by Carla Barnhill
It’s barely an exaggeration to say that I am currently being saved by a hip-hop artist. It’s not Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Dessa is a Minnesotan like me so she’s been on my radar for a few years, but her most recent album has begun to pull me out of a deep well of depression I’ve been floating in for a couple of years now. She is human Welbutrin with a beat. Just today, she had me fighting back tears on the bus as she sang about throwing off secrets and fears and expectations and reclaiming the badass within. I had no idea how much I needed that until she rapped it into my earbuds.
I’m just as surprised as you are that a woman in her 50s is listening to—and being moved by—the full-speed rapping of a young woman writing about break-ups and finding yourself and lost love. We’re supposed to be past those things at our age. One of the assumed gifts of growing older is that you become this font of wisdom for young women, the wise sage and all that. And frankly, I kind of like that assumption. It’s fairly freeing to come to a point in life where you feel like you don’t have to measure your opinions, that you have figured out a few things. And yet, over the last years or so, I have increasingly found myself drawn to the voices of younger women who seem to have a power in them that I still struggle to find in myself.
Young women are having a moment. Women’s marches, calls for intersectional justice, and 18-year-olds with shaved heads pushing back at monolithic lobbying groups aren’t necessarily something new, but these movements—and the young women behind them–seem to be moving from the fringes to the front page. I mean, have you watched Emma Gonzales from Parkland, Florida? Even if you don’t agree with her, can you even imagine having the tenacity, the confidence, the courage to do what she and her classmates are doing in the aftermath of the most horrifying day of their lives when you were 18? Maybe it’s just me, but when I was 18, I was almost exclusively concerned with whether or not I would get asked to prom. Follow Gonzales on Twitter and see if you don’t find yourself in awe of her ability to stay rooted in what she believes even as people come at her with their torches and pitchforks.
There are people who seem taken aback at this sudden uprising of young women, who are stunned to discover that women have been unhappy about some things and are unafraid to do something about it. But for years, I’ve watched my daughters and their friends live their lives with such boldness that it sometimes takes my breath away. They own their womanhood in the way they dress, the way they talk, the friendships they build, the way they think about dating and sex, the ideas they explore, the books they read. They are kind of amazing.
My husband and I joke that there’s nothing that makes you feel old and crotchety faster than having a Gender and Women’s Studies major for a daughter. Every college break, our oldest comes home with a brain full of ever-expanding ideas about race and gender and religion and life that throws us off our “we-know-more-than-you” game. And while there are moments when she slips into that brand of insufferable that is unique to college students talking to their parents, I find myself learning from her as she tells us what she’s reading, what she’s discovering, what she’s itching to change about the world. She often asks me about my experiences as a woman—what was it like to give birth, why did I struggle to make friends with other women, how have I dealt with harassment and discrimination–and surprises me with her genuine interest and thoughtful insights into my stories. I watch how she walks through her life, brave and kind, confident and open-hearted, curious and passionate, and I hope to be a little more like her.
Obviously, I think my daughters are wonderful, but this powerful presence they have isn’t theirs alone. I see it in other young women who stand on stages during marches and talk about their hopes and vision for justice. I see it in young women finding their career paths with passion and hard work and unwillingness to sell themselves short. I see it in young moms who are unafraid to lean on each other as they seek ways to hold onto themselves in the midst of motherhood. I see it in the way these women have stared down the mountain of expectations about what a woman is worth and blasted a wide and welcoming road right through it.
In the liner notes for her new album, my new best friend, Dessa, says, “By the time you’re an adult, it can be difficult even to identify which parts of yourself have been shaped by social pressures; which parts you might habitually exaggerate or play down; and which parts have changed since you last took a serious look behind the curtain.” My sister speaks the truth! It’s not that the women in the generations after ours have less self-doubt, less pressure (one could easily argue they have much, much more) to meet relentless expectations, or less fear about what might happen if they were truly themselves all the time. It’s that they aren’t backing down from pushing hard against all of it, naming and rejecting those pressures, refusing to play down any part of themselves. Sitting here in my 50s, it would be wise for me to do the same.
Want to sample some of Dessa’s music?
Heads’ up: Contains a bit of strong language.
Carla Barnhill is an editor and
writer living in Minneapolis. She really misses