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Woman of steel 

Portland hip-hopper Sontiago gets personal and political at Hell’s Kitchen.

Brace yourself for Sontiago. The Portland, Maine, resident recently released her sophomore full-length Steel Yourself on Endemik Music. Sonya Tomlinson, AKA Sontiago, the lyrical MC, finds herself Halifax-bound with her wordy playmate Dilly Dilly on December 8 for a gig with Ghettosocks at Hell's Kitchen.

"Performing together is really fun," says Tomlinson, calling from her commune-style homestead in Portland. "Having another person on stage adds to the unpredictability factor, right then and there. Dilly Dilly and I play off one another really well."

Art-folk rocker Erin Olivia Davidson (pseudonym Dilly Dilly), Sontiago and Ghettosocks are rhyming and rapping their way around the Maritimes. With a few pit stops in Moncton at The Paramount Lounge and a gig at Nicky Zee's in Fredericton, the oddball lyrical troupe will show Toronto's Fresh Kils and Ottawa's Deejay Frame some of eastern Canada's most treasured far-flung locales.

Endemik Music's first lady is a multi-dimensional, flavourful songwriter, poet, activist and creative creature. Whether she rhymes over beats, performs painstakingly honest and powerful spoken-word pieces, or speaks out about violence against women at crisis-intervention rallies, she embodies the DIY aesthetic of indie-rock culture with a sense of sensational sass, nerve and intellect.

Sontiago's accomplishments are a lengthy chronicle of hip-hop as an act of social work. With the aid of a grant, she produced her debut album Abuse My Adoration in 2004. Her first trip to Halifax was a year prior, when she was slotted to perform back up for JD Walker and k-the-i???, and ended up carrying the whole show herself. The boys overslept and missed the metaphorical and literal boat, as they couldn't make it from Maine in time for the show. Sontiago was slotted to headline.

"I remember walking around Halifax, anxiety-ridden all day," she says. "I wasn't sure I could do it. But I had to."

The colloquial phrase, "the show must go on," rang true. After taming her nerves, she took command and braved the stage and hasn't looked back since. In addition to performing in the late-night bar scene across the US and Canada, she's been the guest presenter for such noteworthy political events like National AIDS Awareness Day and Take Back the Night.

"The title of the album, Steel Yourself, was inspired by the kidnapping of Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll—she was abducted in Iraq," says Tomlinson. "I was reading the paper at work,"—by day she works for Portland's alternative weekly The Phoenix—"and the article recalled the editor having to call Jill's mother. The editor said, "Ms. Carroll, steel yourself: your daughter's been kidnapped.' And it struck me."

The underlying epiphany stemmed from the impossible ability to foresee the future.

Sontiago reflects on the phrase "steel yourself" in various facets of her life. Whether she's writing out pages and pages of explanation and background to her songs in the liner notes of the album, enjoying married life with her rapper hubby JD Walker or playing teacher and instructing classes on how to write and record hip-hop at the annual Boys To Men Conference every year since 2002, it's best to be prepared.

When asked whether she considers herself a feminist or not, she pauses and asks whether or not I've read Bust Magazine and if I'm familiar with The Gossip. "This month there is a fantastic cover story on Beth Ditto,"—The Gossip's lead singer—"and she was asked the same question. Basically her response was something along the lines of describing herself as a feminist is the exact same as calling herself a woman. It's inherent. I completely agree."

Sontiago's work is personal, political and public. Next on her post-touring agenda, she plans to return home and finish working on her upcoming visual art exhibition. Utilizing her academic background in design, she dabbles in collage felting with dry wool, shadowbox making and transparencies. Her upcoming show, inspired by a children's book, Beyond the Ridge, opens in March at the 158 Bake Shop, "a lovely hippie cafe/|restaurant" in Portland.


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