It’s not every day you unexpectedly see one of your favorite musicians casually walk past you on campus. Especially when the musician is from your home state. And, especially, when the musician is a reason you pursued graduate studies.
In fact, it was the first day of the 2019-20 academic year – Monday, August 26, 2019 – when doctoral candidate Kiah Bennett had the realization that the woman who just walked by wearing her signature combat boots and hoop earrings was Minneapolis-based rapper, singer and writer Dessa. Bennett was standing outside an entrance to the Behavioral Sciences Building, home to the Department of Communication Studies, talking with a fellow grad student.
“She’s about three yards away from me and I whisper, Dessa?” Bennett recounts. “She turned around, took her sunglasses off and walked toward me. I couldn’t believe it.”
Bennett was an 18 year-old undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota when she discovered Dessa and began following her music. “I started watching how the work she does as an artist and author in the Twin Cities was bringing divergent audiences together,” says Bennett. “The people you see at a rap show are not generally the people you’ll expect to see at a book reading.”
In the fall of her senior year at UMN, Bennett decided she wanted to go to graduate school. “I wrote my first academic essay about how Dessa bridges across divergent audiences and subcultures to deliver varying spins on messages about life and philosophy.”
Dessa performs solo – NPR Music named her third full-length album “Chime” one of their favorites of 2018 – and with rap collective Doomtree. The paperback edition of her debut book, a collection of essays titled My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science and Senseless Love, was just released in late August. She’s currently on tour throughout the United States and England.
Face to face with Dessa for the first time ever, Bennett asked for a photo and despite being starstruck, found the words to process, “You got me through the highest of highs. You legitimately got me into grad school. Holy cannoli, you’re the reason I’m even here and here you are!”
Bennett wrote about the encounter on her Instagram feed:
I’m writing my first real academic paper about my favorite musician, artist, author, poet at the University of Minnesota. I’m writing the piece that would eventually become my writing sample to get me into my master’s program in New York. I’m writing my piece about @dessa, her word mastery and ability to bring subcultures together. Fast forward to 2019, five years of growth and joys and heartache and trauma and grit — through all of which Dessa’s music and poetry have helped me — I’m leaving my office in Colorado at the end of my first day of my last year of PhD coursework and this woman walks by. Combat boots. Hoop earrings. ENFP Myers-Briggs, 6’2 in her highest kicks. “Dessa?” Today by happenstance, call it coincidence or synchronicity, I met one of my biggest sources of inspiration and the woman whose music has been with me through the highest highs and lowest lows. Today I met Dessa. And it was heckin rad.
At the end of the week, Bennett drove to Denver to see Dessa perform live at the Levitt Pavilion in a free concert she had been planning to attend for months. The show, Bennett says, “was fantastic.”
Gender, genre, guess I’m on one, bent both
Just the constructs of the old world gone broke
Women, children let me tell you, I’ve been both
And it’s a myth we all swim for the life boats
I didn’t come looking for love
I didn’t come to pick a fight
I come here every night to work
And you can grab an axe, man, or you can step aside.
– From “Fighting Fish” by Dessa