DAWN's 'New Breed' of Humanity

DAWN's 'New Breed' of Humanity

Over the last decade, Dawn Richard has built a name for herself as something of a pop-culture icon and world-class indie legend: aka, DAWN.

If you're not familiar, the singer, songwriter, and producer came up through MTV's Making the Band zeitgeist, during which Diddy formed Danity Kane — a group name she came up with from inspired by her private feminist anime sketches. On that show, the hopefuls who ultimately would form the final five —then, four; now, three— navigated countless endurance tests from the rapper-mogul and his cohort, including famed choreographer Laurieann Gibson, pushing their abilities as singer and performers to their limits while attempting to find camaraderie with one another in a glaring national spotlight. Boom kack for your life, indeed.

As that group recorded a couple top-selling and high-charting albums, and disbanded and got back together and disbanded again (having been on a tour called The Universe Is Undefeated, of late, it seems that DK3 is on again for the time being), Richard launched her solo career. And the woman who drew those anime characters back then and came up with some of the group's most memorable harmonies emerged as a cult figure of indie cred with no musical boundaries. Critics have said that Richard's solo work sits comfortably between the art-pop pathos of Bjork and the experimental soul of Brandy.

Across a string of EPs and a high-concept trilogy of full-length albums based in literary mythology, tricked-out music videos, collaborations with folks ranging from Dirty Projectors and Kimbra to frequent partners such as Machinedrum, Richard established an impressive self-made presence. Not to mention, as a Black woman making predominantly electronic music, she reminded the world that the music that moves the most mountains comes from people of color. But has she had an assistant to accomplish all this? Richard laughs at the thought. She reminds us that we as a society should never tell Black women what they can and cannot do.

"Listen, man, you just gotta go get it. So I read up a lot on how to start a small business because people don't realize that starting a small business is so similar to being an indie artist," Richard tells PAPER. "Throughout my career, I've learned set and stage design for shows and videos, how to do my own booking, how to balance my own budgets, which I was financing on my own. Every structure I learned from there applied how I sold the album, which I moodboarded and creative directed from top to bottom. When I'm done performing a set, I pack up my own merch table."

Now back with new breed, out today, Richard's vision, while always a collaboratively-minded one, is more explicitly spiritual and universal than ever. Where prominent historical figures like Joan of Arc, Saint Lazarus, and fictitious Nordic folklore have influenced past works, new breed heralds, for the first time in Richard's nearly 20-year career, the people, strength, joy, and mysticism of her hometown, New Orleans.

It is also more clear than ever that Richard's spiritual insight for the world requires all expressions of gender fluidity to be recognized as indestructible diamonds, where political injustice and systemic oppression is challenged head-on, where women and men are seen as kings on the same playing field, and where the ancestry and culture of Indigenous people is uplifted. The 10-song album, mostly self-produced in collaboration with Cole M.G.N, Kaveh Rastegar, and Hudson Mohawke, is, like her great city, the gumbo-flavored melting pot America aspires to be. It fuses colorful sonic textures of Afrobeat, '70s funk, and layered pop melodies with hard-hitting lyrics spelling out Richard's unabashed truth: "Too powerful, too confident, too brave, too Black, too thin."

In Richard's ideal world, such qualifiers would cease to exist. All concepts within new breed then, are best taken in, not only as musically enjoyable mindset, but as necessary changes for the progress of humanity. Could it be that we're closer than we think?

Over the last five years, you released a trio of albums: Goldenheart, Blackheart, Redemption. On New Breed, you are back to New Orleans, back to where you grew up, but approaching it from a new, elevated place. Considering all you've learned, you've been in the industry for what, 20 years?

136 years. [Laughs] It's been almost 20 years.

Why a return back to your roots now?

I can honestly say I didn't plan on it. After the trilogy I was going to be like, "That was a good run." It's hard being indie. I was getting to a place where I was like, "Man, I'm financing a lot of stuff, and I'm not really getting out as much." I was trying to figure out, "Is this something I want to continue?" I was very proud of what I had done, and I was like, "I could do this, period, and be good." Then, my mom and dad moved back to NOLA. I was home for like, a week. I was like, "Aw. OK."

Were you reminiscing back home, thinking about where you came from?

Not even just reminiscing, I just realized I forgot that I was so much more before it all. New Orleans was already "it." There was so much music, so much talent. My father had given me so much. There was so much life, and I knew who I was before the industry, and I had lost everything. I never had an opportunity to sit in that. When you're 20, your youth, you're just in your young adult life, you get to start to find who you are. We were stripped of an entire life before I could even share, or put that into DK, or anything that I was doing. It was one of those things where I didn't get an opportunity to get fed and go back to where I was home. I didn't get to go see my grandmother, I didn't get to go see those same places, my best friend. I missed out on weddings because we were away from each other. So, everything that I had known — my grandmother was down the street, aunt was across the way — literally everyone was from there. It went from Thanksgivings all the time to we never had a group Thanksgiving ever again. For the first time I could sit and just breathe that air again, I started to see the people from around the way.

There's a story there you hadn't yet told.

I had been so busy telling the story of music and my journey. I forgot that that didn't define me. My mom was building her first dancing school in a garage, and I grew up being babysat by the entire block, because that's the neighborhood we were in. You know, living next to the swamp, because we lived in the Lower Nine, which was bayou. That's what I — that's who I was long before. Bit by bit, it all came back. Then, the pen went down. I said, "OK. If I'm going to tell this story, then I've got to produce it solely myself. I've got to really do the work." Then, I started talking to all the people around me and started to create it.

You really dug into New Orleans' history, including spoken word bits from Native Chiefs.

Chief Montana, my dad and his band, Chocolate Milk. So all of the things that I remember growing up, my dad and his first live performance, his first one, is on him singing. Then, my uncle, Joe, who's the trumpet player, he announces — talking about, "There's no place like New Orleans."

Who else is on the record?

There's my Uncle Joe, then Chief Montana talking about, "When they're drinking, they're drunk." Then you've got Queen from King Creole, talking about just the arrogance and the cockiness of who she is, and then the lead in from another queen talking about how queen didn't have voices before and now they're stepping into what they really are, and I can relate to that too, as a woman, because I was stripped a lot of my voice before. Not when I was in New Orleans, but when I got in the industry I was stripped of that confidence. I forgot that we were poor and cocky! [Laughs]

As a culturally and ethnically diverse melting pot, New Orleans is one of the few places in America that actually represents what America wants to represent.

We don't punish you for going to drink and then going to church on Sunday, and then going being naked on Halloween in your choking collar with your gay partner as you walk down the street. We're like, "Oh, we saw you yesterday!" Then the father would be like, "Hey!" Your preacher will be like, "Oh my god, good to see you." The truth of it, it's the truth, and I only know that. It's free. We have our issues, we've had racism and all that stuff, like anything else, but to be honest it's the truth and I took it for granted. I thought that's how every place was until I left and I said, "Oh no! I can't do a handstand and pop my ass on this wall?" Because at prom, it's just girls in dresses popping on the wall. The only other culture I know like that is West Indian culture, or African culture, you move sexually young. Your body moves a certain way, but that's all we've ever known and so I'm like, "We always pop our ass like that in the middle of the street. Everyone does that, why not?" It's just a free thing, but hey, I love it. I just kind of wanted to make a record, but not make it in its past terms, take it to the future.

"We're not polished [...] but fuck it. We still diamonds."

What else did you want to capture about New Orleans on this record?

New Orleans is where you can have no money but you can get you a hairdress and be fly. We lost everything, but we were dancing in the streets. We had Mardi Gras the next year with no floats! We didn't even have a street. When we die, we dance. When we have funerals, we dance. My grandfather, when he died — we danced. I forgot that we loved what we were, and that brings it into the "we, diamonds," track. We're not polished, we're rough around the edges, but fuck it. We still diamonds. We're still valuable, and I forgot that. Then when I went home, I realized, "Man, yeah I was this long before, and I'll be it long after." [I had to] remind, not only everyone else, but myself, as a woman, as a woman of color, and also as someone from the south, where in a time politically we were super divided, there can be a place that shines. If we want to get really deep, New Orleans is such a liberal place, but outside of that, we are a red state. It is very racist, and very discriminatory. I don't know a time when New Orleans didn't have trans culture and bounce culture — we're free without anyone's permission. That's very rare.

You also capture gender fluidity on this album, and two-spirit indigenous culture, which is also part of where you come from.

Absolutely. I've always, in every album, opened the fact that I see myself as a king, even though I'm a woman. I see most women as kings. I relate to that and I feel that way because of what I grew up in. Most of our celebrities were gay, queer, fluid, or trans. Katey Red, Messy Mya, we're just getting hip to Freedia, but Freedia grew because of what Katey Red and what Messy Mya and those people before her established. Again, we were fearless there. I love to explore our roots that way, and I speak to that throughout the album because I find that when men, when I got to have bosses, they just didn't know what to do with that energy I had, because they found it aggressive. It isn't aggressive, but I just see equally to people. As a man, you may see yourself as a king, but when you're speaking to me, you're also speaking to a king. I don't want the little crown, I want the crown you wear. They didn't understand that dynamic because it catches them off guard and they can't relate to it. I always thought that was funny, so there was a blatant use of that here, even speaking about men as wolves [in the song "vultures | wolves"] because so many men still can't grasp the concept of us being equal. If you as a woman say to a man "we are both kings," just watch their expression. They can't take it!

"When you're speaking to me, you're also speaking to a king."

The album's centerpiece is "vultures | wolves." At first, it feels like a self-indictment for not being the right kind of lover. A closer reading feels like it's a message about not conforming to society's expectations of women, and a modern examination of how women are consumed by men.

Every time I would find the opportunity to be that "thing" men wanted me to be, whatever it was, I had to apologize and and have this fight with myself. As women, we fight with that. When is it pandering? When are we being too apologetic? Are we playing ourselves? We have to decide that in our workplace, we have to decide when we go home to our families or partners always questioning what we say and do. We should never have to do that, and the "vultures" half of the song is me battling that. I will never speak to someone's imperfection until I face my own.

In terms of the "wolves" portion, what can you share about your own experience and it how it relates to that?

"Wolves" really spoke to that. It spoke to all those instances, everything I've ever wanted to say to the bosses that I've had, all of them, to the men in my life that weren't great. They were wolves, but they were dressed in really nice clothing. Those are the the ones you gotta look out for.

I've been sexually assaulted, I've been abused. That one was hard, because I feel like it started young, in high school. Just the wrong guys I was looking at for acceptance was the first part of it, and then as a job, when I got the [male] bosses that I got. The level on which I was spoken to, verbally wasn't it. I always fought with playing and trying to find the line of, "But I really want to be grateful." That was my problem, right? Like, I want to be grateful for the fact that at least this is happening, at least I get this. I felt like I didn't realize it until the day I left Bad Boy, of my childhood, realizing at some point I can't do that anymore. I had to look at myself, and it wasn't Puff, it was all of it, not just my experiences with Puff. I just realized at that moment, as a woman, I had a weakness of using "gratitude" as a crutch. Like, "I want to be grateful, so I'm not going to say anything, because at least I had the opportunity or at least this person is giving me an opportunity."

"As women, we gotta talk about what we experience."

There's always a background voice where women are conditioned to blame themselves if they are abused and not "grateful."

How many of us have said, "I'll be called a bitch today because I spoke up for myself," how many of us have said, "OK, I'm not asleep for the 37th hour or the 75th hour, I'll do this. I'm in the hospital, I haven't eaten, but I'm grateful?" "But he gave me this job." So yeah, seeing women get hit, beat, and you don't say nothing. When have you ever become that person. You start looking at yourself like, "When was I that girl?" So you have to decide. I found this out later in life for myself. That ain't gonna fly. That can't fly. And that's self love. Self love came later for me, but that's OK. I'll look at myself today and say, "OK, you fucked up here, here, and here, but I'm also OK with saying, 'I'll forgive you for that.'" Then, realizing that I'm not the only woman who feels that way. I've always thought to be quiet, I've always been silent, I just use it in the art, not say it. Not this time. I see that as women, we gotta talk about what we experience.

How did you come up with the idea, new breed, and embodying that? Saying, "I am" or "We are" the new breed feels radical.

I think that we all come from indigenous people as ancestors, whether it be African, whether it be Native, and I think that we are ancestral and we are bred to be a certain thing. I think that we were wiped from history, in all kinds of aspects. Whether it's Jewish people that have been wiped away, Black people, African, Native. For some reason when we go to school, we're not taught about ourselves. We're just not. I feel like what is brewing in this new age, our culture, is a new breed of person, a new breed of woman, a new breed of man, where we are not being stifled by what we are and what we come from, and I love it.

Considering your own history, who did you make this album for?

This album speaks to the new breed of woman who is saying, "Me too," who is saying, "I'm queer," the new breed of man who is saying, "I'm choosing to be gay even if I've been straight my whole life," the new breed of woman who is saying, "I'm trans," the new breed of woman who is being unapologetic and saying, "I want to run for president, I am able to run for president." Every woman, Natives who are finally speaking out and choosing that they want their own reservations, the pipeline — everyone is standing up and saying, "We deserve better, we are more." That is what this album encompasses, and I feel like New Orleans was always that to me. We never shied away from our culture. We are one of the few cities that still stay true to it. We don't let people build, there's some places where you can build, you have to keep the outside the way it is. You cannot touch the layers. We fight very hard for the preservation of that, no matter how much they try to gentrify it, and it's gentrified. You can't take that away from us, so I feel like that's a little bit of tradition being brought into the new.

How are things going with Danity Kane?

Yeah! Me and my girls [bandmates Aubrey O'Day and Shannon Bex] are touring. I'm proud of us, man.

You all have been through so much, god bless.

It's honest, it's real as hell. But what you expect from girls who had never known each other. We grew up with the most turbulent boss of all time, great boss, but still, and then on television. How the fuck were we supposed to figure that out? We're still, this is trial and error with us, but it feels good now, because now we tell each other when we can't stand each other and we need a break.

Yeah, and it's not like, "It's over!"

No, it doesn't have to be that, and now they know me because I had to tell them, "We're raised differently. If you say something and it's out of pocket, you've got to be expecting, where I'm from, sis you get checked! My sister gets checked when she do dumb shit." But for her [Aubrey], she comes from a different world. So, when she gets checked, she's like, "Oh my god, the world is over. I've got to tell everybody, I've got to call TMZ, I've got to do all of this shit." But we got through that, we get through that shit, and now I know. So now I know I can't handle her the way I would handle my best friend. I've got to handle her differently, and now she knows, "OK, I've got to keep this shit private. That ain't for everybody to know. I need to just cool off and take a second." That said, I'mma check your ass, though, because you've got to learn that some things you say are inappropriate. That mouth ain't always the right thing you're saying.

I think the makeups and breakups of Danity Kane really defy society's expectations of girl groups having perfect fairytale narratives.

Yes, and it's because we're women. People make it out like we've either got to be perfect or we can't be together. We're just like men! The difference is we're emotionally wired different, but shit, we don't have to agree, but we can still work together. People think girl groups gotta be like glitter, I'm sorry. People who are sisters who could have it all don't exist that way. But what we can do is fucking try, because we know that we have a fanbase that is overtly loyal.

What has it been like to still have fans through all the turbulence?

I feel like they should go to AA meetings. [Laughs] We put them through so fucking much, I'm so sorry. We have a different kind of fanbase. I don't even know how they're enduring this, they've been through abuse. I feel so bad, they've been traumatized. I think they go to the concerts like... are you sure, sis? Giving us side-eye and half-singing "Damaged" when we're performing [Laughs]. It's like they'll still have bought tickets, but they had the refund request at the ready like because they don't know what to expect. On our tour, some of our fans were real salty, they were half excited, and we get it, we totally get that. We owe our fans everything. And we're grateful for them. It's genuine. But we're not going to do it if it ain't, so, at least y'all know it's honest. However it may come, it's real. I think that there's value in that. Yeah, we didn't come in making no big ass plans, we said, "Let's try this." And so far, so good. No expectations, because that's when shit gets crazy [Laughs]. We can all shine because like I said earlier, we're diamonds. It's fine, girl.

Stream DAWN's new breed, below. Buy it here.

Photography: Robert Arnold