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IN FOCUS: DESSA

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As part of her Clif Bar GreenNotes grant, rapper and artist Dessa got involved in The Food Movement on her 2013 Parts of Speech Tour. As she and her band traveled around the US, they challenged themselves to eat one locally sourced meal every day. We spoke more about what she learned through this challenge, why the issue of food systems is important to her, and how she has changed her habits as a result.

GreenNotes: For those who don’t know you, who’s Dessa? Where are you based, and what’s your background?

Dessa: I’m a musician and a rapper signed to an indie label called Doomtree Records, and we’re based in Minneapolis. I started basically my whole career with those dudes. As a kid I’d wanted to be a writer, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to make a living as a writer. I ended up performing as a slam poet and then connected with the hip-hop scene, so my entry into the world of rap music was kind of circuitous.

GN: Why is the issue of local food and sustainability important to you?

D: Because of the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. That was definitely my entrance into the conversation, and it was a powerful enough text to motivate me to want to get involved in some meaningful way.

GN: You got more directly involved in that conversation on your tour. What did you learn?

D: When I left for tour, and when I started reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, really my emphasis was on “organic”. My mom had been an advocate of the early Organic Movement, so I’d known that label since I was a kid. But after having read the book and spoken to the farmers and market owners on tour, I have shifted my emphasis to also focus on local and seasonal foods.

GN: Why is that important?

D: Even if a food item is grown organically in Mexico, we spend a lot of fossil fuel to get it up to Minnesota. So, while I love mangos—and to be honest, I still eat mangos, and I still eat avocados—I understood the importance of also buying things like root vegetables when they are in season in Minnesota, to make sure that farmers who are growing food in a responsible and ethical way get the support they need to continue doing that. That means there’s a lot more carrots and yams. I go to a coop to better understand what state my food is grown in. The “local challenge” that we did on the road was to try and eat one locally sourced meal every day. In some cities that’s really easy to accomplish, but in a lot of cities that’s almost impossible, at least when you’re rolling through at 10pm and your dinner choices are pretty limited, and none of them are boasting local fare as a selling point. Along the tour path, we also visited really small farms who were growing organically and selling directly to consumers. We visited with a market that specialized in local and artisanal foods, and also other growers who were really focused on making sure that underserved communities, populated with a lot of folks of color, had access to safe, healthy food. To be honest, the conversation blossomed in an exciting but also kind of disheartening way. It’s a complicated issue, and sometimes it feels like the more you learn about it, the more there is left to learn. So my takeaway has been not to let the size and scope of the debate be so intimidating that I’m afraid to engage, and also not to let the perfect stand as the enemy of the good. I don’t think I’m gonna ever stop eating Snickers bars, but I am gonna start redirecting more of my food spending to support growers whose methods align with my values. For me it’s not about eating less of all the [crap] —although that naturally happens—it’s about eating more of what I believe in.

GN: There are a lot of reasons to eat what you believe in. In addition to the environmental reasons, it sounds like you learned a lot about the economic benefits too.

D: Yeah! I think there’s a lot of reasons that people could be motivated to get involved in The Food Movement. One is health, one is the environment, and I think for me the initial impetus was money and power. The food system really informs the way that money and power is distributed in this country, and I wanted to help redirect the little bit of money and power that I contribute to the food system to people doing work in a way that I can stomach morally.

 The food system really informs the way that money and power is distributed in this country, and I wanted to help redirect the little bit of money and power that I contribute to the food system to people doing work in a way that I can stomach morally.

GN: What was the most enjoyable part of getting involved with this kind of program?

D: I think the most exciting thing with GreenNotes was that I got to lead the way with my conscience. I got to pick a cause that was really important to me. I got to find a way to engage my fans in a way that felt authentic and didn’t feel like it was scripted by a granter. Then I got to honestly report my findings. Sometimes when you get involved in social work you’ve got to tread very lightly because there are so many interests involved. And I understand that, but it can sort of dampen your enthusiasm, you know? As an indie musician I’m accustomed to being able to say exactly what I think. That’s part of the joy of being an indie musician. (laughs) You don’t get dental insurance, but you get absolute freedom to speak what you understand to be the truth. And GreenNotes didn’t dampen that at all. I got to be as real as I could possibly be.

GN: So, what’s next? Any tours coming up?

D: I am setting off for my very first solo European tour in just a couple of weeks, so I’ll be heading to London for a couple of sold-out shows to kick it off, and then we’ll be kicking around Central Europe with my back-up singer and collaborator, Aby Wolf. So I’m excited! I’m looking forward to learning some poorly pronounced phrases in Slovakian.

Dessa’s new album with Doomtree is called “All Hands” and is available now. Follow her on Twitter: @dessadarling

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