Melinda Hernandez ’21 stepped onto the stage, encircled by darkness. Dressed in all-black, adorned with gold triangle earrings and shimmery pink eyeshadow, the stage lights centered on her. It was a prerecorded video, streamed on YouTube for Lollapalooza 2020, a free four-night virtual music festival. One of the grandest in Chicago, this year’s lineup featured Lorde, H.E.R. and The Weeknd, among others. The live-stream chat lay quiet in anticipation, waiting for Hernandez’s act.
“I was really happy [and] really excited,” Hernandez said in an interview with The Daily later on. “I didn’t imagine what it would look like, but I was really happy with how it came out.”
Hernadez’s stage name, tagged on the bottom left of the video, is Linda Sol, an abbreviation of her name coupled with the Spanish word for sun. She performed “How Ya Feelin’” from her EP “72” (a reference to the bus route she took in her childhood) and the single “Quick on the Move.” But this time, her verses were not overlaid by smooth coffeehouse beats, as they were in her album. Instead, she spoke her rap, allocating varying weights to her words through pauses and hand gestures. Her lyrical cadence lifted the lines to some musicality, but the emphasized slowness made her performance gravelly and raw — a slam poem.
“I had to step outside of being an MC and step outside of the flow [to] deliver this as a poem,” Hernandez said in an interview with The Daily. “I’m flowing sometimes; I’m speaking others. It’s just an interesting cross.”
In her hometown in Chicago, Hernandez was a slam poet. As a high schooler, she participated in slam poetry competitions and programs. People would ask her if she was a rapper, and she would respond no, that she was a poet. Her performances were angry and powerful — a harsh light that your eyes must adjust to and squint at. The poetry made “emotions a competition,” she said.
“My poetry self is very different from my rap,” Hernandez said. “When I’m poetic, I’m a lot more vulnerable.”
Rebirth Poetry Ensemble, a Chicago-based youth team, helped her carry this vulnerability. During her senior year of high school, the organization guided her art and primed it for performance. Years later, when she had moved from poetry to rap in college, they were the organization that connected her to Lollapalooza. When Hernandez and the collective met to record their Lollapalooza performances, they helped her reintegrate into the mode of slam poetry.
“You put in the work with your team, and you’re there for community, and you’re there to uplift each other,” Nile Lansana, a founding member of Rebirth and student at UW Madison, said in an interview with The Daily. “Then, whatever happens happens, and you’re going to be good with it.”
Before college, Hernandez’s stage name was her legal name, Melinda Hernandez. But when she started rapping, her name became informal and (literally) sunny. Her lyrics retain their poetic form, but her rhythm is smoother, and her vocals are quicker. The underlying beats loosen her verses, infusing her performances with nonverbal emotion. You don’t need to squint at harsh light — the brightness is soft and ambient, a languid sunset.
“With music, there’s more room and flexibility, maybe for interpretation, maybe just from a beat,” Hernandez said. “I love connecting and meeting people who love music as a form of getting free.”
In music, Hernandez can exhibit all of herself, not just the violent and spiced emotions of slam poetry. Like the human mind, her music vacillates between fire and ice, rough and soft, quiet and loud. She can fluidly describe the pitfalls of gentrification, her ingrained ambition and her flirtatious interactions in a three-song set.
“At the end of the day, [an artist] is someone who feels different things,” Hernandez said. “So I love having a set of music where I can throw people for a loop. And I love people who hang on and really are open to coming with me on a journey.”
Music had thus become Hernandez’s chief type of art; slam poetry was a remnant of the past. Lollapalooza was, in turn, a curious reversion, a place to reevaluate what slam poetry can be without the seething emotion, and integrated with her music. Hernandez “loved it,” and is now reconsidering her connection to slam poetry.
“I’ve been very distant with [slam] poetry since I left,” Hernandez said. “But I think I need to rebuild a relationship with poetry that doesn’t need to lay [everything] out on the table.”
Contact Diana Piper at dianapiper ‘at’ gmail.com.