The ferocious bowed bass that introduces “Street Politics,” the title track of Maria Isa’s sophomore album, immediately makes you realize she is far more than just a reggaeton artist. The mature-beyond-her-years 22-year-old, who traces her roots from Puerto Rico to the NuYorican Lower East Side to the West Side of St. Paul, is about to drop an album that expands her sonic palette yet continues to be grounded in messages of organizing and social justice. She will celebrate the album’s release Friday night at First Avenue.
The biggest change from her debut record, 2007’s M.I. Split Personalities, is the addition of the Maria Isa Band. (“Their choice of name, not mine,” she’s quick to point out.) These musicians add a range of styles to the album, which Isa sees as representative of both her own musical sensibility and a way to counter the stereotyping of Puerto Rican and other Latino/Latina artists.
“You don’t just listen to one thing,” says Isa. “And just because you’re Puerto Rican doesn’t mean you just do reggaeton.” While she emphatically stands behind her first project, she sees Street Politics as a sign of maturation. “It’s kind of like M.I. Split Personalities growing up.”
The multiple personae on her first album (Maria Isa, Lolita, Moochie), representing different sides of herself, are also on Street Politics, whether it be the more hard rock anthems of “Image” and “Street Politics” or the laid back rumba of “After Party.” She even invokes a little scandalous, pre-Jehovah Prince on the sultry “Passion Fantasy.” All of the songs feature her dynamic Spanglish lyrics, flowing effortlessly between English and Spanish, even—and especially—on the same verse.
Street Politics is being released on Isa’s own Sota Rico label. The project, however, is much more than just a record. “We’re treating this like a political campaign,” she says. “I do this music and I speak for the children—and even the adults—who feel that they don’t have a goal in their life to keep walking for.”
The two anthemic songs on the album, “Image” and “Street Politics,” best exemplify this motivation. “Image” revolves around two of the word’s meanings. The first is a negative image that can constrain an artist like Isa, pigeonholing the artist into sexist and racist stereotypes. At the same time, the song also is also meant as an inspirational call to arms, as Isa presents herself as a model and partner in the struggle. “We are the image to those who believe / Keepin’ the vision for those who can see.”
Preceded by the sparse soundscape of “Derechos,” a song about the struggle for immigrant rights, “Street Politics” is a mix of the rough and the beautiful, the dreams that get corrupted by the influences of the street, the good things that persist and flourish, and the potential for change. While “the streets” have a long and often fabricated character to them in hip-hop, for Isa it’s not just about violence or drugs in the ‘hood; rather, it’s about the reasons and causes behind why the streets are the way they are. The streets are more about the people who run them—politicians and gangs—or “the guys in blue suits and the people representing different colors,” as Isa puts it. “Let’s bless the sounds of the concrete,” she says, “because we are them sounds, we are them drumbeats.”
She sonically represents the beauty of the streets with a magnificent 15-voice choir near the end of the song. The wordless vocals, consisting of Isa’s own overdubbed vocals, were inspired by her experiences with William White, the choirmaster at St. Agnes School, her St. Paul high school.
Some of the strongest members of the Street Politics “campaign” are those closest to Isa. “I’m honored to be in a family that supports me,” she says with a smile. This is especially true of her mother and manager, Elsa Vega-Perez, a former Young Lord member who founded the St. Paul non-profit El Arco Iris, where Isa herself teaches classes, and now works for the United Way in New York City.
While her mother and many other members of her family have worked prominently behind the scenes, it is her late uncle and godfather Santiago Vega, Jr. who appears most prominently on the album. “He inspired me every day,” she tells me, visibly choked up. Isa wrote the song “Rest in Peace” in memory of him, complete with doo-wop samples from the Flamingoes’ “I Only Have Eyes For You” (also used on M.I. Split Personalities) that evoke her family’s past on the Lower East Side. In fact, she says, “this whole album is dedicated to him. I know on our release he’s going to be there with us.”
He certainly won’t be alone. Those performing in support of her on Friday night are some of the best artists from across the Twin Cities music community, including Muja Messiah, Dance Band, I Self Devine, Mayda, Kill the Vultures, and St. Paul Slim, along with DJ Turtleneck and Chicago’s DJ Rek spinning throughout the night.
As is clearly audible on Street Politics, Maria Isa knows how to party, and few should walk out of First Avenue on early Saturday morning disappointed. Yet she knows that with accomplishment comes perspective on the road ahead, and the work that will continue long after the show has ended. “We start there,” she says, “and we grow.”
Justin Schell (email@example.com) is a freelance writer and a grad student at the University of Minnesota’s Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society program. He’s working on a dissertation on Twin Cities immigrant and diasporic hip-hop and plays the washboard tie with The Gated Community.
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