“There is a new movement of people coming. It’s with creatives, it’s with artists, it’s with women. We are no longer silenced by the things we felt we had to be,” Dawn Richard asserts over the phone from LAX. Now under the moniker of DAWN (FKA D∆WN), the American artist, who as we speak is about to wrap up a tour with her old US chart-topping group Danity Kane, rattles answers out at a frenetic pace. This is a woman with passion and cynical know-how that’s indebted as much to her upbringing in New Orleans as it is to her switch from pop star to independent solo artist…
“You know, as a black woman,” she says, reflecting on her early career, “I’ve had to pander and I’ve had to be quiet. We listened because we were afraid to lose our jobs. I realised that that woman was someone I was never going to be: someone who I wasn’t raised to be.”
DAWN is talking about the message at the core of her forthcoming record, new breed. The album, which arrives three years after the conclusion of her solo album trilogy, is an uncompromising calling card for honouring the true self.
What separates this record from the triptych is Richard’s move back to New Orleans (her family was displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2004 and relocated to Maryland). But, she stresses, her solo work has always carried the torch for self-preservation and for marginalised voices. This time the sights, sounds and people of her hometown have rekindled a fire inside her. The result is a record that repurposes New Orleans’ music with DAWN’s stamp of Afro-futurism.
As our conversation races ahead it becomes clear that Richard’s uprooting in 2005 contributed towards her losing her artistic vision. As the hurricane hit, Richard’s pop career was kicking off with Making the Band, the MTV series that established Danity Kane. Her second band, Dirty Money, folded in 2012. She looks back on those early years as being, in part, a victim of the homogenised pop machine. “I thought that to be grateful meant to be quiet,” she says, thinking it a necessary evil. But that silence left her creatively unfulfilled.
“This new album really speaks to the history behind why I chose to be an indie artist even though it was a really hard run,” DAWN explains. “I was told, ‘If you just do this and just be like this then you can have the career you want.’ But that just wasn’t me. I owe that all to the foundation of where I come from.”
The submissive nature of the pop industry she discusses sits at odds with the spirit of New Orleans. “Where I come from, the Mardi Gras Indian, the woman, the queen, the kings, they are proud people – we are proud people. This album speaks to who I was and who I am now. This album speaks to every girl, every man, every gay, every person who’s ever felt they’re new – they’re a new breed of person – and they’re refusing to be unapologetic for being exactly the fuck themselves.”
With new breed, DAWN has found a way to channel this outlook. The title track, at points carrying remnants of New Orleans bounce, is full of proud proclamations dotted over hulky polyrhythms – “I am a lion, I am a woman,” she sings. At the end of the carnivalesque ‘dreams and converse’, Richard introduces Mardi Gras field recordings. It’s the first of many spoken-word vignettes that bind the old New Orleans with the new: the resilient, musical city, and the modern electronic sounds Richard so boldly experiments with.
“I realised that that woman was someone I was never going to be: someone who I wasn’t raised to be…”
Though largely a self-produced album, Richard worked with Derek Bergheimer to create original sounds. “I wanted to make sure that I didn’t lose anyone but I also wanted to include New Orleans”. She “would never want to just take samples”, however, “I wanted to make it all me.” Long time fans of Richard’s solo work will know that authenticity is her weapon.
When the subject is broached about whether the music industry is finally catching up with female producers like herself, she says it is, but slowly. “With goldenheart in 2013 I was doing alternative underground stuff at a time when people weren’t really celebrating a girl without a label. In 2015 everyone was like, ‘Oh [FKA] Twigs, SZA, Kelela…we get it.’ Don’t forget, I was blessed [in Danity Kane] to be part of something that was a hit but I want people to catch up a little faster.” She mentions Janelle Monáe. “We’re only just catching up with her as a beautiful brown girl who’s doing something that isn’t just R&B.” Richard wants to “champion” these women, “especially chocolatey brown girls doing great things in electronic music.”
Even in the midst of her own promotion DAWN speaks up for others. A new breed; a new dawn is coming.