative environment with my mother creating holiday decorations and sewing and my father who was a teacher, writer and storyteller. They both encouraged me to express myself and create and still support my artist lifestyle today.

The art forms I work in currently are spoken word and hip hop but I didn’t start performing solely through these forms until college when I realized that I wanted to write songs and perform. It started with hip hop in the early 90’s, when I was in an R&B and hip hop girl group called Jus-B-Cuz with three singers and myself writing songs and performing locally in Waterloo, Iowa. It quickly developed and we met some musicians in Minneapolis and began collaborating in hopes to put out a project. We recorded a number of songs but never really got off the ground with the group and we went our separate ways with two of us moving to Minneapolis and two staying behind in Waterloo. In Minneapolis, I found open mics and began to perform my lyrics without music. This raw presentation, with no musical accompaniment really challenged me to write thoughtful lyrics. People started calling me a spoken word artist but I didn’t really know what that was. Over the years, I became a spoken word artist and open mics are to thank for helping me develop a versatile style and approach that used hip hop delivery and melody to enhance my poems and songs. 

When did you first become interested in spoken word? How did it happen? Who were some of your influences?

I really stumbled into spoken word and was first inspired by hip hop lyricists and then informed by many local poets like, Truth Maze, PenSoul and Bro Sun and a group of artists that were part of an open mic night called Red Lights & Poetry. Red Lights & Poetry was where I met Mankwe N’dosi, Roxane Wallace & Taiyon Colemen and so many more amazing and talented people who all inspired me to push the boundaries and experiment with word play and presentation. I went to every open mic I could find listed in the City Pages - This is pre-internet so it was the best place to find out what was going on. As I got more exposed to spoken word I started to write more poems instead of just performing the song lyrics I had written. I remember the first time hearing Ursula Rucker on The Roots album in the 90’s and I was struck by the vulnerability and intensity of not only the words but how the delivery served the words. If there is one poet I have really studied, it would be Ursula Rucker. Each pause between her words is intentional and she made me realize how important that silence is. 

What is it like to work in a more male-dominated art form?

I feel like the world in general is male-dominated so working within spoken word and hip hop is a microcosm of the larger world. It has been a struggle at times but it also gave me direction and motivation. I had to create my own opportunities. I had to challenge thoughts in my own mind about what I could and couldn’t do. I had to hone my craft and know that some people would never be able to accept me simply because I am a woman. I think all of this made me work harder and it also allowed me to provide space and opportunity for others. I knew my own experience and didn’t want others to have to struggle that much just to get a little time on the mic. 

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Do you have a preference between writing or performing your work? What do you enjoy the most about each?

It really depends on the day and even what else is going on in my life at the time. I absolutely love the period of time that leads up to a new song or poem. I can feel it coming, sometimes for days or weeks in advance. It’s kind of a game … like, catch me if you can! And I’ll spend those days and weeks preparing for its arrival. Sometimes that means writing or just being ready to write when the inspiration hits and sometimes it means getting myself in the right head space by listening to music or going somewhere new, hearing someone else perform, things like that. I know when I have created an impactful piece - some of them come through me very quickly and others take quite a long time to fully form. Performing is always an enlightening experience for me because it’s never the same. There are so many factors and you have to just roll with it. Even when you have your show down, there is always an element of improvisation. If the crowd is dead or the act before you knocked everybody out or if you don’t have a lot of energy … all those things make it different. I love the adrenaline it creates and sometimes even the mistakes lead to these beautiful unrehearsed moments of magic.

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What do you get out of teaching versus creating your own work? What do you hope participants of your programs learn?

 Creating my own work, on my own time, in my own way is bit more freeform than teaching is. I had to really learn how to teach creative process because for me, creating has been a natural part of my life that no one really walked me through step by step. My grandmother and I would sit down and paint or write poems without guidance or structure. This is one of the greatest gifts she could have ever given me - a free space to let things move through me on to the page. In my own creative work, deadlines are hard for me because I need it to feel natural. A tree needs time to grow and time to drop its leaves and time to regrow …. So do I.

 When I first started teaching over 20 years ago, it was very difficult. I didn’t like it because I felt like I wasn’t good at it. I didn’t like it because of the restrictions that seemed to be anticreative in my mind. Everyone wanted to know what the end product would be. “It will be what it will be” was not an acceptable answer. I had to really explore and find myself as a teacher. Part of that exploration took me back to my younger years when I taught acrobats and modern dance and helped me realize I already had all the tools and I just needed to translate those things I learned through dance into the writing lessons I was creating. It took years to do this and lots of struggling and adapting. I asked myself the question, “How do I bring myself, the artist, into the room?’ As opposed to, “how do I become a teacher?” I had to be flexible and more resilient than ever before. Learning to teach has served my artistic work in many ways and now I love to teach and teaching takes up the majority of my time. I also really love to mentor less experienced teachers and mentor young writers to provide tools so they don’t have to struggle like I did. When I go into learning spaces, I try to really see people, see their gifts and strengths. If I notice a participant whose behavior is typically seen as negative, I try to turn that around and witness what that student has to offer that hasn’t yet been tapped into. I was one of those young people who couldn’t stop talking, couldn’t sit still and sometimes couldn’t follow directions. It’s no surprise that my dance teacher saw my behavior and thought I would be a good teacher. She watched how I related to others, and took what had gotten me in trouble at school and gave me a productive outlet to express. It changed my life. I hope that the students and participants of the programs I work in, gain insight into themselves and the world. I hope they gain confidence and a sense of accomplishment that serves them as they grow and change in life. It’s not about them becoming a spoken word artist or a hip hop artist. It’s about exploration and curiosity and being excited about what they can create that could possibly inspire and move others to do the same. 

What do you see as the benefits of working in Minnesota’s music scene?

 There are so many amazing musicians in Minnesota and a wide range of styles and approaches and being in the Twin Cities, with access to two very different communities makes for lots of opportunity. It’s small enough that it’s easy to network and get to know people and big enough for there to be multiple genres and opportunities for cross-pollination and collaboration.

Being that I have traveled across the US, Canada and France touring, I can say that Minnesota audiences are a tough crowd. If you can win them over, you’re doing something right. I’m glad I got to come up in a place where it wasn’t just instant applause and adoration.

Have you been working on any new projects lately?

I have a project I’m working on that is a continuation of the No Man’s Land album I released in 2016. No Man’s Land was an album and small collection of nursery rhymes with illustrations and collaborations with women vocalists from the Twin Cities. This continuation is going to be picking up where No Man’s Land left off and right now, it’s taking place on what I like to call the Mothership and will feature women’s voices from across the world. It’s a big undertaking and I’m in the development process now, deciding on what kind of sound I want the overall record to have and thinking about song concepts and the broader album concept as well as who I’d like to collaborate with and on which songs … No Man’s Land took more than three years to fully realize so, I’m in the gestational period with things and the body is beginning to form but in the end, the baby comes when it wants to come. The baby might come a little faster if it’s induced by a grant … ha! 

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You were added to the COMPAS roster in 2014. What’s it been like so far to be a part of COMPAS?

Has it really been that long? It has been a fantastic experience for me in so many ways. It has helped me further explore, hone and develop the art of teaching and provided me opportunities I would have never gotten on my own. I have been able to do a number of extended residencies and built curriculum that I can use over and over again. I have also been able to take advantage of some of the professional development opportunities through COMPAS and get connected to a large community of artists doing similar work to myself and it has been an incredible journey. I’m looking forward to what is to come! 

How do you practice creativity in your everyday life?

I try to notice the little things and not take myself too seriously. Play is important and so is maintaining a sense of freedom so I try to remember these things daily and do things that make me feel playful and free. So many things in the world shut us down or are heavy and cause anxiety so I try to find tools to help me release whether it’s meditation, being in nature or being active in some way … stepping outside a regimented daily routine is something I need regularly to remain calm and happy. I really try to live more than I work which means finding creative ways to be fully living while I’m fully in the work.