She’s still heartbroken over the death of her friend George Floyd, who fawned over her baby girl the last time she saw him. She’s upset over newly surfaced stories from women about abuse and harassment in the Twin Cities music scene, which she has confronted for years.
Oh, and Maria Isa is obviously still worried about the coronavirus, which has taken away much of her livelihood as a musician and teacher and been especially hard on her family’s beloved homeland of Puerto Rico.
So why did the Twin Cities hip-hop trailblazer just release a new EP that’s discernibly upbeat and built around the theme of loving ourselves and one another?
“So many people are losing faith in love,” she explained, “but it’s really the only thing that’s keeping us going.”
Titled “Amor Universal” (Spanish for “Universal Love”), the six-song collection is her third collaboration with Minneapolis hip-hop producer YMMI, who’s been racking up credits in commercials and video games in recent years.
They’re billing the EP as “AfroLatinx dance music,” and the results — available via streaming channels and Isa’s website — are as richly layered, buoyant and lively as that description sounds.
There’s nothing wrong with having a little fun in 2020, is there?
“Music heals,” Isa, 33, said.
“Especially in communities of color, we don’t have services provided where we can seek therapy to find the love or to feel loved. Music has been that.”
A rapper and singer since her teens — she grew out of the invaluably incubatory Yo! the Movement and B-Girl Be festivals of the mid-’00s — Maria Isa Pérez-Hedges and fellow rapper and husband Muja Messiah became parents last summer to a smiley bundle of energy named Loíza Rosa. Muja sent video of the baby kicking it in a kiddie pool while Mamá was doing her interview last week.
Isa has also been busy in recent years as co-host of the Latina Theory podcast; president of her record label, SotaRico Records (Minnesota + Puerto Rico); mentor and teacher of schoolchildren via the Twin Cities Mobile Jazz Project; activist and adviser with the St. Paul Foundation’s El Fondo Boricua Hurricane Relief fund, for which she joined the Minnesota Twins’ 2018 trip to help with the island’s recovery; a McKnight Foundation fellowship recipient; actress; arts organizer, and even lobbyist.
“Maria Isa has long been engaged as an artist and advocate in St. Paul and across the Twin Cities,” St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter told the Star Tribune. “She continues to inspire and uplift the many voices of our community.”
The lobbying role came up the day of our meetup with YMMI on a patio on St. Paul’s West Side. A Type 1 diabetic, Isa found out that morning the Alec Smith Emergency Insulin Act — which she helped get passed at the State Capitol in April — is being held up by a lawsuit from Big Pharma.
“One more thing to worry about,” she lamented.
‘Back to the music now’
Isa not only had the foresight to stockpile insulin ahead of the quarantine in early March, she also brought home a box full of musical gear knowing she wouldn’t be able to work in her studio inside St. Paul’s Landmark Center.
“We needed something to keep us going as parents, as artists, stuck at home,” she said, noting scrapped plans to tour Central and South American countries this year via her McKnight grant.
In much the same boat, YMMI — pronounced “Yimmy,” a play on his former moniker Young Menace — messaged Isa just a few days into the quarantine to see if she was interested in collaborating again virtually.
The pair first made music together in 2013, when their song “Latinization” was used for ESPN’s X Games. YMMI humorously said his only Latinx music experience before that was sampling Tito Puente on many occasions. (Coincidentally, Isa knew Puente as a child via her mom Elsa Vega-Pérez’s nonprofit St. Paul school, El Arco Iris Center for the Arts.)
Before the virus hit, YMMI had actually refocused his attention on a new YMMI clothing line.
“OK, back to the music now,” he remembered thinking.
“The bottom of the economy got yanked out from under everybody. It’s a world crisis. I see music as the way out. So we started cooking.”
“Amor Universal” certainly cooks. The EP kicks off with the booming warning “Peligroso,” and from there blows through a fast mix of reggaeton, dancehall, Latin trap dance music and classic boom-bap hip-hop — maybe the ultimate hybrid yet of Isa’s diverse musical background.
One track, “Voy Contigo,” finds her singing with Celia Cruz-style jazzy zest, while “By My Side” posits her as a 2020-ready Top 40 pop singer.
Isa now says YMMI is the best producer in town to garner an authentic Latinx music vibe.
“Every producer in the Twin Cities would say to me, ‘We made a reggaeton track!’ and I’d say, ‘No, you didn’t,’ ” she recounted with a sharp laugh.
She also said of YMMI, “Our communication has always been 100 percent professional. As a woman who’s run her own label for 11 years, if I’m not comfortable, it’s not acceptable.”
‘I’m a survivor, too’
Although this profile was planned before dozens of assault, harassment and misogyny accusations emerged on social media two weeks ago, that MeToo-rooted tidal wave put Isa near the center of yet another storm in her hometown this year. Isa said she has her own stories of sexual mistreatment but did not want to share them.
“I’m a survivor, too,” she offered. “I’ve experienced the worst and survived with the best.”
She pointed to her husband as a converted ally. Muja got his start in the pioneering local group Raw Villa in the late ’90s. In 2011, he and Maria recorded an album as the duo Villa Rosa but did not become romantically involved until a few years later.
“Revolution has to start from home,” she said. “It can’t happen by Instagram. I don’t think Twitter is the solution. It’s just a step toward communicating and finding solutions.”
She faulted many music venues in town for not doing enough to protect female performers. That’s partly what endeared “Big Floyd” to her. He worked in security at both El Nuevo Rodeo and Conga Latin Bistro dance clubs before dying in Minneapolis police custody on May 25.
“He was the gentle giant who stood at the gates to make sure women and men could feel comfortable there,” she said. “It’s something you remember, because we don’t get treated like that very often in the Twin Cities.”
She and YMMI considered delaying last month’s release of “Amor Universal” out of respect. YMMI, however, said he decided to push on with it once he saw all the protests that followed Floyd’s death.
“You saw Black, white, Mexican, Puerto Rican, all colors on the front lines,” he said, evoking the EP’s title. “That what that was: universal love.”
What’s more, Isa pointed to her last conversation with Floyd: “He was like, ‘Man, when you putting new music out?’
“This is what Big Floyd would have wanted,” she said. “This is what our community needs. I’m no doctor, but music is my medicine.”