2020 started off so well. January and February were great months for 27-year-old rapper, dancer, and performance poet Del Marie. After years of performing at small live events, things were finally coming together for her. She had branched out from performance poetry to writing and singing her own songs and had recently completed a video of one of her songs, “Black Wall Street.” The video, which featured both Del Marie rapping and documentary footage shot at Chicago Black-owned businesses, dropped February 28.
The video was the first salvo in what was shaping up to be a very busy late winter/early spring, culminating in an evening of live music, fashion, and dance she planned to call Learning to Fly, scheduled to take place at Que4 Radio.
“I was going to take March to prepare for [Learning to Fly] and in April, hit it with a concert, and then after that I had wanted to drop more projects,” Del Marie recalls. “This was supposed to be like my coming-out year”—the year Del Marie showed the world she was “really an artist [and not] just some open mike girl.”
And then COVID-19 hit. And the world shut down in early March.
Suddenly Del Marie, who made most of her income as a visiting artist in schools, had no income.
“I was a dance instructor,” she sighs. “I was cut down to like one hour a week.” Then she got a call from Que4 Radio letting her know they wouldn’t be able to do Learning to Fly “because of COVID regulations” restricting the number of people allowed at public performances.
“It was very bad.”
Like a lot of Chicago artists, actors, and performers, she was, in the blink of an eye, down-and-out.
Del Marie had been saving money for her projects. Once shelter in place started, Del Marie self-evicted. “I self-evicted because I didn’t have funds,” she said in an e-mail. “(And still don’t but am looking for a place to stay. I would love to live in an artist loft, or find a studio.”)
She turned to her family for food and shelter. She spent the spring and summer couch surfing, moving from one family member’s place to another. Del Marie qualified for food stamps and got groceries from food depositories.
“I felt very sad,” Del Marie tells me. “I didn’t have the money to push the creativity that I have in my head. I had tons of ideas but, you know, sometimes funding blocks that from actually being a thing.”
At her lowest point, Del Marie thought of giving up her dreams. “I thought I should be normal and quit.” What kept her going was family (“My family believes in me”), her religion (“God gave me these gifts for a reason”), and her art.
Before the pandemic, Del Marie wrote every day. But during the lockdown “words became too much.” Del Marie turned to drawing, playing music, and dancing for solace.
“I started dancing when I was like eight. I was in the after-school program at the James R. Jordan Boys and Girls Club of Chicago. And it was homework hour, so it was quiet. But then I heard this loud music coming in from the hall. It was—WOW—I had never heard nothing like that in my life. I grew up with my grandma, so I had heard James Brown, I heard a lot of R&B, but I never heard anything like this loud, monstrous music that just was like crazy. I couldn’t help it. And I just ran out of class. And my teacher was like, ‘Come back!,’ but I ran and I ran.
“I went down to the room where the music was coming from. And there was this lady who was standing there. She was tall and beautiful. She was a Black lady, and she had like this yellow-orange [outfit] and like bright yellow energy all around her.
“And then there were all these teenage girls—I was like, eight and the girls were much taller than me—and they were doing the steps the tall lady was doing. And there were older men with dreads shaking their long hair, with sweat, lots of sweat, just laying it on these drums, you know, just hitting them at angles, making these crazy sounds come out. I felt like they were all inside of a monster’s mouth, and the monster was roaring.
“The lady looked at me and she was like, ‘Come here. Come into the dance.’ And I was like, ‘I’m not going in the monster’s mouth.’ And she was like, ‘Come here.’ And I looked at her, and didn’t she look so nice and so kind and so warmhearted? So I went in.
“She had me stand next to her. And she showed me these two small steps. And so I did the two steps. She was like, ‘Good. Now do it like this.’ It was like a game. It was, like, step on the beat, and then move your arm at the same time as the beat. Then step on the beat and move your arm. Step on the beat.
“So next thing you know, I was inside the music, inside the moment, and suddenly I had been there for hours. And it was time to go. And that started my love of dance.”
Looking for a creative outlet during the shutdown, Del Marie participated in free Zoom-based West African dance workshops held by Muntu Dance Theatre. Interestingly, the Muntu workshops were led by the same dance teacher who had introduced Del Marie to West African dance when she was eight—Mama Ika. Del Marie had over the years lost touch with Mama Ika. Mama Ika was a catalyst for Del Marie’s dance, but not a long-term mentor.
“The first time I logged onto the Zoom, I saw Mama Ika [was teaching the class]. I was like, Ooooooo.”
The Zoom sessions rekindled Del Marie’s relationship with Mama Ika; Mama Ika and her workshops played a role in Del Marie’s healing, helping her regain what she lost in March.
She is still living at home with her family, but she is working a little more, making a little more money, and slowly has been getting more performing gigs. She will be performing with Young Chicago Authors on October 27. Que4 Radio has contacted her to perform in a live show in November. And she is working on her next music video with the Chicago-based media company XBT91.
Is she back on her feet? “I’m still working on it,” she admits. “I’m rolling with the punches.”
“But ever since I was little, I just felt like I was gonna speak to the world one day, and I was going to give them beautiful art, beautiful stories, and songs and creations. I still feel like I’m supposed to give these things to the world.”
It will just take a little more time. v