Up Next: Minnesota Boricua Singer-Rapper Maria Isa Makes Music That Ignites Change

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Up Next is a FIERCE series highlighting rising Latina and Latin American women artists you might not know about but definitely should.

For Maria Isa, music is passion, tradition and resistance.

When the Puerto Rican singer-rapper croons, her voice carries the talent of her late grandmother. Her beats thump like the rhythms of her Borikén ancestors. Her lyrics share hidden histories and inspire change.

“We come from a culture where our music is our torch in activism. Our drums are resistance. Our plena is a newspaper for the island,” the St. Paul, Minnesota-based artist told FIERCE.

Growing up in a largely white environment in Minnesota, the 31-year-old’s parents used culture, teaching her about traditional Afro-Puerto Rican musical genres like bomba and the activism of the Young Lords in New York and Chicago, to instill self-knowledge and pride in one’s identity, both necessary to survive in a society where few at the time even knew what a Boricua was. Today, she combines those ritmos and stories with hip-hop, becoming a leader in arts and music in her ‘hood and beyond.

We spoke with the self-identified SotaRican about music as activism, sustaining culture, making songs for multifaceted women of color and more.

FIERCE: You grew up in a Puerto Rican home in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. Talk to me about that. What were your musical influences growing up, both at home and on the block, and what impact do you think these genres have had on your own style today?

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On behalf of El Fondo Boricua Thank you to @elgritodesunsetpark Sunset Park Relief Coalition for all of your dedication and hands on work in Puerto Rico. From collecting, shipping, providing and distributing 2million pounds of emergency supplies to the island of Borikén as of Oct. It is a true honor to be recognized and representing El Fondo Boricua Hurricane Relief fund of the Saint Paul Foundation today as a Goodwill Ambassador at the Sunset Park Puerto Rican Day Parade. We must not forget Puerto Rico and the lives that have been lost. We must not forget that ???????? needs so much more . Being here in NYC with Boricuas from the island and throughout the US in celebrating our Pride for our isla y cultura this weekend is healing. Our drums, our voices, our resisitance For our families, friends and gente on the island is continued to be recognized and we WILL continue to make sure more is done for our island's future. Thank you to the Boricuas on the island and throughout our beautiful diaspora that continue each day to do what we can. Thank you to the SotaRican community (Boricuas from MN) and the state of MN for having our backs from day 1 after Hurricane Maria hit. Gracias for your continuous support. Thank you to all who have and continue to donate to #ElFondoBoricua .org . #PuertoRicoSeLevanta #quevivapuertorico #quevivaBorikenlibre #4645boricuas T-shirt designed by me. Printing by Black House Printing who are taking orders at blackhouseprinting@gmail.com where Proceeds will go to El Fondo Boricua Hurricane Relief fund

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Maria Isa: Definitely the influences in my home were very soulful: bomba, plena, salsa, funk, into the birth of hip-hop. I was raised by those elements. I was raised on soul, everything from Afro-Boricua soul music to jibaro music to Fania to Nuyorican salsa. This all pumped my veins and opened my musical platform of knowledge.

FIERCE: Talk to me about your childhood. Did you grow up in a musical home? When did you realize you could sing and rap and decide you wanted to do this for real?

Maria Isa: My grandmother, on my father’s side, she was a singer in Puerto Rico. Before migrating to New York, she was in a choir that was pretty popular in Ponce. She wasn’t a performing artist, but her voice sang till she was 87. She taught me the traditional arroz con leche songs as a girl. Holidays were filled with plena and my grandfather, her husband, singing and playing the guitar or trumpet. My aunt was a jazz singer. She sang jazz in Chicago in the ‘70s, and, in 1992, she moved to Minnesota to meet up with my father and moved in with us. She was a big figure in my life. Her and my mother realized Boricuas and Latinos in the community didn’t have cultural spaces to learn and were not culturally engaged, and wanted to make sure we had what they had in New York and Puerto Rico. They started a nonprofit organization when I was five, that’s when and where I started my training with bomba. My aunt was the artistic director, and mom, who worked in philanthropy, was the executive director. It built a foundation for a lot of the Latino youth here to learn about music and history.

FIERCE: This is beautiful. At what point did these efforts to instill cultural understanding and pride turn into you wanting to be a performer?

Maria Isa: When I was younger, my padrinos used to bring in big bands and artists to perform in Minnesota. One time, they brought La India. My parents and everyone were dancing salsa, and I ran off with my padrino and his wife, who were like the promoters, backstage. La India saw me, pointed to me and gestured for me to go on the stage with her. I did, and in that moment I knew this was what I wanted to do. Looking out into the beautiful collection of brown people in Minnesota trying to survive white supremacy, I knew at 7 years old.

FIERCE: Wow! That’s a dope story. La India? That’s amazing. I know, for you, music and singing is a form of activism. Can you talk about that?

Maria Isa: We come from a culture where our music is our torch in activism. Our drums are resistance. Our plena is a newspaper for the island. The first songs I listened to were campo songs about surviving hard times. This then turned into hip-hop lyricism. I’m an educator, I work as a youth mentor, and I realize that if we don’t know who we are or where we come from, how can we achieve physical, spiritual and mental wellness? So my songwriting is informed by history.

FIERCE: Your latest album, Sasa, which I have to say was really beautifully done, includes tracks that criticize Puerto Rico’s colonial status and tackles issues occuring on the island right now, including the Jones Act and moves toward privatization, talks about reparations and also includes bewitching songs about self-care, women feelin’ themselves and dancing to their own beat. You chose to dedicate this project to your mother and women of color leaders. How do you think this speaks to the multifacetedness of women today, being both someone who has no problem shaking their ass, as you sing on this album, and having an opinion and putting in work in social justice and revolutionary movements?

Maria Isa: I look at being Latina in a metaphorical way. Sonia Sotomayor is my aunt and Cardi B is my cousin, and both are getting theirs. Both are survivors. We don’t choose where we come from or the situation we are born into, but we can survive and figure out ways of balancing and encouraging growth and positivity. That’s what Sasa is to me. That’s my mom’s encouragement and the encouragement she got from the women in her life. That’s our ancestors’ encouragement. I look at my circle of mujeres, family or comrades, and we are some badass bitches. We are badass guerreras and luchadoras and come from different shades and stories, but our connection is we want to empower the next generation.

FIERCE: Oftentimes, people are skeptical of music that is rooted in activism and change-making, because, if we are being totally real, a lot of time the shit ain’t poppin’, maybe the beats are weak, the rhymes are elementary, whatever. But your music also bangs and you’ve even shared stages and opened up for mainstream acts like Bad Bunny, Kendrick Lamar, Wu Tang Clan, Common, The Roots, La India, Bomba Estereo, Ana Tijoux and more. How do you think you’ve been able to find that medium that works?

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Tonight. Photo Credit: Maldonado Efren

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Maria Isa: Staying true! All those artists you mentioned do that, too. No one thought, except people in the ‘hood, Kendrick Lamar was going to get an award, but he did while being true to himself. Bad Bunny is a young cat from Vega Baja who was bagging at a grocery store a couple years ago and now is winning everywhere while being true to his self-expression. Wu Tang Clan, these are a group of men that have survived so much, some aren’t even living. I just came to the realization that Lauryn Hill only has only album. People talk shit about that, but they have no idea what she fought and battled. I’ve sat in record label offices since I was 18 and passed on deals from people who wanted to change how I look because my music means more to me than what the deal is. Lauryn may only have one album, but she’s still the greatest. And she also stayed true.

FIERCE: Talking about your experience with record labels, in 2009, almost 10 years ago, you started your own independent label SotaRico — love the name! — where you’ve distributed several of your projects. Why start this and what are some of the pros and cons of being independent?

Maria Isa: Cons: no money and no budget. It’s independent, so it’s your blood, sweat and tears. I have a great team of support with producers. It runs like a campaign. The pros is everything that comes out. We know where it’s built. We can trace and acknowledge it. It’s ours. Another pro is being able to open up paths for so many younger emcees, girls and guys, to believe in themselves. I didn’t wake up and was like, I want my own label. But I started to learn that labels are willing to go aside from what I wanted, and I wanted these decisions to be mine.

FIERCE: When we think about Boricua artists, we often think of folk coming out of New York, Chicago, Miami or the island, rarely ever Minnesota. And, because of this, you are very intentional about bigging up Puerto Ricans from the Midwest and embracing this part of your identity. How do you feel you embody the essence of the Twin Cities, your ‘hood, whether in your music, your aesthetic or simply your way of being?

Maria Isa: My family was one of the first Boricuas in the state of Minnesota. Saint Paul is very influential. Our godfather of music here is Prince, and Prince was heavily involved in bringing hip-hop and Latin into his music. He recorded in the suburbs, not a diverse community, but he had everyone in the ‘80s and ‘90s vibing here. As far as my own work is in music, it’s engaged in the Puerto Rican movement. We might be small in numbers here, but we have power. We have a state senator from Aguadilla and Isabela, a house representative from Humboldt Park, a head of neurology who was one of the first doctors to come from San Juan in the ‘70s. We make things happen. I’m proud of that.

FIERCE: You’re not just an artist, you also have a really cool podcast, “Latina Theory,” which NPR called one of the “Top Latinx Podcasts in the Country.” What are you able to explore through this medium, or maybe just approach differently, that you might not be able to through music?

Maria Isa: It’s being able to engage in conversation with my co-host, who is Chicana, and share similarities, differences and stereotypes that Latinas have survived in Minnesota and the Midwest and create platforms for other Latinas to be on our show and share without shame. It allows us to engage and support one another on a larger scale, and that’s why we cover everything, from health to entertainment. We created Latinx Theory as a session, because we want it to feel like we are with you.

FIERCE: Love that! It’s February, the start of a new year with endless possibilities. What can we expect from Maria Isa in the coming months, whether in music or your work outside of this?

Maria Isa: There are a lot of things poppin’, let’s just say that. I’m expecting a baby girl, my daughter, my first child. I’m working on a new chapter and journey that’s going to change my life. I’m working on a mixtape to drop right before giving birth, and I’m pushing Sasa. I’m going to be out the first few months after I have my baby, so I won’t be performing in the spring or summer, but come September/October, I will have the Latinx Tour. We are going across and networking with different organizations, artists and universities that are sharing their spaces for our art and movements to be heard. I’m also working on a Latina cookbook. I’m type 1 diabetic, and I eat natural and healthy, but I still have our traditional foods. For instance, I make a dairy-free coquito that’s really, really good. So I just want us to take care of ourselves and educate ourselves on our bodies and make Boricua recipes just a little healthier.

FIERCE: Omg! So much to be excited about. You are 31 years old. In five to 10 years, what do you hope people can say about Maria Isa?

Maria Isa: She’s still doing it. The music gets better. Our movement has grown stronger. Our youth are in a higher percentile of education, and our health is strong — mentally and physically. Look how well we can change by speaking our truth and history and sharing that with the world.

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