Roots & Branches: Deidre "D.S. Sense" Smith

No matter the language barriers…No matter the space…No matter the time…No matter how different we think we are, culturally…There’s something so powerful about the spoken word within hip-hop. We call something into existence when we operate in it. And I think that’s what we’re seeing right now. – D.S. Sense

In this series, we explore different ways that Next Level’s influence endures, often long after the residencies are over. How do the seeds that we have planted take root and grow? In previous posts, we have discussed how Next Level has influenced artists’ attitudes towards educationtechnologycommunity buildingsocial healinginternational organizingcross-cultural collaboration, and developing a culturally sensitive approach to professionalism in the arts.

This time, we speak with Next Level Colombia’s Deidre “D.S. Sense” Smith about how her experiences in Cartagena helped her to refine her approach to education, and how those insights continue to influence both her and the people she worked with in Cartagena.

D.S. Sense is widely recognized as an MC, singer, songwriter, activist, public speaker and entrepreneur with an extensive recording and performance resume. Her relationship with her hometown is reflected in the phrase that is both her personal motto and her brand: “On My Detroit Everything”.


She is also the creator and facilitator of S.Y.M.M.Y.S. (Speak Your Mind, Mind Your Speech), a workshop geared towards teaching community building and restorative justice through the principles and elements of hip hop, a process that she says was deeply influenced by her Next Level experience in Colombia in 2016. “Being a cultural ambassador with Next level really enriched my life as far as being an artist abroad, but here locally in Detroit as well,” she says.

“The biggest thing I learned was that being in such an unconventional classroom setting really made room for the experience to be a fair exchange,” she reflects. “Whereas here in the States, a lot of times – unfortunately - we kind of have this ‘Sage on Stage’ type of technique to teaching. And there in Colombia, there was such a fair exchange between facilitator and participant…They were so versed in a craft that we had come to have this exchange with them with, which is the genre of hip-hop. Their discipline in it was just so pure compared to what I see in the States now. They really hold fast to the principles and elements of hip-hop, which is what my workshop is all about.”

As a result, she and the artists she worked with in Colombia were able to meet on common ground. “The students were so excited about what they were going to learn from me, but they ended up teaching me so much. And I know that sounds cliché, but they ended up teaching me so much about myself. So I learned that it’s best not to go into that setting with an imperialistic type of view. Like, ‘U.S. hip-hop! This is where it originated! We know it all!’”

“These kids knew all about us and - even with our language barriers and some of our cultural differences - what unified us was this discipline of hip-hop. And I just learned so much from them in terms of what it’s like to stay true to the principles of it.”

“And I hold some of those relationships still. MC Mariposa, who ended being an ambassador for Colombia here to the States. Her friend Afriica Miiranda – I keep in touch with her. Ciache, another MC.  Carlos, another MC. I tell you, I can go on: Black Licona. And I see what they’re doing outside of hip-hop. I’m proud to see that they’re taking their stances, as far as navigating a lot of political issues in their areas right now. They’re always in protest of something that they don’t agree with.”

“It’s funny because when we were departing Cartagena and we were saying our goodbyes, I told them, ‘Listen, you guys have been in the struggle and you’ve been in the fight prior to us being here and you know what hip-hop is at its truest form and in it’s truest essence. And that’s being a platform for visibility in your community and being a voice for those that are voiceless. So I hope that you’ll continue to do a lot of the things that we talked about in our classroom.” And here it is almost two years later, and they are doing those things. They are living what they spoke about in those classrooms. And it doesn’t stop. And I’m very proud to see that.”

Next Level Team Colombia (L-R: Kid Freeze, Supreme LaRock, D.S. Sense, DJ Raedawn)

Next Level Team Colombia (L-R: Kid Freeze, Supreme LaRock, D.S. Sense, DJ Raedawn)


For more information, follow D.S. Sense on social media or read this recent analysis of her work in the peer-reviewed journal, Arts.