Words give power to Maine rapper Essence, against all odds

Growing up in the York County town of Hollis, Sarah Violette did not like rap at all. She thought hip hop was sexist and homophobic and required little talent, so therefore, it must be pretty easy to learn how to rap. She decided to give rap a shot, and tried listening to Eminem to see how he did it.

When she listened closely, however, she began to realize just how complex an art form it actually was.

“I quickly realized that the complexity of his rhyme schemes, the passion in his delivery, and the way he was able to flow inside of the drums was beyond skillful,” said Violette, now 25. “This was indeed a craft that required dedication.”

essenceViolette has since transformed herself from a hip hop hater into to a skilled, passionate, intelligent emcee named Essence. Her most recent Essence album, “An Unseasonable Spring,” her second, came out a few months ago, in 2013, and it combines her hard-hitting flow and poet’s ear for wordplay with production that’s got the spare, soul-drenched, piano-led soundscapes of classic hip hop, interspersed with the sounds of the ocean, the wind and other parts of nature. She’s a Mainer at heart, of course, and that sense of place is an undercurrent among the many heady things she tackles in her rhymes.

The title track alone — an irresistible pop hook with a message about climate change — puts Essence at the top of the heap of Maine rappers. On the album, paired with rappers like Ock Cousteau and Syn Tha Shaman and vocalists like Kristina Kentigian, she’s like a compact, lightning-fast boxer, sparring and jabbing with anything that gets in her way, be it another rapper or her own emotions.

Before she was Essence, though, she was Sarah Violette, a student of hip hop (and literature, and history, and poetry, and on and on). She started with Eminem, and then quickly moved onto rappers like Tupac, Nas and, later, Atmosphere and Brother Ali.

“Listening to Tupac was like listening to a poetic journalist from the ghetto as they emotionally described the tragedies of racism and classism,” said Violette. “I was as intrigued as I was empathetic. There was, however, some irony to this. The same genre that was used to combat classism and racism had morphed into a platform that actually encouraged it. I was in the post golden era of the early 2000′s, where rappers were just starting to really brag about their riches and hoes, and using the word ‘fag’ more than ever. As a middle class lesbian I really had no place in rap. But again, I stuck with it.”

While she was learning about hip hop, she was also learning about other wordsmiths, like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Virginia Woolf. And though she’s never considered herself a musician — she doesn’t play any instruments — Violette says the essence of Essence of course is in the words. They’re what got her through middle and high school, as a closeted lesbian.

“I was drawn to literature, and rap just intertwined with it to give me an even greater outlet,” she said. “I’m a writer at heart. I just put in about 10,000 hours of recording because it felt good to release what I had written with my signature angst and aggression.”

Though Violette sees herself as full of angst, she’s really only speaking truth to power of how she feels about the world she’s in — whether it’s the relationship she’s in or the socio-political situations she sees around her. It’s not easy to be a female rapper, and it’s definitely not easy to be a gay female rapper, a fact that she’s aware of often, when she takes the stage in front of a less-than-understanding crowd. Words are the way she deals with the world.

“It’s the only way I can cope with such intense feelings,” said Violette. “I’m beyond grateful that I have rap and poetry as a means to express myself, even if the overall consensus of the genre is that I don’t belong. I love what I do. And I love that no one can take that away from me.”

Emily Burnham

About Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native, a UMaine graduate, a proud Bangorian and an arts and lifestyle writer for the Bangor Daily News, where she's worked since 2004. She reports on everything from local bands to local food, from media and the Internet to theater and dance. In her quest for stories, she's seen countless concerts and plays, been lobster fishing, interviewed celebrities, hung out with water buffalo and played in a ukulele orchestra, to name just a few. She's interested in everything -- especially if it happens in Maine. She welcomes any and all feedback or suggestions for stories.