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The rapper, singer, and writer Dessa Darling found peace with heartbreak, scientifically.

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Dessa is an acclaimed singer and writer. She is known for her leadership of hip hop collective Doomtree and its associated record label, as well as for her wide-ranging solo work.

Born Margret Wander in Minneapolis in 1981, she earned a BA in philosophy at  University of Minnesota. Dessa began writing spoken word poetry in the early 2000s, initially adapting personal essays into verse. She joined Doomtree in 2005 as a rapper and lyricist, appeared on all three of the group’s studio albums, and released several solo albums on the Doomtree label.

As a writer, Dessa has published two books of poetry and contributed travel writing to New York Times Magazine and National Geographic Traveler. Her study into the neuroscience of love yielded essays in her acclaimed 2018 collection My Own Devices, and influenced her third solo album, Chime (2018), which made number 3 on the Billboard indie charts. She has also performed and toured with the Minnesota Orchestra and contributed a track to the Billboard-topping album The Hamilton Mixtape.


Dessa Darling is a wordsmith. Her output has ranged from creative nonfiction to spoken word poetry to hip hop. She’s released three studio albums, authored two books of poetry and an essay collection, as well as a travelogue for the New York Times. Each effort returns her to the place she feels most herself: the blank page. 

Dessa Darling: Working through even hard problems or embarrassing details, if I’m given enough time and some ink, that’s when I feel really capable. 

But despite her attachment to the page, Dessa spends a lot of time on stage bringing her cerebral poetic lyrics to life with each performance.  

(Dessa Darling singing from “Velodrome

I don’t believe my will’s quite free 

I’m half machine at least half steam 

Aquinas, call on me 

How many angels on the head of your pin? 

Half an angel per pin at best 

Add wings, add heart,  

add harp, all set  

We lean to turn in the velodrome 

All lines are curved in the velodrome 

We pitch and roll, wheels, flesh and bone 

Total control and it’s 

It’s ours alone 

We lean to turn in the velodrome 

All lines are curved in the velodrome 

We pitch and roll, wheels, flesh and bone 

Total control and it’s 

It’s ours alone 

Dessa has always been a deep thinker. She grew up Margaret Wander in South Minneapolis, a bookish yet chatty kid who nobody was surprised to see grow up to become a philosophy major. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, Dessa had hoped to make her living as an essayist, but all she collected were rejection letters. 

Darling: So, then I sent out a dozen more and a dozen more, you know hundreds of submissions. After getting a lot of noes in the lit world, my roommate suggested that I try to perform one of those essays, and that was how I got into the slam world and from slam into hip hop. 

Dessa found her place in Minneapolis’s hip hop scene in the early 2000s with the indie collective Doomtree, a group celebrated for their socially conscious lyrics and raw live performances. 

Darling: And, so, I was first hanging out with them as a fan and then a friend and then eventually was asked in to the group as a musician myself. Yeah, that remains one of my proudest days was receiving that invitation to join.  

(Doomtree performing “Little Mercy)  

We’ll raise a mast and cast off 

Yeah, we’ll break some legs, we’ll mend ‘em 

And then we’ll take the casts off 

Now we’ve had our losses 

We’ve had our victories 

We’ve sat across from every victim of their misery 

That pounding in our chests 

Was just a symptom of our sympathy 

And we’ll lay ourselves to rest 

With both our winnings and our injuries 

Now we’re so hungry 

We’re so thirsty 

Doomtree fast became a chosen family for Dessa with one member in particular occupying the center of her attention. For the better part of a decade, she and fellow rapper P.O.S. dated on and off before, in 2016, breaking up for good. The decision was mutual, and both continued with Doomtree, but Dessa still had a much harder time letting go than she’d expected. 

Darling: It’s like okay, after you’ve acknowledged that this isn’t tenable and these feelings are sort of just leftover, what do you do with them? Do you, in fact, have the agency, like do you get to just turn them off, like that’s a gas range in your heart? I don’t want this love so it’s over, well I wasn’t having that experience. I didn’t want it, and I couldn’t turn it, I couldn’t snuff it out, you know. So, after a long time of trying, I ended up being interested in the neuroscience of love because I had stumbled into a TED Talk that implied that there was this particular part of your brain that was active when you were in love. And I thought, well that’s counterintuitive I wouldn’t have imagined that. If I could find the love in my brain, maybe I could get it out. So, I ended up doing this kind of long investigation that involved fMRI machines and a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota and a neuro-feedback therapist to better understand where love was and if I could affect it. It took a lot of research but I think in the throes of it, that was what was exciting. I sometimes got so excited about it, I felt like I would want to throw up, like I felt nauseous that I was, yeah, it was a very alive part of my life even though it happened under this, sort of, rain cloud of being brokenhearted and bummed. It felt like I’d found a portal to make that have meaning. 

Dessa’s scientific investigations became the backbone of a pair of projects. A collection of essays called My Own Devices and a record, Chime, which was released by Doomtree’s record label in 2018. And though she doesn’t expect her work to radically alter the world, Dessa does hope it might make people think a little more deeply about how they move through it. Her song, “Fire Drills, managed to do exactly that.  

(Dessa Darling singing from “Fire Drills

You can’t be too broke to break 

As a woman always something left to take 

So, you shouldn’t try to stay too late 

Or talk to strangers 

Look too long, go too far out of range cause 

Angels can’t watch everybody all the time 

Stay close, hems low, safe inside 

That formula works if you can live it 

But it works by putting half the world off limits 

Darling: There’s a line that says, “We don’t say go out and be brave, we say be careful stay safe.” And we’re talking about sending daughters into the world. And I’ve gotten a few videos from moms and dads who said, “I’ve changed the way that I send my children off to school”, so they used to say, “Be safe, be careful” and now they say, “Go out and be brave.” And that was like, oh man, really moving. And particularly when dads did it, like the idea that a man, a grown man, would be willing to hear that song with an open heart instead of bracing maybe for a pointed finger, ‘cause I get that why you would. That men would be able to come to that song with an open heart and listen and say, “Oh, I’d like to reconsider in a small way the things I say to my daughter”, like that was huge. 

(Dessa Darling singing from “Fire Drills)  

Cause we don’t say, “Go out and be brave” 

Nah, we say, “Be careful, stay safe” 

In any given instance, that don’t hurt 

But it sinks in like stilettos in soft earth 

Like the big win is not a day without an incident 

I beg to differ with it 

I think a woman’s worth 

I think that she deserves a better line of work 

Than vigilance 

Don’t give me vigilance 

By definition you can’t make a difference  

If the big ambition  

Is simply standing sentry to your innocence 

That’s not a way to live 

That can’t be what a woman is 

That gives her nothing to aspire to 

What that is 

What that is 

Is just a life of running fire drills 

We’re running fire drills 

We’re running fire drills 

We’re running fire drills 

We’re running fire drills 

We’re running fire drills 

We’re running fire drills 

We’re running fire drills 

We’re running fire drills 

Count count, 

you can count count 

We’re running fire drills 

You can count count 

We’re running fire drills 

You can count my ribs 

We’re running fire drills 

You can count my ribs 

We’re running fire drills 

We’re running fire drills 

We’re running fire drills 

Darling (on stage): Thank you, particularly to the men in the audience that sing that back.