The Doomtree singer/rapper turns to science as well as the arts to process her thoughts for her recent album

Dessa photo
Dessa, by Bill Phelps

Dessa wears many hats: singer, rapper, philosopher, published author, travel journalist, and science geek to name a few. While she is known primarily as a member of the rap collective Doomtree, her extensive body of work stands on its own. Dessa is currently touring her fourth solo album, Chime, and will perform Thursday at One Eyed Jacks. 

Dessa earned a degree in philosophy before delving into the music scene, but the two interests haven't always coexisted easily. “The friction between academia and working the the pop music universe is that the cultures seem at odds,” Dessa says. “One seems reserved and stiff and the other is casual to the point of occasional vulgarity, and is sometimes known for being mindless.” 

That tension shows up in Dessa's music, where she jumps from intellectual to playful and back. “I Hope I’m Wrong” questions the afterlife in reference to the death of a family member. She captures both regret and satisfaction with where she is in her life now, delicately capturing a state of peace and anxiety, but she does not shy away hip-hop's braggadocious lyrics and sharp jabs. On “Fighting Fish,” she slyly raps, “My mother says I’ve loved too many men / but I took and left something in every single bed,” and her quick tongue perks your ears up on “Shrimp.”

“The task isn't to write a dissertation that rhymes,” she says. “Academia has a reputation for being stiff, but that's my least favorite part of academia. I like the rigor. I like curiosity. I like insistence on excellence. I like that there is a lot of room for competition in academia. When it's most robust, academia doesn't have to worry about starched shirts and jargon because the ideas should stand on their own two feet.”

On Chime, Dessa used research in neuroscience as inspiration. Once her ex called, and the mere image of his name elicited a physiological response that interested her. Why couldn't she let go? Why did her body react the way it did when she knew the call meant nothing? Dessa began searching for answers. She researched human sexual attraction and found evidence that decisions and feelings often happen subconsciously. “The fact that strippers who are ovulating earn more tips,” she explains, “and the fact that men who move their right knee are considered more attractive by women. So many studies imply that a lot of what is going on happens subconsciously.” 

Her research brought her into the barrel of an fMRI machine to visualize what parts of her brain were triggered when she thought about her ex. Maybe if she could pinpoint the location of the virus, she could successfully extract it. The brain imaging expert showed Dessa images of her ex among a pool of different men while she was in the fMRI machine. The brain activity generated by photos of her ex was far more extreme than that of the random men. The areas of the brain that usually involve emotion, reward, motivation, and goal-seeking lit up like fireworks. “To see an image that represented that feeling, it’s almost like this love that had been making me so crazy for so long—someone else got to see it, too” Dessa said in an interview with The Verge. “It tripped me out pretty hard to have a postcard of this feeling, something I could touch.”

After pinpointing where her brain was still in love, Dessa sought to train her brain to think differently. She went to a mental health clinic that specializes in neurofeedback treatments. “Neurofeedback is a technique that is used for treating epileptics or clients who are on the autism spectrum, or maybe a veteran who has suffered trauma,” Dessa explains. On “Half of You,” Dessa asks, “What if I could cure me of you?” She saw her obsessive love as a curable illness, something she could subdue.

“A person who engages in neurofeedback brain training sits in a chair with a lot of electrodes connected to their scalp,” says Dessa. “Those electrodes measure their brain waves so you can see which parts of your brain are active. In my case, we focused particularly on the part of the brain that is associated with emotional regulation. By watching the function of my brain in real time, we could see which parts of my brain were active and which were relaxed. Which were really engaged which were less engaged.” When her brain was working within healthy thresholds, she would hear a vibraphone scale play, like chimes. When her brain was outside of the healthy thresholds, she heard nothing.  

Dessa did nine sessions for 30 minutes. She watched her brain work, she exercised her muscle, and she learned. The study related to her studies on human sexual attraction and philosophical discussions she had in college. She questioned how much of life is actually within our control. “I think I had suspicions from studying philosophy that free will is not complete,” she says. 

“When you really take an inventory of which environmental factors influence you, there’s just a lot less real estate to attribute to unfettered free will,” she says. “I’m not saying that everything is necessarily determined, but I am saying that we are influenced by more things than we know in more dramatic ways than we can guess.”

Veledrom” explores free will. Dessa sings, “I don’t believe my will’s quite free. I’m half machine, at least half steam.” She mocks the concept that people believe they are in control of their own lives, singing, “we pitch and roll, wheels flesh and bone. Total control and it’s ours alone.” 

Dessa’s conceptualization of free will mirrors how she sees her role as a woman in music. In an article from the Chicago Tribune, Dessa is credited with delivering a #MeToo classic with the track “Fire Drills.” The song confronts the every day struggles for women. “I wanted to tell a story that made plain in daily terms what the extra energy tax is on woman’s daily lives,” she says. “The fact that we haven't been able to provide a safe environment for women.”

“Fire Drills” aptly paints this picture, but it was never intended to be the #MeToo anthem. “I’d been writing “Fire Drills” before the #MeToo movement,” she says. “Part of me was a little nervous because I didn't want it to seem like an opportunist attempt. I’m careful about talking about feminist issues explicitly because it may alienate people, and it's important for me not to alienate people.”

Dessa looks at who she is as a result of many factors that are out of her control. The fact that she is a women is one of those variables. This causes her to look at her cultural conditioning when she discusses the #MeToo movement. 

“What are the regressive ideas that I harbor?” she asks. “Because it would be really silly and stupid to think that I somehow managed to grow up in a society with serious gender problems but it somehow missed me. That I somehow managed to keep my mind completely pristine even in this broth of regressive ideas.”

For Dessa, women and men should look at these cultural inequities together, and that both parties are responsible for recognizing that they are a product of their conditioning. “The kind of change that I think I can be a part of most effectively is less about weeding out and punishing offenders as much as it is about telling personal stories to try to evidence what the female experience is like,” she says. “Fire Drills” is a vulnerable recount of her personal experience as a women.

“It’s hard to imagine serious social change without people admitting that they were wrong,” she says, “and it's hard to admit to being wrong when your being yelled at.”