The Hispanic Federation’s UNIDOS Disaster Relief & Recovery Program is meant to benefit from the song, which also opened at No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100. For Dessa, this is an important symbol of hope through art. “I really do think it speaks to the amassed power of music,” she explains. “Not every benefit endeavor works as well as this one did, but Lin did an amazing job both in the music and in assembling this superstar team...He did all things beautifully.”
In between writing her first proper hardcover book and recording her follow-up to 2013’s critically-acclaimed Parts of Speech LP, Dessa spoke with Billboard about how “Almost Like Praying” came to be, how her relationship with Miranda has grown, and why it’s important to keep working towards aid and relief in Puerto Rico.
How did “Almost Like Praying” come about?
The song, the accompanying video and the enormous relief effort that it’s a part of was the brainchild of Lin-Manuel Miranda. Seeing that the response to the Puerto Rican crisis was really unimpressive from the federal government, he stepped up in this really amazing way, to spearhead an initiative to help, and to help really fast.
I got a text from Lin saying that he was assembling a group of Latin artists to record a track, and I’d seen on Twitter that he was working on something and staying up late to do it. In record time -- it was really a whirlwind of hours, not weeks -- he was able to assemble this star-studded powerhouse lineup of artists, who all agreed to be part of the recording process. Lin wrote the lyrics that pay deference to all of the towns in Puerto Rico.
In my opinion, he wrote a really catchy song in its own right. Then, he helped distribute small parts of those lyrics to all of the artists that he recruited. Some artists recorded in their home studios or in their professional studios and then e-mailed Lin the audio. The artists who were in New York, some of us went to Atlantic studios to record there.
You have a personal connection to the island of Puerto Rico. How does it feel to be part of an effort like this?
I’m half Puerto Rican and my mother grew up in New York, which is home to a really big and vibrant Puerto Rican community. So, when I was little, I would often come to New York and spend weeks with cousins on that side of my family and we would spend our time in a place called Spanish Camp, which has since been destroyed, but it was a community of Puerto Ricans on this stretch of beach in Staten Island that had bungalows.
There were speakers on the lamp posts that, in the evenings, when my mom was little, would play salsa. So, most of my connection with the Puerto Rican community is with my family that lives in New York. I’ve gone to the island with my little brother, my mother, and her husband, to visit the plantations, the finca.
But in receiving the call from Lin, I hope that it’s as much the human part of me as the Puerto Rican part, that jumped at the opportunity to lend a few bars of music to a cause that really, ought to call to all Americans. Right before this, I was listening to a story on NPR about how people are struggling for tarps.
It’s weeks afterwards and people still trying to figure out how to stay dry from the rain, and then to find safe water to drink. Meanwhile, our leadership has really not done much in their messaging to assure the American citizens in Puerto Rico that they’ve got their back, that they’ll safeguard their health and security. We’ve got President Trump saying, “Well, it’s already been three weeks. We can’t stay there forever.” It’s ridiculous.
You recently wrote about a moral obligation to speak on that federal response to Puerto Rico. What moved you to write that?
I try to be mindful, and I try to be careful of the fact that a platform has to be used responsibly. You want to understand an issue before you make a call to action for others, but the need in Puerto Rico seems so very clear. It’s not a complicated issue. People are thirsty, people are hungry, and people need shelter.
This isn’t a complicated economic knot, at the moment, to be unraveled. It’s an issue of immediate human need. I was really moved, impressed and heartened by the response that Lin was able to spearhead.
It was an honor to be a part of and to do whatever I can to spread the news of that need with the people who listen to the work that I make, knowing that every other artist on that track is also sharing the news of that need.
Who were some of the musicians that spoke to you the most when you first heard the final track?
Oh my God! Of course, I was floored by global legitimate superstars like J.Lo and Marc Anthony saying “Yes!” Right? That was exciting. But I listened to Rita Moreno and Juan Luis Guerra, who I listened to as an elementary schooler, you know? Like [Guerra’s] “Ojalá Que Llueva Café.” His songs are familiar from childhood!
It was thrilling, moving and awe inspiring, of course. It allowed me to make a giddy phone call to my mom to say, “Look at all these people who are part of this project, who answered Lin’s call within 24 hours!”
How did she respond?
Oh, you know. Everybody, my whole Puerto Rican side, was like, “Aaeeuuh!” Just an insane vowel sound. It was exciting! Also, I sent note of it right away to my aunt and grandmother from my Puerto Rican side to make sure that I did the couple of lines that Lin gave me just right. “Does this sound right? Okay, cool!” I wanted to honor those place names well, so I sent a video to my grandmother, so she could listen and give me the thumbs up.
You’ve worked with Lin before on 2016’s “Congratulations” off The Hamilton Mixtape. How did you initially meet and how did that collaborative connection grow?
Initially, we were connected online. I sent him a DM on Twitter and that was our point of contact. Later, I got to see the show, Hamilton, in New York. I was ready for some amazing world-class performative talent, and the great costumes and choreography, but I had not braced myself for the crazy, tragic, moving love story that’s also embedded in Hamilton.
I was really impressed and I was really moved by that love story. After that, I got to meet Lin, we chatted a bit, and then a few months after that, I ended up getting a call for “Congratulations,” which was a really exciting call to get. I did a victory dance in my apartment. I worked on that song with my fellow cohort in Doomtree, Lazerbeak, and the producer Andy Thompson. We were all pleased with how that came out. Lin’s team seems to be happy and we were really proud too.
Not everybody gets to DM him, so I’m assuming he was familiar with your work, too?
Yeah. I can’t even say to what extent, because I don’t want to overstate it and be wrong, but somebody alerted me to the fact that, in one of the many playlists he created online, one of my songs was included. So, I was at least a blip somewhere on the radar. Lin’s ascent has been amazing, obviously, and everybody knows it, but I don’t think I realized quite how meteoric it was, when I sent him that DM. I was like, “Oh my God!” after having received his response.
What does it mean that a track with such a giving purpose and message, debuted as the week’s top-selling song?
Without being overly sentimental, I really do think it speaks to the amassed power of music. Not every benefit endeavor works as well as this one did, but Lin did an amazing job both in the music and in assembling this superstar team, and planning really, really well, to activate the machinery of the music industry.
He did all things beautifully, the art, the executive production, and the release plan, which was really great. He got partners, not only with people like Fat Joe and Marc Anthony, but also in Spotify. I couldn’t be more impressed with how hard he’s worked, how hard his dad worked, how much they got done in so few waking hours. I can’t stress that enough.
Even working at this indie level that I have, for so long, I know how long it takes, usually, to record, write, mix, master, create artwork, and release a song, even when you’re working really fast. The idea that he was able to do this so quickly, to create such a beautiful project with so many moving parts.
Also, people get it. Puerto Rico is not receiving the help that it needs. We’re not providing the resources for a swift and humane recovery and I think it’s likely because those people are far away and brown. You know? I think that probably contributes to our feet-dragging. But the fact that a private citizen can step up and make this enormous difference, can top the charts, can capture the attention of the music listening public with this important need, it’s personally reminded me how much a person can do when answering the moral call to action.