Maestra of Ceremonies

Rising Latina music star Maria Isa mixes hot beats with history

Listen to a Maria Isa music clip.

ON A FROSTY March evening in Minneapolis’s Lyn-Lake neighborhood, the nightspot Liolà feels downright tropical. The sound of bomba, a musical style derived from rhythms brought to Puerto Rico long ago by African slaves, is keeping the tempo and the temperature high. Maracas are shaken and drums are pounded, faster and faster, as dancers attempt to outpace the beat, challenging the musicians to keep up in an escalating, sweat-soaked contest.

Not everyone in the diverse crowd is getting the rhythm—or the laid-back spirit—of the dance. A man in a do-rag attempts to get up close and groovy with a much older Latina, but he’s shooed off by her Lionel Richie-look-alike escort. Most patrons, though, are focused on the fiery diva whose long black curls mimic every throw of her hips as she moves to the music, the woman most out in front of the bomba drummers: Maria Isa, a 20-year-old artist from St. Paul who’s helping to put a progressive face on one of the country’s hottest rising musical styles.

Isa, whose given name is Maria Isabelle Perez Vega, is no stranger to the spotlight: she has been performing since age 5, most recently at First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis, as well as in her family’s homeland, Puerto Rico. She was a teenager when critics essentially anointed her queen of the emerging local reggaetón scene, a Latin American style that blends rap and hip-hop attitude with bomba, reggae, and dancehall. Last fall, she appeared on the cover of City Pages and made its “Picked to Click” list of rising musical talents.

But Isa is more than a song-and-dance star. In 2005, she acted in Snapshots: Life in the City at the History Theatre in St. Paul. And she is also a teacher—la maestra—instructing students on music theory and hip-hop history at El Arco Iris Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, empowering girls to use their voices. (She has taught at Old Arizona in Minneapolis, too.)

“My goal is for them to know that everybody can sing, that it’s a part of you,” Isa says. “But I also want them to learn, to educate them on where the music is from, so they can swallow the history.” She teaches, for instance, that the tight, shuffled steps of bomba developed when slaves with shackled ankles would move to song. “It’s that history you don’t learn in textbooks,” she says.

Isa’s activist parents exposed her to the political struggles of her culture. Her mother—a member of the Young Lords, a sort of Puerto Rican Black Panthers—was a community leader in St. Paul, where she and Isa’s father moved to from New York. Isa was encouraged to speak up for her beliefs; her mother called her “mí Lolita” after the Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebrón, who stormed the U. S. House of Representatives chambers in 1954 to advocate for Puerto Rico’s independence. (Isa incorporated Lebrón’s statement upon being arrested—“I did not come to kill anyone, I came to die for Puerto Rico”—into her song “Die, Not Kill,” which appears on the album she plans to release later this month.)

Isa’s lyrics are atypical for mainstream reggaetón, in which women are often bikini-clad eye candy, dancing alongside male rappers. Isa seeks to counter the booty-shaking image. Her manager, Melisa Rivière, a cofounder of the B-Girl Be hip-hop festival for women in Minneapolis, describes Isa’s sound as a “call to order” in the spirit of Lebrón.

As her album, M.I. Split Personalities, suggests, Isa finds herself balancing public roles—diva, songstress, activist—while remaining the Puerto Rican chica who grew up on St. Paul’s West Side. “They all have me in common, and share my voice as their commonality,” she says. It’s a voice that speaks English peppered with Spanish and sometimes the other way around—the voice of a growing community.

Listen to a Maria Isa music clip.

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