In Rooms with Women/Artists I Admire: One - Dessa

On September 19, 2018 I went to a book reading and signing by Dessa,  for her memoir, My Own Devices.

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There’s a moment after meeting an artist I admire when I mentally slap myself. Palm smacking my imagined forehead, I fixate: I said THAT? Why?  Why did I use those words? Did I communicate anything? What was I thinking?

That evening, I think I said something like, “I read ‘Congratulations’ real quick, and I want you to know, I’m one of those people who popped over because of the Hamilton Mixtape.” Dessa hi-fived me.  While she signed my book, I said something about Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal and Blindspotting. 

How are you supposed to fit it all — all of that space between you, and an artist, and her work - into one or two sentences? Can you start from the beginning and get to the point in thirty seconds? Can you communicate it with certain kind of smile or facial expression?

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My artistic life started in rhythm; shuffles and time steps, the eight count of a dance class, functioned as a second heartbeat.  From the tap-dancing literary theatre kid who loved musicals, I grew up into a Shakespeare and Sondheim spouting theatre artist. Literature and theatre have been equal passions - words and stories, iambs or an eight-count.

Which is why I shouldn’t have been surprised that I fell in love with Hamilton in the first few lines of the opening number. The internal rhymes of that first sentence alone were enough to start this affair.  I was late to jump on the Hamilton train — steadfastly refusing to listen. (It couldn’t be THAT good. When I’m wrong, I’m really wrong.)  But now, I played the soundtrack on a loop. I couldn’t seem to exhaust it.  Even silences were saturated with that music, because I could recreate it perfectly in my head.  I learned “Satisfied” and “Guns and Ships” like I had something to prove, wrapping my mouth as fast as I could around the words.

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My family subscribed to a shared Apple Music account at Christmas. My musical tastes have always been vanilla — Broadway and boy bands as a teenager, Indie folk singer-singer-songwriters and Jason Robert Brown in college, Sara Bareilles and Sondheim over the last few years.  Hamilton was easily the hippest thing on my phone.

With unspeakable amounts of new music at my fingertips, I asked for suggestions from my brother, from my friends.  I tried to listen to music I’d never heard before. Nothing stuck. I downloaded The Hamilton Mixtape.  I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would.  

I had already delved into Daveed Digg’s non-Hamilton music career.  I knew about clpping. I watched the first Bars video open mouthed.  I found his collaborator, Rafael Casal, on instagram and followed him along with Daveed, tracked their music. I downloaded Splendor & Misery (clppng’s latest album). I never listened.

Two songs on the Mixtape grabbed me : “An Open Letter” performed by Watksy  and “Congratulations” performed by Dessa.  The rhythms were new yet familiar. The words came faster than my mouth could hold.  I was intrigued enough to download an album by each artist. I never listened.

I made excuses. “I don’t have time to listen to new music.”  It’s a very weak excuse, if one at all.  I just felt like I would be lying if I listened to this music.  I’m allowed to listen to and love Hamilton; It’s a musical, not rap, not hip hop.  Music by these “real” rap & hip hop artists couldn’t belong to me.  If I even tried, it would be a lie.  Inauthentic.  I wasn’t the person allowed to listened to this. This “kind of music” wasn’t mine to enjoy.

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The music sat on my phone.  I listened to Hamilton. I listened to Hamilton. I listened to Hamilton.

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A momentous moment: Another female artist put voice to something true:

“I feel that particularly as young non-male artists, it is so easy to feel that we are not equal to others and don’t have the right to have our voice heard.”

The role of female-made art in my life had never occurred to me. I love, admire, and am inspired by so many male artists. What does it matter their gender? We’re all humans. That being said, I measured things out, took the pulse of my life and the readout looked like this:

  • I am a bi-racial female writer whose bookshelf is full of  unread books written by dead white men.  I keep them because I feel I should, not because I will ever read them.

  • I am a female theatre artist who spends her time aspiring to play male roles, learning Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day monologue or Mercutio’s Queen Mab for auditions.  I can’t figure out how to present myself as feminine to an audience and have it ring true.

  • James Joyce is one of my favorite authors.

  • I mostly read books and plays by dead white guys.  

  • I am a female actor who has not had the opportunity (not made the opportunity) to work on much women-driven theatrical work.

  • I am a woman doesn’t listen to a ton of music, and when I do, it’s tenors and basses and men with guitars. Or Lin Manuel Miranda.

I never realized, as a female artist myself, that the presence of other female artists is important to my own artistic journey and well being. How had I never known that I need to surround myself with women’s voices, and female artists whose level of work I can aspire to achieve, whose artistic lives can inspire me daily? I set about changing this.

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I pressed play on Dessa’s album, A Badly Broke Code, while I was cleaning or cooking. The day passed unremarkably.

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Weeks later, a lyric spun round my head. “Forget the bull in the china shop, there’s a china doll in the bullpen.” It rang over and over between my ears and I couldn’t really remember why I knew it. Then, I remembered Dessa. I sat down, and listened - just listened, without doing anything else - to “The Bullpen.” Ah, here was the chorus - that line! - and the beat.  But then, the first line of the first verse:

It’s been assumed I’m soft or irrelevant / Because I refuse to downplay my intelligence

I have never, in my entire life, felt as reflected and represented as I did in that lyric.  How could I ever think that this music couldn’t “belong” to me?

I listened to A Badly Broken Code.  I listened to Parts of Speech. I listened to Chime.  I hit shuffle. I hit repeat. I’m still listening.

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I find it nearly impossible to explain how I found someone’s art at just the right moment without the context of the moment before.  Personal transformations are hard to qualify regardless, and even harder to quantify in a vacuum. I feel hyperbolic and false saying , “Your music changed my life” when I mean, “Your music and my life came together at just the right time, so I could actually hear it.” Which still feels like I’m hanging those words out as bait for a conversation, a request for an explanation.  

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I have a moment after meeting an artist whose work I admire, when I’ve replayed the moment so much that I finally cut through all my own bullshit and figure out how say what I mean.

This is that moment. What I meant to say was:

Dessa, I listen to your music that way I listened to Hamilton.