When God-Des & She brought their funky, infectious mashup of soul, rap and hip-hop to the Rainbow Youth Forum in Canada last fall, a skinny, clearly nervous 13-year-old boy with a pencil mustache came up to them after the show and said that after watching their YouTube videos, he was able to come out because of the self-confident example they’d set as openly gay musicians.
She, a self-confessed “sap,” recalled the moment. “He was so nervous, and it was really hard for him to say that to me. I could tell. It was just awesome.” The Canadian prime minister of education was present, as well, to tell these LGBT youngsters that they not only matter, the government wanted to make schools safer for them. “It’s so inspiring— can we do something that mirrors it here?”
Before we get to the particulars of this tale, where did the name come from and why are they so protective of their real names?
“We’re so open about ourselves in general. We might as well give our street address and phone number!” joked God-Des, the rapper of the duo whose musical background has deep roots in her family. “I thought it was funny that all these female rappers had these hyperfeminine names. An amazing gay boyfriend of mine was like, ‘you know what, I like the goddess idea. Why don’t you call yourself God-Des?’” The moniker, a combination of, “you get this, girl,” and “goddess” is pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable.
Discussing their initial artistic connection in Madison, Wisconsin, their growth as musicians and what sets their message and performance style apart, God-Des and She were equal parts humble in terms of what they’ve achieved, confident about reaching their long-term goals and lighthearted about all the weird twists and turns their careers have taken thus far. And, there’s the little matter of that song from The L Word back in 2006 that almost everyone has heard—which helped launch them to another level when they were pounding the pavement in New York City.
“She’s very pushy,” interjected She, who was singing and playing guitar in a five-piece rock band at the time but was creatively unfulfilled, when they met at a National Organization for Women benefit. An instantaneous friendship—the year they met they took a month-long cross-country summer road trip together in God-Des’ old truck, bumping to R. Kelly’s “Ignition”—led to a strong professional bond.
The duo rounded out each other’s stories and spent most of the interview sharing the triumphs and foibles and emotional highs, clearly at ease with one another after performing together for a decade. She’s laid-back attitude is balanced out by God-Des’ more driven ways; knowing that disagreements or criticisms come from a place of love and mutual self-respect is a key to their success. Since their initial meeting, the duo has sold more than 30,000 albums, toured the world (performing a minimum of 150 shows per year) and appearing with artists like Salt n’ Pepa, MC Lite, and Public Enemy.
“It’s taught me about relationships, because, you know, we can’t get a divorce. If there’s friction, we have to work it out. It’s taught me to be more diplomatic.,” said God-Des. “We travel well together and we have similar interests and music tastes. We give each other space.”
The Big Break
Watching God-Des & She command a stage or even viewing some of their shows on YouTube—they’ve performed in front of audiences as large as 500,000— fans that have been steeped in reality TV or grew up watching MTV Cribs might think it’s all high glamour, parties and photo shoots. Supporting all of that, however, is the consistent hard work, the countless one-on-one connections, handshakes and fan photographs, which all independent musicians know about.
“We love our fans because they’re allowing us to live our dream,” said God-Des, adding that they consider themselves “social artists,” a term they borrowed from Amanda Palmer, a punk cabaret performer who has taken social media interaction with her fans to a new level. “We believe in issues, standing up for the gay community and giving people strength.”
God-Des studied English and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin, went to Spain for a semester, and when she returned to the States, dropped out and opened a coffee shop in Madison. After two years as an entrepreneur, God-Des decided to pursue music full-time with She— ultimately packing up and moving to New York City.
She went to community college for two years but recalled that her first solo performance was when she sang “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” in second-grade choir concert. “I could always impact people with my voice.” Music was a way to voice her frustrations and get through adolescence and young adulthood; even if she was sick or not at 100 percent, She would always pull it together for a performance.
Music was also a major part of God-Des’ upbringing. Her mother, an accomplished cellist (playing consistently from the time of her pregnancy with God-Des), worked at Motown and was in the Detroit Symphony. At the age of three, God-Des started playing cello, switching to violin at age seven, playing percussion at ten and landing in her first band in fifth grade.
“It’s funny because my parents were like, do anything you want, but please don’t be a musician,” said God-Des, laughing. “I’m starting to take piano lessons now and I’m starting to do production on making our beats.”
A five-year stint in New York City, when they both worked a range of odd jobs to make ends meet (security at Hammerstein Ballroom, slicing meat at a Queens deli and slinging drinks at gay bars in the East Village), also produced their breakthrough moment. God-Des was bartending at Boysroom, a now defunct dive bar in the East Village, and a young woman approached her and asked if she was God-Des and whether she wanted to be on The L Word. At first, she thought it was a joke. Two days later, she received an email from the hit show’s producers.
“My stomach just dropped!” God-Des said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
That exposure on the popular Showtime series catapulted God-Des & She to a different level, putting their music in front of hundreds of thousands of new eyeballs overnight.
Living the Dream
Two years ago, after producing a poignant black-and- white video for the song “Stand Up”—to raise funds for Tenacious Spirit, a center for women in Portland—the duo was introduced (via a friend) to Aaron Berkowitz, one of the founders of Knuckle Rumbler, a boutique interactive lifestyle marketing and events company based out of Austin that manages a range of independent artists and musicians.
Chatting over coffee at Halcyon led to a strong connection and a few shows being booked; after meeting Jill Sorrels, also with Knuckle Rumbler, they were sold. “They really get the indie scene and the work that it takes,” said God-Des. “There’s so much going on when you’re an independent artist. There’s a lot of creative work, a lot of hustling, reaching out and getting gigs; so, now that we have Jill and Aaron at Knuckle Rumbler, it’s good.”
Even so, the ladies are still steering the ship and establishing that all-important personal connection with their fans. “It’s really hard work: being visible on social media and reaching out and responding to people,” added She. “It’s about building relationships, one on one, with fans and promoters.”
On a given week when they’re in town—they were preparing for three straight weeks on the road at the time of our conversation in early June—God-Des and She will get together mid-morning and discuss the day’s goals, which might include social media outreach, songwriting, laying down tracks and building raps. Although they both said the days of going from zero to megastar are over—thanks in part to the democratizing effect of iTunes, YouTube and the Internet—they also appreciate its impact on growing their fan base across the world. They’ve never played a show in Japan or Australia, but they have shipped many boxes of CDs there to fans who discovered them online.
Their advice to budding musicians: “Don’t feel like you’re so cool that you deserve all these people to love you because you’re so cool. I really do enjoy this journey,” said She. “We’re now coming into our own to be ready for a bigger flow of people and energy.”
God-Des described performing as a natural high, the only place where she is completely present and clear- headed. “At that moment, (our fans) feel like there’s nothing they can’t do,” said God-Des. “They’re not ashamed of who they are. That’s what gives me the high—seeing joy on everyone’s faces.”
They took pains to emphasize that they love all their fans but that their LGBT audiences, who are often the most appreciative, get them fired up. For San Francisco Pride in 2010, they played after the Backstreet Boys in front of 500,000 screaming, rainbow-flag-waving revelers. Although God-Des was nervous at the time, she found her groove, as she recalled: “This is amazing right now!”
Growing up just outside Ann Arbor was quite an experience for God-Des. Having felt different since the age of seven, being raised in a culturally Jewish household and always identifying (and horsing around or playing sports) with the boys, she became accustomed to standing out from the crowd. Although her parents had a diverse set of friends, the student body at Dexter High School was not.
“The only black kid in school was my friend,” said God-Des. “People would come up to me and say “KKK” or “n-lover” to me. I dated this boy my sophomore year, and I was going to bring him to my homecoming, and they literally threatened to kill him if I did that.”
Having always felt like she was on the margin, coming out at the age of 17—while still difficult—was not as traumatic as it can be for others. At the University of Michigan, she’d sneak off to meetings of an on-campus social group, Lesbian Shindig. Her mother, initially worried that her daughter would not marry a man and have children, came around after a few years and ultimately became her biggest advocate.
“Coming out and realizing how oppressed gay folks are—the fact that it’s still okay to be hateful like that, publicly, is flabbergasting to me,” said God-Des.
She was born in Washington state and moved to the Midwest as a baby, growing up in Madison. Her father, a factory worker for Sub Zero for 35 years, is proud of his
daughter. “My dad’s always been like, if I’m happy, he’s good,” said She. “He’s so
proud of me and I want to give him an easy retirement if I can. My father loves God-Des. He doesn’t have a lot of gay friends, but he’s opened himself up and he came to Gay Pride to see us in Madison.”
“It was cathartic,” said She. “When you’ve been in a dark place, you can write about it and help somebody else through their dark place. To help others does help you.”
As they got ready to play a number of shows coinciding with LGBT pride events around the country, this soulful duo shared some of their current influences and what’s in their iPod rotation: the Gotye station on Pandora, Michael Jackson, Florence & The Machine, Scissor Sisters, Lupe Fiasco, Tupak and Prince.
Both women want to achieve a level of success that would allow them to hear their songs on the radio, provide a comfortable retirement for their families and—why not?— win a Grammy.
A community that’s quite hyperaware of labels and categories, like any minority, still can’t put these ladies in a box. “We look at it as a positive; we’re unique, queer white females doing hip-hop, pop-soul music,” said God- Des. “The culture in general is becoming more queer affirmative; the less shame that we feel, the more that we respect ourselves, the more other people are going to respect us.”
“We want to give strength to people,” said She. “We want to help bring equality to our community and dispel all the shame and fear that gay people endure on a daily basis. We also want you to rock out to our music!”
“When artists say they’re not role models, that’s ignorant and ridiculous. You’re putting yourself and your music out there for all these people—they’re going to look up to you,” God-Des said. “I want to be as positive as I can. I want to feel good about what I’m putting out there because it could really impact somebody’s life.”