My mother has a habit that’s the butt of many jokes made at her expense. Whenever she visits a new city or neighborhood, she’ll inevitably declare, “I want to live here. I want to live in one of these little apartments.” Whether it’s a suburb of Washington, DC, or a small town outside of Venice, Italy, rest assured: My mother wants to live there.
Hopefully no one tells her about Medium, because I have to admit — I do the exact same thing.
When I visit a place, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to live there. And on more than one occasion, I’ve actually made the move, only to end up back in Boston: the city where I didn’t grow up, but feels like home, anyway. But after recently returning from Minneapolis, there went the curiosity again. “What would it be like to live here?” I thought throughout my long weekend there.
It wasn’t my first visit to the Twin Cities. I’ve been there for work, to visit relatives, and — my favorite reason for traveling there — to write about hip hop. This time, there were a few factors making the idea particularly tempting. Maybe it was because I’m currently trying to buy a home in Boston: a process that can be likened to both jumping into an Olympic-sized swimming pool and repeatedly walking into a brick wall. Affordable real estate, I’ve come to believe, is the devil’s plaything.
Home-buying aside, I’ve long struggled to describe the intangible pull of the Twin Cities. The last time I was there, in May of 2016, I met with a series of local artists, business owners, and journalists to get to the bottom of it — especially the magnetic effect of its indie rap scene, which I’ve discovered, slightly to my disappointment, is one of the better-kept secrets outside of the region.
“What is it?” I asked them. “What makes me, a born-and-bred east coaster who was trained as a classical opera singer, so damn drawn to the music that’s rooted here?”
“Um,” the typical response usually began, “I don’t know. You tell me.”
When I describe Minneapolis to the folks unfamiliar with it, the first word that comes to mind is “unexpected.” It’s such an interesting place — one that’s discussed or paid attention to by few, at least where I’m from. But it’s conspicuously robust when you take a minute to look around. It’s clean. It’s diverse. There’s damn good food to be had. And if you’re looking to catch live music on any given night, chances are, you’ll run into the issue of picking just one show.
It’s that last part that brought me to the Twin Cities most recently, when a few of us — some local, and some traveling from farther away — had the privilege of watching, hearing, and experiencing a live performance from rapper Dessa with the Minnesota Orchestra. Describing that show might be even more difficult than identifying what it is about the area that stirs such strong emotions. “Special,” “once-in-a-lifetime,” and “inimitable” are a few. Even Andrea Swensson, a local journalist who’s been covering the Twin Cities music scene for years, called putting it into words an “attempt.”
“The thing about Dessa’s show,” Swensson wrote in her review, “is that she extended the ladder up to its tallest rung, told us she was pretty nervous about how high up it was, and then scaled it as we all watched in awe.”
Swensson is, if nothing else, an expert on the pieces put in place by Minneapolis that provide a foundation for performances like this one. If you’re curious to learn more about the timeline of the local music scene, I highly recommend checking out the most recent episode of “The Local Show,” which explores the roots of the local sound, and pre-ordering her upcoming book, Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound.
I had a chance to sit down with her last May, when I was in town to do research for my own deep dive into the indie hip hop scene for Thrillist. From our conversation, I learned that one major contributing factor to the vibrancy of the cities’ arts scene is due in large part to local government support.
“Not only is it pretty cheap to live here,” she told me, “but we have so many different ways to get funded if you work in the arts.”
Even her role with local radio station The Current is funded by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment: A taxpayer supported act created, according to its Facebook page, in part to “to preserve arts and cultural heritage.”
It’s hardly the only local initiative to support the arts, especially when it comes to fostering that creativity at a young age. During my 2016 research, for example, I found out during a writing, recording, and production session at the studio of Toki Wright — a local musician — that he and many of his peers within the industry are also educators. Swensson, for her part, sits on the board of Vega: A nonprofit that provides musical instruments for the youth that might not be able to afford them. And during my most recent visit, I attended a rap show at Icehouse MPLS in support of TruArtSpeaks: another youth-focused nonprofit that fosters creativity through music, literature, and the spoken word.
The decision to attend that show was reflective of the region’s musical abundance. When weighing no less than three options of shows to attend that night — barely a modicum of the full list — we opted for that one in large part to finally see a live act from a friend, Alexei Casselle, who was better known as the great rapper Crescent Moon on stage. He shared the spotlight with some big names from indie label Rhymesayers, like deM atlaS and local legend I Self Devine, as well as three of my newest favorites: K.Raydio, Guante, and BdotCroc.
Google any of them, and you’ll learn that music is far from their only respective lines of work. Like the organization that brought them together for that particular show, many of them are dedicated to promoting and preserving the arts, especially among younger generations. It’s a mission shared by numerous schools, organizations, and leaders throughout the area.
It also echoed the widespread theme of collaboration among local artists. Of course, Dessa’s performance with the Minnesota Orchestra was arguably one of the more extreme and higher-profile instances of musical co-working — one that was simultaneously adored and embraced, as Dessa pointed out during the Friday night edition, by season ticket holders and fans of Doomtree, her rap crew. Second only to the remarkable show itself, people-watching was my favorite element of the evening. Three seats to the left was a pink-haired, apparently diehard Dessa fan miming the piano strokes to a song’s conclusion. Two rows to the rear was a fun-loving group of boomers who couldn’t help but give into the inevitable head-bobbing that inflicted us all.
Collaboration, at least in this context, promotes contagion: A healthy, delightful spread of musical fandom and participation that canvasses across generations and demographics.
“People aren’t motivated to claw each other’s eyes out to succeed,” Swensson told me during our chat. “It’s more reason to collaborate and support each other. The community responds. People go out to shows here. That’s just a thing that people do here.”
From where I stood, it appeared to be a scene free of judgment, and brimming with both acceptance and gratitude. At Saturday’s show, my partner remarked feeling like “the awkward lanky dude trying to dance in the back of the room.” But no one cared, he quickly figured out. Everyone was dancing. Everyone was trying to sing or rap along, even if they weren’t entirely sure of the lyrics. And everyone, it seemed, was discovering something for the first time, whether it was a new artist, organization, or friend.
Over the past few years, I’ve been forced to realize that acceptance — from others or yourself — isn’t something that gets easier with time. That’s especially true when the people who you thought might be around forever begin to get married, move to the suburbs, and take on other commitments in life that leave many of us lingering in the city, alone, with our work and our dogs. And while making new friends, especially past a certain point in adulthood, requires effort, it seems that there are certain communities that lay the groundwork more than others. That acceptance might not necessarily be any easier in a place like Minneapolis, but the resources are available to help you get better at it.
For many of us, especially the “weird” ones, it’s the self-acceptance that’s been the hardest part for as long as we can remember. Some might say we’re living in an era that embraces weird, even if, to a certain point, it hinges on annoying. And now, more than ever — and as many of Saturday’s performers pointed out — it’s important to have spaces like that show at Icehouse MPLS, which look beyond the annoyance of quirky, and remove any filters that might otherwise invite judgment.
Like any area, the Twin Cities are not without their problems — and that’s a crucial story for another day. But like the company I enjoyed during my weekend there, for now, I choose the positive. I choose the happy reflection. I choose the, “I want to live here.” And I’m going to relish in the fact that, when realities of home once again set in, I have these memories to revisit: by mental image, by playlist, or in a real bind, by flight.