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The first track on Dutch ReBelle’s most recent EP, “Married to the Music,” is everything that hip-hop is not: quiet, spare, and intimate. The Boston-based emcee raps earnestly over the metallic twang of an acoustic guitar, with no beat or effects to elevate—or mask—her words. The product is rough and raw, but disarmingly so.
“Been haunted by these/ Miscarried memories,” she intones. “Feeling stillborn, waking up in the morn/ To a white button-down, black slack uniform."
The lyric encapsulates “Married to the Music,” which paints ReBelle’s career as the life partner she has selected in lieu of romance. On the surface, it’s the most obvious kind of feminist statement—choosing music over men—but for ReBelle, this is only a facet of the issue at hand. The way she tells it, her awakening occurred when she was a student at Penn State studying communications.
“I almost got married to academia,” she says, disbelieving. “I almost, like, drank the f***in’ punch. Went, like, corporate, and did s*** that was stressing me out—I just didn’t realize it. Because I wasn’t doing something I actually really liked.”
And for ReBelle—who was born Vanda Bernadeau, in Haiti, and grew up in Milton, Massachusetts—being a woman in hip-hop’s male-dominated landscape is not a particular challenge. “I’ve been a girl my whole life,” she says with a shrug.
The real challenges have been life-altering events of the sort that strike with sudden devastation. It was a series of such incidents that shook the young emcee out of her college-induced reverie and prompted her to pursue music full-time: a car accident, a breakup, a death, and a shooting, all within the span of two months.
As ReBelle recalls, she got the news that a friend had died unexpectedly of an existing medical condition just weeks before learning that another had been shot in the stomach when a gunman let loose at a house party in Boston. Luckily, the shooting victim survived.
However disturbing, both events happened at a distance, and when you hear ReBelle talk about that time in her life, the incident that stands out most vividly is the accident, high up in the hills of Pennsylvania, that totaled her car and left her with the distinct impression of having cheated death.
“If there wasn’t a guardrail, we would’ve went off the mountain,” she remembers, voice rising.
The confluence of these near- and actual- tragedies seems to have left ReBelle with a deeper appreciation of her own mortality. It is most palpable in the brooding “Sunday Morning,” which contains chilling images of a life touched by violence. ReBelle raps with the same urgency that fills her voice when she talks about the car wreck: “Unlucky kids eating Unlucky Charms/ Trying to shake away the vision of a body on their lawn.”
With her cap cocked and locs flying, she cuts a formidable figure onstage. It’s the unspoken obligation of every rapper to claim preeminence, but ReBelle has the wit to back it up, slinging rhymes with the speed and precision of a boxer’s duck-and-dive dance.
On the cheeky “Stop It!” she executes an intricate verbal hustle on top of an equally saucy beat: “Big up, big up/ Shut the lip up, lip up/ Put my bottles in the air and I’ll sip up/ Better learn the ropes if you’re gonna come skip up/ Call me Double Dutch cause I’m never gonna trip up.”
Her confidence is well-earned. ReBelle got her start performing in local dives, tiny clubs where audience and performer were separated by little more than a mic and a spotlight, home to hip-hop’s toughest crowds. “They’re drunk, and they’re right in your face,” she remembers. “If they don’t want to listen, they will literally walk up the stage and empty it. They don’t care.”
The 25-year-old rapper’s career took off pretty quickly, but it hasn’t been without its pitfalls, either. A record deal was offered and the label even went so far as to announce it, but in the end ReBelle passed, much to the consternation of her fans.
For now she remains independent, and is releasing a series of behind-the-scenes videos called “The ReBelle Diaries” on her website in anticipation of an EP by the same name. A full-length album, "Vodou”—no doubt a nod to her Haitian roots—is planned for the near future. The music video for “Sunday Morning” was recently featured on MTV’s RapFix Live, and on April 11 ReBelle will appear at the Boston-based rapper Slaine’s album release party at the Middle East in Cambridge.
For all the drama and the posturing, ReBelle remains at heart a sentimentalist. The most effective and affecting moments on “Married to the Music,” which is aesthetically uneven despite its lyrical adeptness, are the ones harking back to a childhood scored by the convulsive rhythms of Haitian and Dominican music, “the booty-shakin’ stuff,” she says, grinning.
In a sense, ReBelle’s own music is really just an attempt to recapture the golden years of her youth: lunchtimes freestyling to a beat banged out on the cafeteria table, evenings nodding off in the back of the car while the radio plays.
“As hip-hoppity-hop as my life is, you get in my car and listen to Magic 106.7, f---in’ David Allen Boucher all the way,” she chuckles. “’Cause I’ve been listening to it since I was super, super young. Kind of like, falling asleep in the car with your parents, just driving wherever the hell—feels like it’s miles away.”
Whatever that little girl’s dreams, they’re even bigger now, and miles further. But as ReBelle will probably tell you, they’re really just bringing her home.
Amelia Mason is a writer and musician living in Cambridge. Those pesky “day jobs” she has to “make money” really aren’t worth mentioning. Naturally, she also has a blog: blog.ameliamason.com
This program aired on April 4, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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