What Hippocrates wrote, “Life is short, and art long,” is true enough. Revised for a rap career, the rap life may be even shorter, but the art may be long—and contain multitudes. So it is with Dessa, extraordinary hip-hop artist, whose collection of riveting personal essays, My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love(2018), is an engaging collection of the extraordinary rapper’s personal essays. The book follows the arc of a memoir: family, education, musical ambition—framed by a great love.
The title references the phrase “left to her own devices.” “What follows that phrase,” Dessa explains, “doesn’t often cast the speaker in her best light. This book includes some stories of temptations, bad habits, recidivism: late nights, volatile love, my sweet tooth.” She laughs and says, “There’s definitely a tension between my tastes and my long-term well-being.”
Dessa’s essays, like her song lyrics, are awash in “extended metaphor, literary allusions, subtext.” Her process for writing a song and an essay are similar: “When I have a spark of an idea, I make a quick attempt at categorization,” she explains. “On my phone and on my computer, I have several files full of rough material: one for songs, one for poetry, one for essays. When I get home, I pour out these little fragments, like a paleontologist with little bits of bone. Then you attempt to build the dinosaur. I sketch out my ideas on mind maps that cover the walls of my tiny apartment kitchen.”
Whether writing about her father’s gliding business or her mother’s cattle ranching, the essays are extensively researched. In the collection’s longest essay, “Call Off Your Ghost,” the author is a research subject in a neurological, biofeedback experiment to excise her messy love for X (her ex-boyfriend). It’s, in part, a performance piece and touches on the frontiers of neurological study. “The more sensitive and emotional the content,” Dessa explains, “the more inclined I am to incorporate research. I don’t want my work to be maudlin, so even when I’m telling a very tender story, I try to portray my robust, intellectual self: brainy, stubborn, curious, neurotic.”
Dessa is influenced by artists who uncover “unlikely connections” and cross genre lines: the cross-disciplinary work of Miranda July (“she blurs the line between performance piece and book”), Reggie Watts (“he combines music and comedy: he will start a piece as if it were a TED talk and end singing an R&B song with lyrics that ride the line between profundity and utter nonsense”), and Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix series Patriot Act (“it’s smart, funny, and, condenses complicated, geopolitical issues into amazing 45 second segments”).
Annie Dillard, however, may be as influential as any to Dessa. “Dillard’s craft,” Dessa notes, “provided the land bridge between Dillard’s writing about the natural world, say, and my allergy-prone, indoor renter self.”
The heart of My Own Devices is the portrayal of aspiration and ambition, people living dreams. “It’s about communion, sharing,” Dessa explains. “Art creates community, in its way. And of course art-making is muddied with egotism; it’s about asserting one’s own value on the planet.”
“I used to shy away from words like sensitive because it’s the opposite end of the spectrum from bad ass or tough,” Dessa continues. “But I’m more comfortable with the term now. It doesn’t only mean 'easily hurt' but also that I love really hard, that I notice fine details in the world around me, that I’m available to be moved—to tears, sure, but also to laughter, to fight, to investigate. Sensitivity and resilience often coexist.”
Many of Dessa’s essays address love, and the songs she writes are often what she refers to as “torch songs.” Her obsessions bear her repeatedly into the past—and her relationship with X. Dessa proves, however, able to move toward the future.
“People know we’re going to die, so we have to get all this loving in before it happens. And every time we love, we open ourselves to losing it. Communion, then,” Dessa concludes, “is a big driver for me—to understand another and to have someone understand me.”
J.W. Bonner writes regularly for Kirkus.