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Sista Does It for Herself

In October 1997, Sista D began making In the Mile High City, a disc that she hoped would become a life preserver for her mother, who'd battled heroin addiction for years. But something happened the following February that nearly derailed the project: Her mom died.

"I really had a hard time dealing with it," says the rapper, whose real name is Desiree Martinez. "I was going to stop the CD project; I was just going to give it up. I was doing it all for her, anyway, to get her out of the ghetto, and when she passed away, I was only into four or five songs of the CD. But one day I just woke up and realized, you know, that she wouldn't have wanted me to quit. She would have wanted me to go on and complete it, and that's what I had to do."

Her determination and perseverance paid off: City, which arrived in stores in December, is a strong collection filled with message-oriented rhymes that attack the senseless machismo being acted out in urban neighborhoods every day. Sista D is justifiably proud of the finished product. In her words, "I'm the first person in my family to succeed or accomplish anything."

Sista D is a sister many times over; she grew up in north Denver in a family of ten children. But the family was shattered early on when state authorities deemed her mother an unfit parent. "What happened was, when she got hooked, she had everybody taken away from her," she remembers. "So I took some brothers and sisters under my wing, my aunt took some under hers, and another aunt took some under hers until everybody grew up."

These extra responsibilities didn't prevent Sista D from succumbing to the lures of the street. "I used to be in a gang, and it didn't bring me nothing but heartache," she says. "I ended up pregnant at a young age and ended up dropping out of school and getting on the wrong path." Looking back, however, she believes that her pregnancy at age sixteen actually prevented her from getting even deeper into the gangster lifestyle. "Once I got pregnant, my friends didn't have no use for me anymore. I couldn't fight with them or do things with them--stupid things. They all just kind of drifted away, which was probably good for me, because a lot of them ended up in jail. So after that, I kind of just focused on my baby."

That child, Stevey, was subsequently joined by Christopher, Aaron and Mariah, who range in age from three to twelve. But despite the size of her brood, Sista D never lost sight of a dream she'd first had at age nine--to shine on stage. When she reached her mid-twenties, she began penning gospel raps for several local churches and dove into hip-hop with both feet two years ago. She soon discovered that the field wasn't exactly crowded with other young females. "This is a real male-dominated business, especially here in Denver," she says. "The male-female ratio in this business is like twenty to one. When I first started, I didn't know any females at all who were rapping--none at all--and I still don't, really. It was really tough to get respect, to be honest. I think sometimes a male gets intimidated if a female comes in and gets glory."

As a result, Sista D didn't get a chance to appear live before a big audience until last year, when she was invited to participate at a Cinco de Mayo celebration in Civic Center Park. She admits that the crowd took a while to warm up to her: "People didn't know how to take me, because they're used to just seeing guys up there," she says. "I was nervous, because I didn't have no dancers yet or anything. It was just me; I just wanted to go up there and flow." Fortunately, the audience soon discovered that she had something worthwhile to say. "I ended up rapping about how parents don't really pay attention to their kids. Their kids come home with their eyes red and they're high, but parents don't see this--and they come home with pagers and cellular phones and they're doing things they ain't supposed to be doing, and the parents just sweep it under the rug. I got a real good response from that, and from there I just loved the reponse from the crowd. I said, 'Wow, this is for me. I need to keep doing this.'"

In the Mile High City is a good representation of Sista D's talents. With tight beats produced by Gary "Scratch G" Martinez and help from the Kut-N-Kru collective, the disc has a sound that's alternately retro and forward-looking. "I wanted to give it an old-school kind of taste, but with a new-school kind of flavor," Sista D says.

"Intro," the brazen opener, exemplifies this approach. On it, Sista D challenges "all those haters who didn't think a female could make it in this rap game." But even more impressive is "Colors," in which she proves that she can roll with the fellas--in this case, local MCs Domo, Vigilante, Sabotage and Tha L.O.C. But rather than trying to prove how tough she is by resorting to the usual tales-from-the-'hood cliches, she raps about the futility of violence: "When's it going to stop?/When you going to learn your lesson?/Now you've strapped yourself with a Smith & Wesson/Yeah, it's got a fancy name and who knows where it came/Once a trigger's pulled, nobody wants to take the blame/Now it's too late for you to retaliate/Because you're either locked up or lying in your grave/And tears fall from the eyes like rain from the skies/The pain's the same each time you hear your mother's cry."

Other cuts, including the mad-blunted "I Got the Killa," are far less concerned with teaching than is "Colors," and at no point does Sista D pretend to be an angel. But even at her most raucous, she exudes heartfelt compassion toward the subjects of her songs, as well as those listening to them. Furthermore, she's not afraid to bare her soul, as she does on "I Know a Place," a mature and honest reflection about losing her mother.

"A lot of people tell me that the song is too raw, but that's just the way I felt," she says. "I felt entrapped at the time; she was just gone one day. I know there are a whole bunch of people out there who have a family member who's hooked, and I know what they're going through."

Today Sista D is trying to move beyond this tragedy. When she's not looking after her kids with help from her husband, Steve Martinez, who co-executive-produced her album, she's overseeing her own company, D-Style Productions. She formed D-Style, she says, because she wants to help other rappers--especially fellow Latinos "who are not really supported or who don't have the money to go to the studio." Having raised the cash to make Mile High City herself, she knows how difficult the recording process can be: "A lot of people who started doing this CD fell off, and they were in it before me." Among the performers she hopes to get in front of a microphone soon is her eldest son, Stevey.

In addition, Sista D volunteers at various area youth detention centers. "I go talk to the kids--I go and talk to them about gangs," she says. "I try to come off like I'm their friend, and they confide in me. A couple of them have my phone number, and they call me when they're feeling down, and I kind of cheer them up. A lot of them don't really have anything to look forward to, so when I go there, they really give me love--and they think I'm like a Selena." She sees her music as a tool capable of turning negatives into positives. "I want to come at people and let them know you can get yourself out of situations and you can go on through life. There is nothing that a person can't do if you put your mind to it."

She's living proof of that. "I'm no longer the little Mexican girl who didn't have anything," she says. "And it especially makes me feel good because a lot of people looked down on my mom when she was on the streets--when she was a transient. A lot of people used to shut their doors on her, and it makes me feel good that these same people are wanting my respect now.

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James Mayo

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