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“She’s just a girl from the nine,” begins the introduction to Dawn Richard’s fifth album ‘new breed’. The reference to her childhood neighbourhood (the ninth ward of New Orleans) sets the tone for the rest of the album: it plays as a love letter to the city and the culture that moulded the woman and artist she is today.
Defiant and daring, DAWN has always evaded categorisation – her fusion of electronic, bounce, R&B, soul and reggae swerves the labels that listeners and critics often impose on an artist. As convenient as it is to box artists into a single genre, black women are often pushed into the ‘R&B/soul’ category, “and if the music is too far away, they’ll just add ’alt-’ to the beginning,” she agrees. Her own journey through the mainstream, from her time in girlband Danity Kane to one half of duo Diddy Dirty Money, has seen her approach an array of sounds that truly reflect her multidimensionality.
Her debut trilogy of albums – ‘GoldenHeart’ (2013), ‘BlackHeart’ (2015) and ‘Redemption’ (2016) – were her opportunity to “give herself to the world” as an artist with full creative control. “I don’t think that my skin colour should dictate the type of music I make,” she argues, pointing to the critical success of her albums, which have contained styles ranging from future-facing dance to slick R&B. The creative freedom she’s found since going independent has meant she has “hustled harder”, a one-woman movement with a small, entrusted circle behind her. “It is harder without a big industry machine behind you, but then at the same time, you have a select few who not only see how hard I work, but have the same vision as me,” she tells Dummy of life post-Diddy Dirty Money.
“I can still sense people’s surprise when I walk into a meeting. It needs to be normal to see women and people of colour in these spaces.”
DAWN’s creative flair spills over into the tech universe, something she mentions with passion when discussing her partnership with Adult Swim, where she is a content creator. Looking at Silicon Valley stereotypes, the last place you’d expect to find a former reality show contestant and one half of a hip-hop duo is in the tech industry. The same diversity and eclecticism that DAWN pushes for in music is reflected in her passion for tech: “I can still sense people’s surprise when I walk into a meeting. It needs to be normal to see women and people of colour in these spaces,” she explains, highlighting the glaring gender and racial inequality in what is considered a progressive field.
A self-confessed ‘comic book geek’ since her early teens, DAWN’s personal interest in anime (her favourites include One-Punch Man and Bleach) has seen her create her own comics while she was in Danity Kane, and create her own character – a fifteen-year-old black girl from New Orleans. The success of works like Black Panther has instilled hope in the commercial viability of diverse creativity, to which Dawn responds, “We’re coming and we’re coming strong.”
Nothing exemplifies New Orleans’ grit and eccentricity more than its own music, in particular the genre it birthed: bounce. The product of Mardi Gras culture, southern hip-hop and LGBTQ+ representation, this rare jewel of Southern culture has recently been brought to international audiences by the likes of Drake and Beyoncé. The world’s introduction to bounce has come from none other than Big Freedia, the now-infamous voice in the beginning of ‘Nice For What’ as well as 2016’s ‘Formation’. Big Freedia, DAWN tells me, is a “local staple,” and preceding her was Katey Red – widely referred to as one of the key figures in bounce. The fact that a genre so closely interlinked with drag culture is embraced in the conservative Deep South as well as the rest of the world, speaks to how diverse and accepting her native city really is.
Speaking to Dummy over the phone from LA, DAWN paints a picture of the ‘melting pot culture’ of her hometown, where traditional Creole and African aspects of culture such as Mardi Gras and the spiritual tradition of voodoo sit comfortably beside the pomp and ceremony of the Catholic Church. “New Orleans is not just a place, it’s a lifestyle. We celebrate our differences and push this culture of acceptance to the forefront,” she says.
“After Katrina, I was living in my car, we all lost everything. That determination and hustle is something that I’ve grown up with and taken with me.”
The album title is not only a testament to Dawn’s own creativity and originality, but to that of her fellow New Orleanians. The community she describes as “survivors not victims” following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, were forced to start from scratch with nothing but their culture and themselves. “After Katrina, I was living in my car, we all lost everything,” she says. “That determination and hustle is something that I’ve grown up with and taken with me”. In that sense, ‘new breed’ is a “story of struggle” for a city that has “had everything, lost it all over again.” How does a community recover from the infrastructural damage of such a disaster, coupled with the emotional turmoil of, until recently, being dubbed one of the most dangerous in the US? “We rebuild, and we dance,” she says calmly.
Reference to “survivors not victims” brings us to a sombre conversation about Lifetime’s six-part Surviving R Kelly, a documentary which sheds light on how the music industry has facilitated the exploitation of women as well as the heinous crimes Kelly has allegedly committed. Track eight on ‘new breed’, ‘wolves’, explores the predatory behaviour faced by women not only in the music industry, but in all areas of life. “They show their teeth / like white pearls coated with meat / from all the girls they’d like to eat,” she sings. “In the music industry, you are constantly around predators who manipulate the dreams of young women,” DAWN says, pointing to its significance as an acknowledgement of women who have been spoken down to, abused and exploited. An “I see you, and I stand with you,” declaration of acknowledgement and sisterhood.
“In the music industry, you are constantly around predators who manipulate the dreams of young women.”
While ‘new breed’s ‘sauce‘ is an exploration of female sexuality at its most unashamed, with DAWN writing along with the release: “The new breed of women are unapologetic about sex and the way they choosing to express themselves.”
And what of the future? “I would love to come back to London,” she says, before saying Hackney is her favourite place to stay and hang out. “Like New Orleans, you never know what you’ll find around the corner,” she laughs.
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