For everyone who is not familiar with Dawn Richard’s career here’s a quick round-up of what you should know: She started by auditioning for Making the Band: 3 in 2004 (MTV), then signing with the resulted girl group Danity Kane (named after one of her own anime characters) on P. Diddy’s Bad Boy Records in the following year and toured the world. She became part of the Diddy-Dirty Money collective with Kalenna Harper in 2009 (number 1 hits included ‘Coming Home’ & Hello Good Morning) which ended in 2012. Since then, she released four records independently one of them right before Hurricane Katrina hit and destroyed her home: “I did lose a piece of me when that happened and we lost the city at the prime of my career. The moment my career hit, I wasn’t able to be home to celebrate it the way that I wanted to so now that I’m back home I feel like this is a beginning for me to really re-acquaint myself with the city and really show New Orleans in a way that we’ve never really seen it.”.
Possibly, this is one of the reasons why the multi-talent was drawn to re-imagining her home city after the absolute catastrophe. Different shades of word-ending, apocalyptic, dys- and u-topia are everywhere – in music, novels, TV and film. Often, there is little hope that it ends well but by portraying a more optimistic outcome, Richard reveals the strength she has been holding onto from the start.
“I want to bring you into a world where could you see New Orleans as a post-apocalyptic world where this black female robot that plays the lines between machine and human can exist with all these cultural aspects on her and that’s what this album is, it’s like the sonic evolution of New Orleans character where it all drops back into this post-apocalyptic world, cinematic world.”
Dawn Richard considers Second Line becoming the second installment of another trilogy of records. It melts two storylines – one of personal power represented through her character King Creole and the other through her mother’s voice recordings narrating her journey. It is preceded by New Breed (2019), a dedication to her father and his experience growing up and forming the city’s musical landscape with the funk band Chocolate Milk.
I was prepared to talk to an incredibly interesting and experienced woman but the main adjective that comes to mind now is “kind”. We talked a lot about heroism of the self, in art and music, and its projection on idols. We can be our own heroines or we can learn how to be our own heroines but every person defines this differently:
“We’re told that if we’re confident in ourselves, we’re bitches, cocky, arrogant but the truth is if we are not our own cheerleaders who will be rooting for us? It’s important that a woman can have so much self-love that she can see herself as the beautiful hero that she should be. We have to consistently say to ourselves – ‘I’m worth it, I’m worthy of these things and I’m going to do these things and not feel guilty for it’, right? -because that’s the first thing that society makes women feel: guilty for wanting to see themselves as kings, to see themselves as equals to their counterparts. I have been in a career where men have dictated how I move as a woman, how I dress, how to wear my hair because they are the heads of those labels, whatever that may be. I have to get up daily and say: ‘I can counter that and be strong enough in that’.”
As we all struggle to keep our confidence up and pep-talk ourselves through everyday life (which I did just minutes before the interview to calm my nervous mind), I can only imagine what it must be like being a woman of Colour in this cruel industry:
“Especially being a Black woman making music that isn’t traditionally what you think. We tend to put colour with genre and a lot of times when you’re Black they say: ‘Oh, you gonna be an RnB artist only,’ and that was never what I wanted to do, that wasn’t the music that I grew up loving. I never thought I’d be pigeon-holed because of the way I looked so I’ve always had to be a warrior and fighting that concept. All my albums have had this Joan of Arc, me against the world direction because as women we constantly have to fight for the positions that we’re in. I think it’s time for Black women to say: ‘We don’t want to be only seen as one thing!’ With this record, I really wanted to speak to that and create a world where I’m saying as a black woman – ‘ I can fit in this space and be recognised and show you that I’m not just a singer, I’m a producer, I’m not just a producer, I’m an artist, I’m all of these things encompassing.’”
Dawn Richard has carefully perfected each of her skills throughout the years and decided against features on Second Line. She says that too often in electronic music, artists are only celebrated when they collaborate, “I’m not using the co-sign to be seen – I am genuinely just doing my own work.” Though, one of her qualities is to take every opportunity to shine a light on the experience of Black, trans and queer people everywhere. In her videos for Bussifame, Pilot (a lude), Jacuzzi, and the latest single FiveOhFour (a lude), Richard serves on-point ballroom-worthy choreography celebrating black women. As a lover of drag, I ask her about the New Orleans scene which is considered one of the origin places of the artform. Drag has always been a melting pot of black and queer experience so to live in a place where this history is so present must be amazing.
“My career would not exist if I didn’t have the gay community. Danity Kane’s fanbase was the queer community so it’s not a surprise that I am making music that is specifically charged to the LGBTQI+. [When we think about New Orleans and bounce music], we think about Big Freedia, Katey Red, Weebie. There’s not a club, not a school, not a nothing that we can ever go to where bounce music is not playing. It just makes sense that that would be a part of this album and a part of the culture of what I’ve grown up in. My first favourite artists were trans-artist because in bounce music, many of the bounce artists are trans so it wasn’t a surprise to me that I’d be enveloped in the queer community in the way I have.”
I’ve also asked if she had watched the latest season of Rupaul’s Drag Race (she hadn’t) but the winner of S13 – Symone – is also a Southern queen who celebrates her origin and being the first to wear grills, a Durag and a Black Lives Matter fascinator on the runway.
Bringing music and animation together
Another way Richard uses her platform to support artists of Colour is through animation. She has been captivated by anime and manga for most of her life. She tells me about starting to draw the large, detailed eyes and the days of watching Sailor Moon, Bleach, and Akira:“I love these storylines and the depth in which I felt like there was a fluidity, you never knew what was male or female. The men looked soft and it was just this really cool fantastical idea that I wanted to be a part of, it was an escapism for me and anime became that.”
Since 2015, she is working as a creative director with Adult Swim, which is part of the cable network Cartoon Network. To incorporate her love for animation into Second Line, she created a trailer featuring her warrior character King Creole:
“I was really happy to be able to show more Black faces in animation because when you think about it, we’re not there – we’re not really there. Growing up, I never saw myself on those television screens. It was just something that looked beautiful and I could hope that one day maybe we get to The Boondocks (TV series) which is one of the cooler animations that we’ve seen on television but there aren’t a lot of females represented and I wanted to create that with King Creole so to have that trailer was so huge for me.”
Richard elaborates further on the technical part of the creation process: “I wanted to have more Black animators to be seen so I collaborated with a Nigerian artist called Nurdin Momudo from Lotusfly Animation and they’re amazing. They are based out in Nigeria and I really wanted to work with them in 3D-animation so we started with the sketches and then I let them work with it because I wanted to highlight the fact that in Nigeria in a time where they’ve been having severe unrest that there is beautiful animated houses being production houses that have opportunities for children to animate in a space where they don’t have that much electricity or laptops.”
Throughout the interview, it gets clearer how aware and grateful Richard is of holding the position she is in and how she wants to use her platform for greater means. In the trailer, King Creole visits a grave which says: ‘Here lies the lover of art and music’ and the two swords, she is holding are also inscribed with the words ‘art’ and ‘music’.
“There has been a death of art and music, there has been a death of doing the conceptual album, having an actual intention within the album, but I also think that with death comes a celebration. There is a celebration to be had to the possibilities of what’s next and so, though King Creole is seen there showing love to the death of it, […] she also embodies it and she’s able to combat that but also to protect herself. She, herself, is art and love and music and with those two swords, those two ideas, she combats the industry. But that’s a reality I think I’ve always had to be – both sword and shield. I wear the armour to protect myself but I also combat it with those things.
“I think we constantly do both when we go through life – not only fight but protect ourselves with the exact talent that we’re using to fight with.”
Dancing in A Second Line
A Second Line is a traditional celebration of death and the dead. It is pure joy and astonishment at our life and its ending. The preciousness of the moment comes back to us when we think about the people we have lost so that we might conquer another day. The realisation that we can not only defend ourselves through our creations but use them to our advantage in trying times is driving humans ever since and forever. Dawn Richard does not observe the post-apocalyptic landscape from the outside but puts herself into this world and defines it newly through her experience, as a Black woman, an independent artist and a celebrant of courage wherever it may be found.
A: ‘At whose funeral would you’ve liked to dance in a second line?”
D: “I have to say Prince! Him and Freddie Mercury have been such an inspiration to me as an artist. It took them 7 years, 8 years to be signed because they were just so sonically above the times. And I just feel like their celebration would have been monumental because of what they’ve done for music, and just how colourful they were to music. That’s the second line I wanna be a part of!”
Second Line is out Friday 30th April via Merge Records.