Her gaze pierces through the fishnet pulled taut over her face; her dancer’s body undulates in the scrubs she wore in the psych unit just more than a year ago.
“I’ve been leaning into feelings/Let me do my drugs,” she sings in her smoky, whispery vocals over mellow, dreamy beats.
This is Manchita (aka Claire Monesterio) in her solo debut—the music video for “Cashed” off her EP One.
It’s a far cry from Manchita of GRRRL PRTY fame, the Twin Cities hip-hop outfit that catapulted fellow rapper Lizzo to the national stage; the hilarious Manchita with machine-gun fast raps and wild-eyed swagger who once showered an audience with bloody tampons during her beloved “Period Song.” (OK, the tampons were dip-dyed.)
“I’ve signed tampons,” Monesterio says, laughing. “I was always feeding off this wild female energy and I would go ape-shit nuts.”
One, released this summer with producer Bionik, is decidedly different—a woozy, dark, and artful project full of what she calls “sad bangers,” doing the heavy lifting on subjects like sexual assault, child abuse, drug use, privilege and depression.
“I was so afraid to go dark with this record,” Monesterio says. “It’s such a divergence. They’re so different from anything else I’d ever done,” she says of the five tracks. “We didn’t know if I’d ever do it again.”
Monesterio cut her teeth in the Twin Cities mid-aughts hip-hop scene—home to Rhymesayers, Doomtree, Atmosphere and Brother Ali—coming up with outfits like Slapping Purses and Tha Clerb. She rose the ranks with GRRRL PRTY, alongside DJ Shannon Blowtorch and rappers Sophia Eris and Lizzo, who gave Monesterio the nickname Chita (pronounced “cheetah”), because she raps fast. (Manchita is also Spanish for “little stain” or “little imperfection,” which ties in Monesterio’s Spanish family roots.)
Carving out a corner
With One, Monesterio slows things down, wrestles with the shadows and relishes the role of songstress as much as rapping force. The result sounds like The XX made a hard-hitting R&B album.
“The most played song on the record is ‘Shame On Me,’” Monesterio says. “That’s the one about sexual violence and child abuse.”
She gives a sort of trigger warning from the stage before performing it, just one way Monesterio is reshaping her corner of the scene. “The hip-hop setting can be a pretty difficult place for women to exist safely and comfortably,” she says. Her goal is to “explicitly make women feel comfortable and remind the audience about consent. That really does change the dynamic of a space for female listeners.”
Changing the landscape also includes making room for herself in a perpetually male-dominated industry. Being a woman in hip hop means batting away daily micro-aggressions, from trouble getting paid for shows to dismissive sound techs, she says.
The light on the horizon, however, is a new generation of men and women growing up in a gender-fluid world.
“They’ve been exposed to so much; they don’t behave in the same way, which in itself, is movement.”
Something other than tortured artist
“Shame On Me,” isn’t only a pivotal track for its subject matter. It’s also the first material Monesterio wrote for One in December 2015, before she did a 10-day stint in psychiatric care for debilitating anxiety and depression, both genetic and environmental, a lifelong struggle Monesterio has been candid about.
“I was in a really bad place,” Monesterio says. “I knew if I was left alone and had an ounce of energy that someone was going to find me.”
Monesterio says she was nearly catatonic when she was admitted to the hospital. “They really fucking helped me somehow,” she says of the psych staff, adding that it took an aggressive combination of medication and therapy, including some music therapy. In-patient treatment was followed by an intensive outpatient regimen, then nine months of DBT, or dialectical behavior therapy.
In recovery, Monesterio started writing music again, revisiting a track she had started before treatment—the aforementioned “Cashed”. But now, Monesterio was growing into the idea that meds for her mental health would be a permanent facet of her life.
“It started about my friend’s drug use and it turned into my own need of being medicated,” she says. The music video, directed by Maria Juranic (who has also directed for Grieves and P.O.S.) is a surreally beautiful study of metamorphosis.
Don’t let any of this fool you, however, into believing that Monesterio wants to glorify the “tortured artist”. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“Yes, beauty can come from pain, but beauty can come from beauty, too. Shit, it can come from joy,” she says. “I’m really not a fan of the tortured-artist myth. I think it’s extremely dangerous, because it plays into the stigma of mental health problems being reserved for certain groups of people.”
Monesterio knows firsthand how dangerous it can be. Not only does she work better when she’s chemically balanced and healthy, but acclaimed Twin Cities rapper and poet Michael “Eyedea” Larsen, who Monesterio has called “my person,” died in 2010 from a heroin overdose.
When they first got together, Monesterio recalls, he was a vegetarian who didn’t smoke and always told her that he’d live to be an old man. “Once he started doing heroin, his self-talk had changed to: ‘I’m going to die young,’” she says. She remembers how he idolized Kurt Cobain and once made a T-shirt that said “EYEDEA IS DEAD.” Larsen needed someone to model it for the Rhymesayers website and insisted Monesterio do it despite her objections.
“I don’t like that and I don’t want to put it into the universe,” she remembers telling him. “I finally did it. It’s one of the biggest regrets I have.”
Sisterhood of the stage
While Monesterio manages her own mental health-scape, she finds joy and inspiration in music, from Little Dragon and Eyedea to Roger Miller and Beyoncé.
She says her childhood obsessive compulsive disorder, which was entangled with negative ideas about feminine weakness and lack of agency, blocked her from loving herself and other women. Overcoming that has been a journey, and made her reluctant to perform in more traditionally feminine ways.
But, Beyoncé—specifically 2006 album B’Day.
“I’ll fucking tell you what: Beyoncé. There’s no way I can’t appreciate that shit,” she says. “This woman is strong, she’s fierce, beautiful. This is a real example of strength and femininity and power. I remember swallowing Beyoncé and thinking everything could be different.”
Now, she loves sharing a stage with women and she still performs and writes with Eris from her GRRRL PRTY days. “I like that sisterhood on stage,” she says.
And the swagger isn’t gone for Monesterio. She’s already working on a full-length, somewhere stylistically and contextually between the work of GRRRL PRTY and One. In the end, she wants to make her audience feel good, to stimulate that serotonin release.
“We don’t always have access to that,” she says. “That is my ultimate goal: to make my audience feel joy.”