Dawn Richard Pays Homage to New Orleans

We Talk to Richard About Her Progressive Album ‘Second Line’

On May 6th 2021 » By Allison Hazel

dawn richard actual interview header

For nearly a decade, Dawn Richard has paved her own lane, experimenting musically with genre-blending solo projects. Formerly a member of the pop quintet Danity Kane and hip-hop trio Dirty Money, Richard is continuing to pioneer Black women in electronic music to the forefront with her latest project. Richard’s sixth album Second Line takes listeners on a musical journey, amplifying elements of electronic pop, house, footwork and R&B.

The singer-songwriter boldly declares “I am the genre” on the introductory track “King Creole,” foreshadowing the album’s progressive sound. Noteworthy songs include the harmonious dance record “Boomerang,” dancehall-inspired track “Jacuzzi” and uptempo anthem “Bussifame.” In its entirety, Second Line questions traditional ideas of sound, production and visual aesthetics. “It’s an album that people have to play over and over because they have to digest what it is,” Richard told VMP.

Second Line is a self-proclaimed ode to New Orleans. Dawn’s mother, a Louisiana native, authentically serves as the narrator throughout the project, delivering a hometown feel to the transitions and interludes. “As a solo artist, who I embody — I am the exact example of what a New Orleans artist is. My mom is an example of that. We are creatures of survival, because we have been in a city that has constantly been forgotten. Yet we have all this culture. We have all this beauty,” Richard said.

Titled after a celebratory New Orleans tradition, Second Line truly embodies the city but in a non-traditional way. Historically, a Second Line is when spectators join the main line of a walking parade, oftentimes to honor a deceased person at a jazz funeral. “Through death we find positivity. Through heartache we find light. This album doesn’t have to have a brass band to tell you it’s New Orleans,” Richard said. “It wasn’t going to be me singing about parades all day. I was going to do it in the way that I moved in the art. And everything was going to be purposeful in other ways to influence what it means to be from this city.”

The Southern-bred artist describes her hometown as a melting pot both musically and culturally — similar to her new album. “[In New Orleans] we’ve got Creole, white, Black, Cajun, Italian, Vietnamese. We have a very large population of just diversity in the city. You’ll walk down Bourbon [Street] and hear a rock club, zydeco club, blues club. You’ll get like eight different genres of music on one block. That’s natural here,” Richard explained. “Same thing musically with this album. It’s multi-genre, but it’s purposely mixed with all these beautiful things to encompass what I’ve been raised in. I wanted to tell that story.”

Richard talked to VMP about celebrating a new wave, putting an end to stereotypes, boxes and limitations in music. Furthermore, she elaborates on the electro-revival, Afrofuturism and breaking glass ceilings across genres.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

VMP: Before we get into the album, what was the inspiration behind the Second Line artwork?

Dawn Richard: If you look at my covers, I’ve always had an affinity for a Black woman looking like a warrior. I’ve always wanted that, if you look from Goldenheart all the way on. It’s important to me that the Black female —or even if it’s not a Black woman, the Black queer community, people who consider themselves other, to see themselves as royalty and regal within the fight.

And what we came up with was King Creole, and that’s the armor. Instead of the armor being what I would normally wear like on Goldenheart — I wore an actual armored piece. In Blackheart, I had the armor face coming off. Or with New Breed, I had the Mardi Gras Indian headdress. This time, her skin is the armor. So it’s a new take on what I would see when I think of artists or people who have always been undervalued. I always see them as warriors and King Creole, myself. I see myself that way.

Interesting; what’s your personal favorite track on the album and why?

I actually love the trio of “Le Petit Morte” into “Radio Free” into “The Potter.” Those three are powerful to me because the second half of the album is the human side of the album. It’s way more vulnerable. It’s way more stripped bare. Whereas the first half of the album is a progressive process, the Android side of the album. So you’ve got more dance records on the first half. Whereas the second half of the album is more of a downbeat.

Those three records, to me, speak about when you’re curated for the industry or just for people. Then they build you up as a product, and then they leave you. And you’re stuck on the shelf. How do you love yourself? And how does the world love you when you’re not the popular thing anymore? When you’re not the thing that is most looked at as beautiful? How do you survive that, or heal through that? And those three records really, to me, resonate the human aspect of what I’ve gone through in this musical journey.

On “Radio Free” you were being candid about your experience in the music industry. How are you navigating as a solo artist, particularly as a Black woman?

I didn’t realize until I became the solo artist that my color was going to dictate my genre. I always loved alternative or dance. I’ve always loved that sound. And I started with a pop girl group who was predominantly multiracial with mostly white girls. So I didn’t get the jarring. Then, when I went to Dirty Money it was severely Black. And it was hip-hop. So it was nothing that was out of the norm for anyone because that was traditional. It wasn’t until I became a solo artist that I realized, “Oh shit, my color is like boxing me in right now.” And that was the beginning of that for me.

I’ve had to survive when everyone rejected me — when they didn’t see this sound or hear the sound on a Black woman. Or the moment I tried to be versatile and show people I can do all these different sounds, and it makes sense. I can be a producer; I can be an animator; I can do a different trajectory than the normal artists. I was rejected by that. However, eight years later, I’m still here trying to dance through it all.

Sonically, each song is a bit different. Was that intentional when you were sequencing the project?

Absolutely! Sequencing was important for me, and I didn’t want the cliché. All my other albums, I had been telling a story that was so specific about the music industry. It was like every song, every piece, was blatantly about the heartache and the pain. Whereas with this album, I wanted the album to reflect what New Orleans is to me. So each song — even though they can blend together — they are very different.

I never want one album to sound like the other. I truly want people to love different eras. They may not love this one, they may prefer a Goldenheart. The people who are just meeting me, they might prefer this and say this is the best album that they’ve ever heard. I don’t ever want my art to be like, “I want to be better than the next one.” But more than anything, I want to make diverse works of art that all paint different pictures but can be played as a whole. And when you play it, you can totally hear the story. And you can see the journey, and you can go along with it. That’s all I could ask for as an artist — is for you to feel. You could hate it, love it, just feel. If I can do that with this, then I’ve done my job.

The music videos all share a common theme too. From the artistic vision to the choreography, specifically “Bussifame” and “Jacuzzi.” What message were you trying to convey with the visuals?

The album is a post-apocalyptic New Orleans. It’s the Blade Runner of New Orleans. Visually, I was trying to personify that as best I could with an independent budget. My director, choreographer and dancers all being from New Orleans, applying the art of dance. Because here [in New Orleans] parades, dance teams and majorettes are ever-present. It’s a culture thing here. So, combining the idea of having multiple girls dancing with me to create the aesthetic of the New Orleans tradition is in the visuals.

However, the way we look the same, creating the concept that, after this post-apocalyptic world happens, the first person you see is Black women. So the world wipes away and the first image you see are these Black girls. Same outfit and same hair to tell the story of the Android. They would all look the same, they would dance the same. But, aesthetically there would be a dark look to them, a grunge look to the visuals. So all my visuals aren’t clean. It’s not polished as my other visuals have been. Our costumes aren’t perfect. There’s holes, there’s tears. Our makeup is molded. It’s supposed to be grittier than my normal visuals. Because we’re in a world that’s unpolished. It’s raw.

It’s evident in the credits that you were very hands-on with the overall project. Especially in terms of writing and producing. What was that process like this time around?

I’ve been [working behind the scenes] for eight years. I had to build my own set for my shows and take them down after I perform for two hours straight. I’ve only ever had a few [people to help]. I’ve been lucky and I’ve been grateful for the few that I’ve had believe in me and my process. So, a lot of times I’d have to learn on my own. And win and lose on my own, too. So it’s no different. This creative process is no different than the other five or six albums that I’ve had to do prior. [In order] to really keep the message going, to keep the art moving.

I think I was purposeful with this album. Strategically, to work with a lot of people of color. Working with animators from Nigeria, to my choreographer and my director being women, Black women, that was important for me. Then having the artists that created the album be from New Orleans; those were purposeful movements.

allison

Allison Hazel

Allison Hazel, professionally known as Ally Hazel, is an NYC-based writer, blogger, and music journalist. Her bylines include Global Grind, The Source, Billboard, Essence, and more.

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