[KNOWLEDGE IS QUEEN] As the daughter of parents who played the lute and studied Elizabethan theater, becoming a rapper would seem to be an act of sedition for 29-year-old Margret Wander. But growing up, the MC who now goes by Dessa never felt the urge to defy the intellectualism she was raised around. She acted out, sure, but even her outbreaks of teenage disobedience wouldn't get in the way of her education.
"I had a pretty serious rebellious streak, but it didn't manifest itself against the academic upbringing I had," she says over the phone from her hometown of Minneapolis, a few days before the start of her first headlining tour. "I ran away from home, I dyed my hair pink, but I still got straight A's."
If anything, the path Wander's life has taken—from technical writer to poet to rising member of indie rap collective Doomtree—is the direct result of the values that were instilled in her at an early age, in particular, a love of language. In the mid-2000s, after spending some time in the Minnesota slam poetry scene, her friends coaxed her into giving hip-hop a try. It wasn't a smooth transition. Her first attempts at rapping sounded, by her own admission, like "piss-poor" imitations of Ladybug from Digable Planets. She went to her then-boyfriend, Doomtree's breakout star P.O.S, for advice. "He said, 'I don't get why you don't write raps like you write essays,'" Wander says.
The result of that suggestion can be heard on her full-length solo debut, 2010's A Badly Broken Code. Over jazz-accented beats, her unique flow travels naturally from a traditional rap cadence to spoken-word to very capable singing (she is also a member of an a cappella group), often within the same verse. Some have called Wander a hip-hop Ani DiFranco, but unlike the famed alt-folk songstress, Wander generally avoids gender issues and sexual politics in her lyrics, preferring to use autobiography—or "creative nonfiction"—to address more universal themes.
"I try to write songs about human nature without sounding miserably preachy, or so impersonal that it's hard to get a foothold into the song," she says. Love is a frequent topic, but not simply the joy of being in it or the pain of losing it. On "Matches to Paper Dolls," Wander details an addiction to an unhealthy relationship by referencing Love in the Time of Cholera. And on "Memento Mori," what reads like a sentimental romance is tinged with vague regret. "I write a lot about love in the shadow of death—the idea that it hurts sometimes even in the throes of love, because you know there's a statute of limitations that's ever-approaching by the inevitable separation of death."
Considering her background, it's not surprising Wander would find her place along hip-hop's more literary fringe. But that doesn't mean she's above having fun.
"Every once in a while," she says, "I'll write a straight-ahead rap track about how I'm kind of fresh."
SEE IT: Dessa plays Rotture on Friday, April 29, with Sims, Lazerbeak, Sapient and Cloudy October. 9 pm. $10 advance, $12 day of show. 21+.