By Samantha Lee Donaldson
A man with a tired face and unruly hair hurried into the Neurolux men’s room and brushed his teeth. After three bathroom breaks, he’d changed from street clothes to show wardrobe, his teeth clean and hair tamed.
As the man continued his routine, a young woman in sweats and a baggy gray shirt hurried into the woman’s restroom. She emerged wearing a striped shirt, skin-tight jeans and giant hoop earrings.
By the looks of these two performers, there had been more shows on their tour than they could count. This one was simply another in the mix.
Dessa, 32-year old hip-hop and spoken word musician, strutted into the main room of Neurolux. Her smirk clearly expressed her tough, beautiful persona. Sims, fellow Doomtree collective artist and rapper and emcee, followed behind her wearing a black shirt, capris and a similar mischievous smile. The two performers were ready and waiting as more people entered the doors to watch the opening act.
Local artist Customary and his band filled the dark corners of the bar with rhythmic beats and lyrics that swam smoothly with the bass line. As the singer engaged the audience, people began to laugh and excitement filled the air. As each song passed, the crowd eased into a free-spirited atmosphere.
As Sims hit the stage, I made my way toward the front. The dance floor was crowded as the first beat dropped. Young faces bobbed up and down with the flow and hands raised up to the sky as if to call out that tonight was their night.
The first few songs were planned and prerecorded; you could see people reciting along with Sims. As each song was set up, Sims joked about his capris surviving the so-called apocalypse five times and his own recollection of lyrics.
He introduced a new song by yelling out, “I’m gonna try this song, but if it sucks, I want y’all to still pretend you like it, okay? Just act like it sounds great!” In the middle of the song, he raised his arms up and urged us to do the same.
After three more new songs and several comments about the 11 p.m. noise curfew in Boise, Sims exited the stage triumphantly. He made his way toward the bar to have another glass of “extremely cheap bourbon.”
While Sims drank his bourbon, crew members hurried back and forth from the stage setting up Dessa’s gear. Band members smiled at one another as they prepared to perform. When all was in place, the crowd fell silent and Dessa approached the stage.
As she strutted to the middle of the stage, it wasn’t just the platform that made her seem so high above us. Her face was deep and dark. She bent down inches from our faces. Like a beautiful yet broken doll, she soulfully belted out the lyrics to each of her songs.
Suddenly, the singer eased her severity. She joked with the crowd about singing along to songs they didn’t really know the words to and not remembering which city they were in.
As the crowd laughed through the next few songs, Dessa took the comedic routine further. “Why is it that every time I play a show now,” she yelled, “I don’t hear any ‘ohhs’ or ‘whoos’ but rather, ‘GET IT GIRL?’ Really, I mean, who said it? Did you all hear it?”
When she discovered who’d said it, she asked how they knew to say it. The mood seemed to lighten after that.
With only one technical difficulty on keyboard and one departure of the singer for another glass of bourbon, the show seemed to be perfect. When Dessa jumped down and danced with the crowd, you could tell that behind the bad-ass persona was a down-to-earth, brilliant girl. One who had graduated high school in the International Baccalaureate program and earned a B.A. in philosophy. One who teaches in the Institute of Production and Recording at the McNally Smith College of Music, while breaking the boundaries of hip-hop and touring the country on the side. From beauty to brains, Dessa will alter your perception of hip-hop music forever.
When the show ended, I shuffled out with the rest of the chatty crowd. A young girl turned with a twinkle in her eye to her friend. “Well, now I can die happy!” she declared.
I laughed at the time, but then I thought more about this comment. If an artist can rouse that sort of emotion in someone, then he or she has achieved what all musicians hope for. Dessa amazed this girl with her voice and her songs and that’s really all that matters.
You can listen to one of her best songs, “Dixon’s Girl,” below: