In a music scene as thriving and dense as the Twin Cities’, getting noticed has never been easy. But even local fame doesn’t necessarily promise fortune. There’s nothing typical about a musician’s daily grind, and despite their celebrity statuses, some of Minneapolis’ most revered artists find themselves singing their own versions of the workingman’s blues.
Sean McPherson of Heiruspecs & Toki Wright
Sean McPherson had only been at the job for a week.
It was the summer of 2005 and his band, Heiruspecs, just landed a supporting spot on an upcoming tour with rapper Ja Rule. McPherson needed the work, but the gig was an opportunity he couldn’t turn down.
Fortunately his employers, Creative Care Resources, understood the situation. They told him they’d find someone to pick up his shifts and secured his job, promising him hours after he returned.
McPherson has played bass in Heiruspecs for more than 10 years. But despite being a founding member of one of Minneapolis’ premiere hip-hop acts, financial security has almost always required going the extra mile. Over the years, he’s bounced from one job to another. Sometimes it meant putting up flyers or delivering issues for City Pages. Other times he found himself working the door at places like the 400 Bar and the Turf Club.
There was a brief period where McPherson was able to live off income from Heiruspecs revenue, but by 2005 McPherson found himself in need of a job that could handle his whirlwind schedule.
After learning about the job from bandmate Josh Peterson, McPherson took a position as a seasonal employee for a group home organization called Creative Care Resources. Working in surrounding suburban counties, McPherson assisted disabled clients with everyday tasks. He taught them how to cook, helped them with shopping and taking baths. It was stressful work but it felt rewarding. And he was able to do it whenever he wanted.
“When I was home I would work overtime, then I would go on tour and work no time at all,” McPherson said.
McPherson eventually took up another job at Genesis II -— a nonprofit family services agency where he monitored parents and children who were required to undergo supervised visits.
One of his former co-workers, Emily Glasgow, is the current program coordinator for Genesis II in the supervising parenting program and described McPherson as flexible and easygoing in spite of the uneasy circumstances.
“It’s not really an exciting situation for anyone to be in, and he made the families feel at ease,” Glasgow said.
But shortly after graduating in 2007, McPherson knew his skill set was better suited for a job in music. However, he didn’t want to just play music. He wanted to teach it too.
“I really enjoyed the group home stuff, but I didn’t want to advance in it,” McPherson said. “So I said ‘I’m going to go to some meetings and try to get a more educational component for my musical route.’”
With a little persistence and a “pestering personality” McPherson found the job he wanted at McNally Smith College of Music. Today he teaches a few theory classes, runs a summer program and helped develop the school’s hip-hop department. The department is the United States’ first accredited hip-hop diploma program and is headed by local rap cohort Toki Wright.
“[Sean] has had to wear multiple hats before,” Wright said. “He is also a well-educated person that has been brought up around college life. He’s able to get students to really open up and be honest and truthful about what they’re learning and keep them interested.”
Wright, a local emcee, has been performing his own balancing act for years. But Wright, who is a relatively new addition to the Rhymesayers family, didn’t originally become a city celebrity by penning rhymes. Since graduating from the University of Minnesota in 2000, he has helped foster various organizations as an activist and community leader for Twin Cities youth. Some time after graduation, he ran a youth council for former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. And in 2004 Wright joined the then-burgeoning Yo! The Movement — a now inactive youth nonprofit focused on community organizing through the performing arts. With an emphasis on hip-hop, Yo! hosted rap, beat boxing and break boxing competitions as well as training workshops for young people.
“He was really good at finding youths, who may or may not have been troubled, that had something valuable to offer and something that needed to be cultivated,” said rapper Franz Diego, one of Wright’s former employees.
Wright and Diego worked closely together and formed a brotherly bond through their community work. Diego, who now works at a St. Joseph’s Home for Children, said his relationship with Wright influenced him to stay involved even after Yo! became less active.
While in more recent years his community work has taken a back seat to his rap career, Wright’s position at McNally allows him to work with young people on a daily basis. In addition to teaching, he also lectures regularly, visiting charter schools and speaking on a wide range of issues that include hip-hop, social justice, race and gender relations. Wright lives comfortably, but at the end of the day, he’s not really doing it just so he can make rent. It’s a real passion. And it’s one that’s so central to his identity you almost forget that he’s a rapper when he talks about it.
“There’s something in me that always wants to be involved in my community somehow,” Wright said. “It’s part of my make up.”
Minneapolis songstress Dessa is the lone female member in Twin Cities’ rap collective Doomtree, a highly revered hip-hop local, a published author and an accomplished spoken word performer. But before becoming a scene staple, Dessa’s professional career as a writer started at an unlikely place.
It was 2003 and she was nearing graduation. Dessa needed a way to support herself after college and considered trying to be a singer. But she didn’t know much about it or where to start. With a little help from her dad, she landed an interview for a job as a technical writer with a local firm. After passing a writing exam she was offered the job to work on a trial basis, helping write device manuals for medical equipment manufacturers like Medtronic and St. Jude Medical Inc.
She spent most of her days talking with physicians and cardiologists as she helped author booklets for newly developed pacemakers and various medical devices. It was a job she would keep while she went on to pursue a music career, working hours that ranged anywhere from 20 to 50 a week depending on her schedule. While the work seems like a far cry from the poetic musings she’s lauded for, she admits some of the experiences and subject matter served as inspiration for her songwriting.
“I used to occasionally meet cardiologists in a building called Cardiac Rhythm Management … that seemed so close to being a rapper, it seemed like it would make for great an album title,” Dessa said, laughing. “Hearts and anatomy were on my mind. I have written a few songs that reference them.
“‘Mineshaft II’ even talks about the four chambers of a human heart.”
Dessa took other jobs along the way, working as a waitress at Chino Latino for a year. But as her music career began to take off, she was approached about a teaching position by McNally Smith’s Chris Cunningham who, at the time, was staffed at Minneapolis’ Institute of Production and Recording.
It was there that she discovered her love for working with students. She taught her own course “For Love or Money,” educating students on useful techniques for improving and promoting their creative work.
“She had experience as an independent artist, as a performer, as a professional in building up the type of entrepreneurial career that our students are looking at as they graduate,” said IPR director Brian Jacoby. “She was an example, and a good example at that.”
Her reputation as an active and high-profile local artist also played a factor in engaging the students who were typically more receptive to artists who were respected figures of the Twin Cities music scene.
Cunningham, who now heads the composition department at McNally, was so impressed by Dessa’s performance that he had her transfer over to McNally shortly afterward.
While her touring schedule keeps her from teaching regularly anymore, Dessa is currently McNally’s Artist in Residence and visits the school four times a year to lecture. It’s good side income when she’s not playing shows or selling CDs, but according to Dessa, having a low overhead is what really makes things work.
“I don’t have a mortgage, I don’t pay a car payment and I don’t have any student loans, so I definitely make enough to live. I live uncomfortably, inexpensively but happily,” Dessa said. “If it’s choosing between having a vibrant life in music or having a stable life, I’d definitely choose having a vibrant life.”
Ali Jaafar of Hollow Boys
There’s no such thing as a typical day for Ali Jaafar.
As the frontman for local goth-pop quartet Hollow Boys and bassist for Thousands and Thousands, Jaafar is one of Minneapolis’ more obscure, albeit talented, creative minds. And he’s a laborious musician too, sometimes working nonstop for days to complete a record. But despite Jaafar’s high output, art doesn’t really pay the bills.
Jaafar, who graduated from the University in 2009 with a degree in child psychology, works part time as a personal care assistant, helping and monitoring adolescent children who suffer from Down’s syndrome. The hours are typically light, some weeks as few as 15, but others demand as much as 30. The job is a departure from his rock ’n’ roll nightlife, but it’s one he’s qualified for. And he likes it too.
“In a lot of ways it is a free-form creative job. You have to know the person you’re working with, and that’s why it’s good to have knowledge of child psych, so you know how to do that,” Jaafar said.
When the parents aren’t available, Jaafar acts as the caretaker, helping kids with everyday tasks like homework and assisting them in fostering independent living skills they can’t develop on their own. After school, he’ll meet them at the bus stop and stay with them the rest of the day until a parent or guardian returns home.
Hourly, the pay is decent, but Jaafar said the hours are so irregular that it makes it hard to keep track.
Either way, it’s not Jaafar’s only gig. He also works as a freelance audio engineer, mixing and mastering music and film audio for local bands and companies.
Minneapolis songwriter Andrew Jansen, who plays in local act Crimes, has worked with Jaafar on several occasions and has always appreciated his directness and clarity.
“He’s super just on and he’s very communicative. He’s the type of person where you’ll get together for an hour to go through it and then you’ll get together another week and just nail it,” Jansen said.
A lot of the bands Jaafar does audio work for are his friends, gigs he usually just does for free. It’s clients like the Sierra Club or independent filmmakers that tend to be the more lucrative ventures.
“Those are the good paying jobs because doing records for bands sucks,” Jaafar said. “Because even if you have an hourly rate and even if you draw up a plan, it doesn’t work like that. Bands don’t know what they’re doing, and they don’t know what they want, and you get into it and you’re like, ‘This is a mess.’”
Jaafar also recently started a job at uptown’s Twin Town guitars, but he still enjoys the PCA work and stressed how the experience can inform his art.
“I’d rather have these weird bizarre emotional connections in my job,” he said. “And that’s definitely going to push me towards making art more than, like, ‘Take this job and shove it.’”
Not even widespread critical acclaim and royalty checks from ABC and NBC can keep Jeremy Messersmith — one of Minneapolis’ most well-known singer-songwriters — away from a day shift.
“I think last year I made more money than I’ve ever made doing music, but I still find myself needing a part-time job,” Messersmith said.
When he’s not touring or playing a show, you can find Messersmith in the classroom teaching what he does best — songwriting. After receiving an offer from Cunningham, who heads the composition department at McNally Smith’s College of Music, Messersmith accepted a part-time gig teaching songwriting.
“He’s very likeable, the students really like him, very calm. I’ve never seen him get ruffled, but I’m sure he has,” Cunningham said, laughing.
While it only takes up a fraction of his week, it’s certainly a step up from the mundane temp work that took up most of his time during his formative years.
“It’s a really nice balance of being able to work and do something fun and creatively engaging and challenging while doing music too,” Messersmith said.
He didn’t always have work that was engaging or challenging. At one point, Messersmith worked as a caller for a home relocation company, where he spent his day calling realtors and requesting forms.
“I remember making a lot of copies,” Messersmith said. “It was just kind of miserable.”
But in the midst of all that monotony, he found inspiration. The experience served as the basis for his song “Day Job,” released on his debut album “The Alcatraz Kid.” But even after he had left the cubicle industry, he found the ideas continuing to bleed into his lyricism.
“I found it really inspiring,” Messersmith said. “There’s nothing like being trapped in a cubicle and feeling like you’re never going to do anything with your life to motivate you to go do something else,” Messersmith said.
Despite the small advantages, Messersmith doesn’t miss the work. But like most struggling musicians, he still finds himself having occasional moments of doubt.
“I think every time I go on tour I think that … like, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to be back at home in my own bed instead of sleeping on somebody’s floor in Cleveland?,’” Messersmith said. “[But] I can’t really do anything else. I think it’s really boiled down to that. My skill set is so bizarrely specialized that I just kind of suck at most other jobs and wasn’t really great at all my other jobs. So I’d rather just keep this one.”
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