Representing Sota-Rico

Local emcee Maria Isa balances heritage, politics and style.

Jay Boller

You’re reading the words I’m typing right now because I cannot sing, dance, play instruments or rap. I love music, but the aforementioned skills have eluded my gangly white self. If possible, I would trade any number or dollar bills or toes (10 max, I suppose) for just one of these abilities. So when I met local singer/songwriter/rapper/dancer/political & social activist Maria Isa last week, life didn’t seem quite fair. Luckily for my self-worth, Maria is an immensely charming and intelligent individual who also happens to be one of the more driven young musicians I’ve had the pleasure to meet. So, as I punch these keys, a prosaic skill that’s been mastered by chimps, meet a young Twin Cities native whose obscene talent is a giant F.U. to the rest of us.

“Growing up in late ’80s-early ’90s, you have your cousins from New York break-dancing, your grandfathers and your old aunts and uncles playing the drums and doing salsa and rumba,” Isa recalled. “You got the dad who grew up in the ’60s singing Mo-town. That’s where I’m from.” In the land of hot-dish and lutefisk, it can be safe to say those formative years are rather unique. But that’s how Maria Isa was raised and that’s the environment she began making music in at the ripe age of five.

Born to Nuyorican (a blending of the terms New York and Puerto Rican) parents in West St. Paul, Isa couldn’t have avoided music if she tried. Through this fertile musical upbringing, she became a student of bomba, plena, salsa, funk and Motown, to name a few. It’s that wide-ranging musical pedigree that allowed Isa to connect with her eventual band, a collective of McNally Smith students from around the country.

Isa and her band, The Baker’s Dozen, find themselves at the forefront of the Minneapolis reggaeton scene. For those unfamiliar with said scene and/or genre, reggaeton is a style of music that embodies hip-hop, dancehall and reggae. In Isa’s words, it’s “a ton of reggae.” While it borrows from proud afro-latino traditions, most Minnesotans are probably most familiar with Danny Yankee’s top-40 incarnation of the genre.

A dance trend known as “perreo” (read: dogs copulating) is also associated with reggaeton. It’s that vein of overt sexuality that Isa has some qualms with.

“At some point it’s like, you have a daughter. Does your daughter like you sliding a credit card down a woman’s butt cheeks?” she asked. “Would you like someone to do that to your daughter? Sex is great; it’s a part of human nature. But respect is also a part of human nature.”

As for her sound, Isa effortlessly shifts from R&B croon to viciously sharp emcee flow.

“Filipe (of Twin Cities hip-hop group Los Nativos fame) gave me my first show. He thought I was going to sing like Alicia Keyes covers. He put my first demo together when I was like fifteen, and he thought I was going to do a lot of singing. I wanted to flow; I wanted to do it too,” said Isa. “All of a sudden, he gave me a show and I totally flipped it. I came out rapping over a bomba drum, I came out with R&B, I came out with reggaeton and I came out with hip-hop cuts.”

While her singing voice is emotive and clean (not unlike Alicia Keyes), her razor sharp flow is her strongest suit. Isa’s lyrics take strong social-political stances, and are delivered in a hybrid Spanish-English style she refers to as “spanglish.” The band members are all accomplished and competent musically, but Isa’s voice drives each song.

In her mind, the Twin Cities underground hip-hop scene is a unified one. “I’m thankful for the love and the education within the scene. When we see each other, it’s respect,” said Isa.

Twin Cities underground favs I Self Divine and Black Blondie both made appearances on Isa’s debut album, M.I. Split Personalities, and Felipe of Los Nativos has been a constant mentor throughout her career. At the scant age of twenty, Isa has developed a grounded and mature philosophy on hip-hop culture.

“I believe in keeping things balanced. Hip-hop, it’s a crazy culture. You have your cliques, you have your crew,” said Isa, “but at the end, what do you represent? Are you going to waste your time hating, or are you going to spend most of it on a positive note smiling and collaborating with people?”

Her album’s title (M.I. Split Personalities) represents the two distinct factions that represent Isa’s personality. The first – which she calls “Moochie” – is the grounded St. Paul B-girl who values faith, family, culture and the arts. The second – named “Lolita” – represents her advocacy of human rights and revolutionary change. Combined, those are the elements that make Maria Isa.

“We want to take Minnesota to different places around the world; my values from being here. We have some really great talent up here. My dream is to carry the torch and represent my roots.” While the more bitter and talent-lacking among us may feel pangs of jealously, the exceptionally talented Isa is just looking to put us, as Minnesotans, on the map.