The Current

Great Music Lives Here ®
Listener-Supported Music
Donate Now
The Local Show®

Interview: Rep. Maria Isa brings hip-hop to the House

Maria Isa
Maria IsaProvided by Artist
  Play Now [24:34]

by Diane

January 23, 2023

It only makes sense that musician Maria Isa would eventually become a politician. Born and raised in St. Paul, she has municipal engagement in her blood. The newly elected Rep. María Isa Pérez-Vega, serving District 65B in the Minnesota House of Representatives, is the daughter of the first Latina appointed to direct the office of equal opportunity by former Gov. Rudy Perpich. Speaking the language of the people has aided her prolific career as a youth worker, as an activist, and, especially, as a rapper. 

The same day Maria Isa was sworn into office, she also released a hip-hop EP, Capitolio, inspired by her campaign run, motherhood, community, and day-to-day living. The action serves as a bold statement to the public: music and diversity are what she represents — and she is here to see those entities thrive and flourish. 

Local Show host Diane spoke in-depth with Isa about her relationship with hip-hop and community, and what motivated her to run for office. 

Transcript edited for clarity and length.

It is Diane here, host of The Local Show on The Current. Sitting across from me is Maria Isa, hip-hop artist; and also just sworn in as state representative for Minnesota in our district. And is now just kind of making history. Talk to me about how you're feeling.

It's been a week. And I will tell you that I feel like we're in movement for our people. I feel like the goals that were set from those that have survived so much, in my lifetime and beyond the years of my life, are actually seeing what hip-hop gave birth to. And so it's about time that there is a hip-hop artist sworn into office. It's about time that there's any field of work that's coming from our BIPOC community leadership that are taking those steps. We were appointed by the people. So whether you're a teacher — and I'm a youth worker — whether you're a lawyer, whether you're a doctor, whether you are a customer service rep, you are a citizen that has the ability to choose to run for office. I was answering a call of action for my community and my people, and in particular, the hip-hop community that has raised me.

It's so exciting too because artists aren't always viewed as professionals and people that contribute to society in ways that give immense value. And so sometimes look at — "What's a hip-hop artist doing in politics?" It's like, are you kidding me? How much does music mean to our community and how much value and economic stability it adds. I think a lot of us here in the music community, myself included, are celebrating and are so happy. And you dropped an album the same day you were sworn in. That is so rad. Capitolio.

Yup, you got it. Capitolio. It means “capitol” in Spanish, like the building. Not like the profit, but the building, the location, the symbol of the people, this house.

And it's an eight song hip-hop record. Fierce, amazing. 

Thank you.

Dance music, soul. Of course it has Puerto Rican influences, and is also a bilingual album. Tell me more of the inspiration behind this record.

The inspiration was the campaign run, and just also reminding myself to hold on to myself and hold on to my people and my daughter. There's a song called "Nena" that I dedicate to her and to the little girl that lives in me still – not to let go of what you've survived as a child, as a young girl, and now as a woman and a mother. Running for office — she was my inspiration. I live in the district that I represent. My entire life I've lived here. I love my community. And now she's born and raised in this space that I have been appointed by the people of my district. And I was appointed by the people of my district because I believe in people. I believe in diversity. And I believe in democracy. And I believe in her to have opportunities that we're still fighting for. I believe in her and all children that deserve equity, that deserve safety, that deserves opportunity. And Capitolio is also a reflection of women empowerment and having fun. You could be in politics or working policy, you could be working at the club. It's all politics. It's all economics. It's all justice. It's all trying to just live your life to the highest potential and as peaceful as possible. And being a human being, it's human rights. So being an artist for me is my right, and defending a community of people in so many different backgrounds, so many different sectors, but also so many different career paths. 

Artistry and being a professional artist has to be respected. And this is a step of that. This is a step of saying to all the teachers that told me, "You're never going to do anything. Stop messing around writing — what are these raps?" And tearing down my Nas posters in my locker room. All of those things is like, "Nah, we're here." Hip-hop is a culture of the people, and it is me. It is Puerto Rican, it is Black. It is all the shades of representation. It's vogue, it's diversity. It's queer, it's love. And it's survival. And so Capitolio is all of that. It's a decade of me — I shouldn't say decade. It's been over a decade since I've been in this hip-hop community. But it's a reflection of where I believe women and non-binary folks that are now elected into positions of leadership, have a way to celebrate that. And that's what Capitolio is. It's like, let's legalize what we need to legalize. Let's fight for what we demand. And let's have a clean environment while we could groove at the club after legislation passes.

I want to get more into music specifically. I think of hip-hop as such a powerful genre of music, especially because it kind of has a — well, it's edgy. And there's an unapologetic aspect of hip-hop that's so fierce and in your face, and so tough. And that's one reason why I'm attracted to it too. And it also represents that diversity, for me as a person who's BIPOC and queer. I've always been attracted to it. And I want to hear more of your connection with this specific genre because you own it so well.

Oh my gosh, thank you. Wow. Well, it's been a wild ride. Especially coming from the Twin Cities hip-hop scene. Especially coming from being a woman of color, especially being bilingual, and all these boxes that they want to check us off. And the inequities of surviving a culture that has been uplifted and owned by patriarchy without understanding where it was born from. I know hip-hop to be woman. I know the symbolism of Rosie Perez being the first hip-hop choreographer to get a check from a label as a hip-hop choreographer by Def Jam touring with LL Cool J and inventing the famous Bobby Brown — you know, everybody knows the Bobby Brown pump. And I know hip-hop too, before that, being Sylvia Robinson, who is the president of Sugar Hill Records and the producer of the Sugar Hill Gang. There would be no "Rapper's Delight" without a woman. And I'm like, this is all the equations of what that means and the dominance of empowerment of women of color and survival. And it's just so magical to be in this presence, because the people believe in it. The people are hip-hop. And that's what this album is. 

For folks who's like, "Well, you got a song like 'Bad Chicks.' You talkin' heavy." I'm like, yeah, because I have that right. That is the First Amendment. I have the freedom of speech. "Well, you talk about calling St. Paul, St. Philando." I was like, yeah, because Philando died. He was tragically killed. And he was someone that I personally knew that was a leader for nutrition for children in our education system. So if you call Paul of the Bible a saint, somebody labeled him as a saint for what he did, I will tell you Philando did a lot more to benefit my community than Paul did. So let's talk about what symbolism means to our children who are surviving an education system that needs funding, who are surviving the aftermath of Big Floyd, who we knew personally, being killed by somebody who worked in the same spaces as us. 

So it may just be a groove and a dance for folks who don't understand where we come from in the state or in Twin Cities, St. Paul, Minneapolis. But for those of us that are here, and that have been living through it, or that have been at a hip-hop show, that want to know how to build a studio in their closet so that they can financially afford it because they can't afford studio time. Because that was me, recording in the closet with little microphones or Fisher Price mics and recording your demos on there. You can do that. And you can demand your respect. And let's try to help opportunities for folks who believe in the arts, just as much as they're trying to pass standardized testing. Nah, F that. Let's capture how we can help these children like the kid that was in me, and now the kid in my daughter, the best ways that they want to learn it. Music and arts is such a point of the mountaintop for all of the other things in this agenda from education to health to healing to economics to housing. So we bring in hip-hop to the house.

And I just got to point out that the opening monologue in Capitolio is with the legendary Bernie Sanders, such a grassroots hero to so many folks, and I know especially in Minnesota. Gosh, to know that you've built relationships with so many important figures and are continuing to do so. But also, I just was like, that's incredible having Bernie so passionately knowing your power and passing on his wisdom to you in almost like a rapper way. He was just like, "Tell them to go F themselves."

It was real. Yeah, I opened up (for him) when he was running for president at his rally. It was one of the last performances before COVID shut the whole world down. Like literally right after that. Yeah, we shut the world down. It was March of 2020. He was running for president and his camp hit me up to open up, and I rocked it with my DJ — shout out to Tony Trouble — and because of his support for what I believe in. And then flash forward to two years after that, I decide to run for office, and my mentor [Attorney General Keith] Ellison in our community and what he stands for, the people, and everybody counts, everybody matters. What do you do? Well, we do a tour. And well, you can't do a tour without music. And the support of that coming from our camps was just awesome. Shout out to DJ Sophia Eris who's been such a strong support of all my work for years, and (DJ) Keezy. Everybody's touring, getting back. Eris is touring with Lizzo, and you're watching their Instagram stories, and she's watching me hitting the doors and getting with the kids and doing what we do, and then all of a sudden, they're like, "Well, how are you managing to do this?" And I'm like, I'm keeping the music together. 

But what I realized is folks like Bernie want music too. They want to continue to support everything that is humanity. And whether it's Bernie Sanders, or 10 years ago, 12 years ago, working with youth and touring with Nobel Peace laureates that I learned so much from —  Rigoberta Menchú. Rest in peace to Reverend Tutu. You've got the president of Costa Rica, Óscar Arias Sánchez. You've got all of these folks that have been influential to my artwork that I have opened up their keynote addresses. Dan Rather, the journalists of the world, with hip-hop. And with my music, it's all coming together. It feels like there's hope with hip-hop. 

Did you know that you were gonna eventually run for office?

I didn't. It's always been embedded. My mom was the first Latina appointed by Governor Rudy Perpich, by the state of Minnesota, to direct offices of equal opportunity. So when I was in her womb, that was her job. And then when I had my daughter in my womb, I was a part of the community equity project out of the Wilder Foundation that takes BIPOC community into the capitol to teach us about policy and how it works. And I'm an alumni of that. And I'll tell you, after I had my daughter, and after being around such amazing leadership that looked like me, that come from where I come from, and that support each other from medical fields to everything, and helping out with the Insulin Act and giving testimony. That was the trigger of like, time is now, time is here. Let's go. So I didn't see myself as doing this. I've been working an independent label my entire career.

And you don't just talk the talk, you walk the walk. You were just sworn in and already are working to get the Driver's License for All legislation passed.

Well, we're working on it. We just definitely got through our first hearing committee of transportation less than 24 hours ago. But we've got a few different other committees, but we're gonna get it. I mean, I talk the talk. So I'm talking.

In a nutshell, explain what that means, the Driver's License For All.

Driver's License For All means that undocumented folks and undocumented Minnesotans in our immigrant community have the accessibility to have a driver's license to be able to drive legally. Our immigrant community, our undocumented folks are our parents, our students, the leaders in our economy, are in so many different sectors of work, and help build Minnesota. They're Minnesotans. They just don't have citizenship, but they are such a big part of Minnesota that they deserve to get their children safe to school, or to emergency aid, or get themselves legally trained just like everybody else who's in a vehicle. So this only helps human rights as a human right, and it also helps our economy. Let's do it.

There's got to be this balance between being an artist, and I think you're probably still exploring this. How do you balance maintaining this professionalism between being a politician and being an artist?

The balance comes from finding space for yourself to reflect; but also, yes, it's only been a week. I mean, there's the difference of a campaign trail and recording and writing, which is difficult to find time. But shout out to producer Ymmi/Perfect Noize for making sure that I have a space to do that, and that I can still be what I've challenged myself to be. And there's also the importance of my daughter and balancing. And I have great parents — I have a great mother and phenomenal father who have always been supportive, even challenging. Because it's a challenge, right? But they have been supportive of doing what's best for the community. And my daughter is my village, and she's number one. And I conversated with my community to be like, how can I help her? And this is the next step, how can I help others like her. And I have a village of support, my family and my community. It takes a village for real. 

And so we all just doing our role right now and trying to figure this out. It's a new transition for not just me, but also my daughter, and my parents who have been supportive of making sure that she's safe while I'm here in these spaces as well. And my campaign and my friends. Real recognize real. And taking time to make sure that there is time for yourself. That was very important with this project. I literally won my campaign and was like, alright, I'm not door knocking. But that time that I spent door knocking, Ymmi's like, "We got to get the door knocks now in the bars and in studio." And so we got it in. And bringing folks like Bernie into that, like, can I do this? Yeah! You better do that. You know, you'll hear it on the first track, Tio Bernie. That means Uncle Bernie, tio. 

And then folks in the city to state to national politics that have been really supportive. They're like, "We needed this. We're listening to this. We're bumping this." People next to my office, my other colleagues that I'm just getting to know, and you walk out of your office and you hear your music, and you're like, oh, this is kind of weird, but it's also like, that's love. Thank you for making me feel home. Because it's a very big intimidating space. But it also is a space that I'm familiar with. It's been something that I look at every day, because I've been in this district every day. The capitol is in my district, and I love my city. And I love this state. Being born in Minnesota is crazy. So much things have been in like a tornado my entire life here. But there's opportunity here. And there's a strong sense of opportunity and with people who are still connected to hope. That's why there's so many doors opening, and we just got to make sure that we stay open and continue to build and not take things for granted and not slip so that those doors fall down. Or the Encanto house — I feel like Mirabel at that house trying to keep it from falling. 

Yeah, it's the most diverse legislature that Minnesota has seen.

Yeah, shout out to the trifecta class.

Before we wrap, tell me about your thoughts on the evolution of hip-hop's sound. You've been in this scene for a long time and hip-hop seems to be taking so many different identities. And I feel like you're someone who's embraced the old school ‘90s hip-hop boom-bap beats to embracing like the real fierce trap stuff. I want to hear your thoughts a little bit on hip-hop.

It's jazz. Hip-hop is bomba. It's African. Yes, Latina. It's culture. It's soup. It's rice. It's noodles. So you get to play with different flavors. And that's what I always do. Growing up, the labels would be like, "Why don't you do this? And maybe we can talk about it." And I was like, nah, because that's me. So I guess I'm not gonna be labeled. I will do my own thing. And Doc McKinney, shout out to one of my mentors, he produces the Weeknd, he produces everybody. But Doc has been really influential for me to just say, "Be yourself." And the night that I won, he was like, "You never got signed to a major label because you created your own label, and you never let it stop you, and keep doing you." And so that's what this is. 

I feel like I'm like HOV and Beyoncé. Bey can go sing a ballad, and then she could rap better than her husband on it. And so like, nobody is skeptical, like, "Well, Beyoncé just stick to an R&B record." Like, no, I'm an artist, man. Literally, I paint with my drums and I paint with my lyrics and my bars. And I also do art. I'm a graphic artist too. I did the cover of the album. And that was all me. So that's how the record sounds. It might be all over the place, but it got something for each policy member. It's got something for each mama out there. For everybody who wants to go through whatever. You want to fly a plane? You got that. You want to ride in the whip? You got that. You want to take a cruise? You got that. You just want to chill, kick it in the sauna? It's the vibe.

Well, I also want to add, you sing beautifully too ... from the soul. And I love the Annie Lennox (nod) ... I'm just like wait a second?

That's right. Thank you. And that's hip-hop, like ‘80s, ‘90s, early 2000s. I was born in the ‘80s. And I was raised by the ‘90s and the early 2000s. And that's just what it is. You would listen to Sade. And you would listen to Gloria Estefan. And you had to clean when Mama had Mary J. Blige. It's Sunday, go clean. And Salt-N-Pepa. It's just like what the diversity is in my music is, is what the diversity of our world is. And that's what hip-hop is. It's global communications. 

Well, thank you so much, Maria Isa, for being here with me on The Current's Local Show. Anything else you'd like to add we might not have covered?

Just to everybody tuning in, thank you for supporting the movement and the music. And for those that want to learn how you can support your local artists' movement, there's ways and means of doing that. So feel free to reach out to those leaders that are out there fighting for our equity and rights of artistic means. Gracias, and thank you for what you do. I see you.

Aw, thank you. It means a lot to me.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.