As she prepares to fuse her brand of socially-conscious hip-hop with BBC NOW in front of British audiences for the first time, American poet, writer and Renaissance woman Dessa chats to Fedor Tot.
Tell us a little bit about what to expect with your collaboration with BBC NOW.
This will be the first time I’ve ever collaborated with any orchestra outside of the US, so I’m really excited! I’ll be bringing two singers with me, Aby Wolf and Matthew Santos. I had the opportunity to meet with several of the BBC NOW musicians and it was such a warm welcome. There can be this impression that orchestral players are exclusively interested in classical music and that’s not true. We chatted about hip-hop and one of the flute players was beatboxing while we were goofing around in rehearsal! Some of the material will be from pre-existing orchestral charts created by a composer, musician and friend of mine named Andy Thompson, and some of them we’ll be working up together over the course of the week before the show.
How do you integrate your style of hip-hop onto orchestral music without it sounding like an add-on?
It’s not like one of those lousy restaurants that’s like “it’s Japanese meets Mexican” and you’re just like, “why?” [laughs]. I think there’s no point in fusion for fusion’s sake. Personally, my dad was a classical guitarist when I was little, so although I didn’t know the names of the composers of the pieces he was playing, my childhood had those sad acoustic sounds in it when my father practiced guitar. Maybe it’s because I’m a little bit melancholy myself, but I love strings! They rise and fall so dramatically, so they really add a cinematic sweep to an arrangement.
I’ve always been attracted to songs which seem to tell a story. Is all good song-writing ultimately about storytelling?
I think that right now the way we talk about storytelling, at least in American culture, is a little bit fetishized. I think that storytelling is enormously important and it’s often what draws me into songs but it’s not the only way to do it. With The Beatles, for example, if you write down the lyrics to Come Together it’s not fundamentally relating a story but it’s so imagistic. It feels like a series of cinematic stills from a movie whose plot has been withheld from you. I can’t tell you what happens to that guy in the song, but I can tell you he freaks me the hell out!
Your work is often politically and socially conscious. When Childish Gambino’s This is America was released last year it felt like the first time for while that a protest song had an impact. Where do you think that kind of politically-conscious music sits at the moment?
It’s had better days! Songs that voice strong dissent and meaningfully move the needle of our conversation are part of the American tradition, but I don’t know that this is a golden era for them. I don’t consider myself fundamentally an activist – I’ve written a couple of songs that talk in a critical way about what it means to be a woman and maybe an American too, but there are artists devoting their careers to that and I’m not one of them. When I’m in the studio or when I’m onstage my fundamental objectives have always been aesthetic.
Why do you draw towards the aesthetic side of things then?
Like any listener of music, you can get pulled in for various reasons. For me, the beauty and also the anger and emotional charge were the big draw for me. Many of my formative music experiences had to do with the personal feelings which welled up on my chest when I was listening to music, as opposed to watching music in action as a social tool.
Working in Wales and in other cross-culture collaborations is a reminder of how much diplomacy music can do. You sit down across from someone not with the express purpose of trading political world views, but the express purpose of sorting out a violin line. I’m a strong believer in spending time with other people as an antidote to the kind of lines that might divide us as drawn by political powers. Just hanging out with people does a lot to dismantle the prejudices that we might be otherwise prone to.
BBC NOW & Dessa: CoLaboratory, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay, Thurs 7 Nov. Tickets: £15. Info: 029 2063 6464 / www.wmc.org.uk