Dawn Richard Sings Her Freedom On 'Second Line'

Originally published on May 10, 2021 11:41 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Dawn Richard grew up in New Orleans. Her father sang in a funk band called Chocolate Milk. He still does.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FRICTION")

CHOCOLATE MILK: (Singing) Friction, baby.

SHAPIRO: As a kid, she was kind of alternative.

DAWN RICHARD: I had my JNCO jeans, and I was ready to go. Like, that was natural to me, right? I had blue and green hair young, anime shirts when I was young.

SHAPIRO: And her musical tastes wandered far from her father's style.

DAWN RICHARD: I grew up loving Chris Cunningham, Aphex Twin, Portishead, Bjork, Imogen Heap. You know, Green Day was my first concert.

SHAPIRO: Richard dreamed of being a pop star. That path first led her to a reality TV show that birthed the group Danity Kane.

DAWN RICHARD: When I got in the line to do Danity Kane and do "Making The Band," I had no idea that me wanting to be in a pop girl group as a Black woman would be as hard as it was, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAMAGED")

DANITY KANE: (Singing) I've tried every remedy, and nothing seems to work for me.

DAWN RICHARD: You were the little Black token girl. And then going from that to being in a predominantly Black group...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HATE THAT YOU LOVE ME")

DIRTY MONEY: (Singing) I hate that you love me.

DAWN RICHARD: ...Where you're a chocolaty girl sitting next to your boss...

SHAPIRO: Your boss, Diddy.

DAWN RICHARD: Yeah, Diddy, exactly. And you're thinking you're about to change something, right? In 2011, I thought Diddy - Dirty Money was the most innovative idea. You had three Black, chocolaty people, you know, being influenced by Ibiza. I just thought that was the most beautiful thing I'd ever been in. And nobody bit it, so much so that Diddy didn't believe we should go on with it. And he stopped it.

SHAPIRO: When Diddy - Dirty Money ended, Dawn Richard set off on her own as an independent artist, creating a style that she says she's been zeroing in on her whole life. Her new album is called "Second Line: An Electro Revival."

(SOUNDBITE OF DAWN RICHARD SONG, "BUSSIFAME")

SHAPIRO: Second line is a reference to her hometown of New Orleans.

DAWN RICHARD: You know, for us, you think of second line, you think of a brass band, what we do when we dance for funerals. I didn't want to necessarily do the traditional brass band. I chose to do it in a different way. And what you get is this really cool melting pot of dance cultures put into one record, and that's "Bussifame."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUSSIFAME")

DAWN RICHARD: (Rapping) She bended over like she getting the heat, sound system like the wave. She riding the heat. Southern girls do it better. You take defeat. Setting up a punch - hoes, you take a seat. Bust it for me. Bust it for me. Bust it for me. Bust it for me.

The actual definition when you think about New Orleans and second lining is, no, there are no set steps. It's literally like you watch people celebrate legacy in their own way. And I love that about New Orleans. We don't give you rules, so why should my music have rules, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRESSURE")

DAWN RICHARD: (Singing) Pressure, pressure, pressure.

SHAPIRO: You know, in the year 2021, we have at our fingertips people making music from all over the world, and a track will be reinterpreted by people on TikTok in different continents. So in this moment, do you think that the connection between place and sound has become weaker than it used to be? Like, does it matter if somebody is a Houston or a New Orleans or a D.C. or an LA musician?

DAWN RICHARD: Place may not play a factor in where you're from with music, but I do believe that color is still playing a factor in how we are put in genres.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOSTALGIA")

DAWN RICHARD: An opportunity for us.

Me as a Black woman, any time I do music that resembles anything different, I can't get past alternative R&B because people don't let us sit in different - let is a strong word. We are not able to sit in the spaces that I think we want to see ourselves in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOSTALGIA")

DAWN RICHARD: (Singing) I'm trying to find purpose, but I'm lost in your circus, trying to go back to when the love was important. I just...

If you're indie rock or folk or, you know, heavy metal and you're Black or a person of color, it's a harder ride for you.

SHAPIRO: In some of the tracks on this album, you talk specifically about the industry and its shortcomings. Like, I'm thinking of "Radio Free"...

DAWN RICHARD: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RADIO FREE")

DAWN RICHARD: (Singing) She losing. She losing herself.

SHAPIRO: ...Where you've got this lyric like, she not selling records, need help. They say she not worthy. She failed. They only love her if she making money.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RADIO FREE")

DAWN RICHARD: (Singing) They only love her if she making money. When it stop, they looking for the next honey.

I know that. I was that. I - you know, I went through it. And, again, I get the system. I get the formula. Like, I understand both sides of it. I understand that we are products and we are supposed to make money and we have to do what we're told and it's - you pay your dues. But I also know the other side of it is you fight hard for something, and you do the things you're - you know, you are built to do. And then when you're not enough anymore, you're kind of cast aside. You know, what happens when you are the actual product on the shelf and you have been forgotten about and there's cobwebs on you and you're kind of just sitting there like, OK, what's my purpose now, you know? Like, what happens when the radio, the mainstream, the world that is force feeding, you know, consumers - what happens when they turn you off? You play your freedom loud.

SHAPIRO: When you look back at the time that you spent in the industry, like, as a part of that machine, do you feel contempt or regret or gratitude? Like, what's the feeling?

DAWN RICHARD: For a girl like me who came from the Lower Ninth Ward, I am forever grateful for the road I had. I will say, though, my road has not been the traditional one. You know, we didn't have a lot of opportunity coming at that time. That was - what? - you know, 2005, when I did Danity Kane. I had to drive to Orlando, Fla., to get in the line for "Making The Band." That was the closest I could get to auditioning. There was nothing. The closest pop star that gave me any kind of inkling as to what I was going to be was Britney Spears from Kentwood, La. That was the closest from Louisiana that we had. There was nothing that looked like the design that I wanted for myself, so I had to figure that out on my own.

SHAPIRO: One of the tracks that talks about your journey out of the industry into your life as an independent artist is "Mornin

Streetlights."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORNIN

STREETLIGHTS")

DAWN RICHARD: (Singing) Too many people chasing. Not enough of you are craving for the love of the life, always a little behind.

SHAPIRO: Will you tell us about this?

DAWN RICHARD: Yeah. I think in order to know why I love the way I love, why I'm still doing this, like, why do I choose music after all of this, you have to understand where I understand love to be, what I understand passion to be. And my mom starts the record by saying she's only ever loved one person.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORNIN

STREETLIGHTS")

DAWN RICHARD: How many times have you been in love?

DEBBIE RICHARD: One time.

DAWN RICHARD: My mom and dad met when they were 15 years old, and they've been together ever since.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORNIN

STREETLIGHTS")

DEBBIE RICHARD: That's the only time I've ever been in love.

DAWN RICHARD: I thought that was amazing, you know, when she said that. I thought that that was real. That tenacity and that kind of love of - the way I love music - it only comes from the way my mom loves my dad. I only know love to be this grand thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORNIN

STREETLIGHTS")

DAWN RICHARD: (Singing) Two a.m. in the morning - I call him breakfast. I call him breakfast.

SHAPIRO: In addition to trying to make it as an independent artist and recording and producing all of this groundbreaking music, you are also expanding a vegan food truck that you established. You're working with Adult Swim on expanding their pool of animators to encompass more queer and Black storytellers. What do all these things have in common?

DAWN RICHARD: It's the same message. I want to be the person that helps the other because I was the other. And any time I can do that, I will. And it'll all be the same. It's - I want to be the voice for those who may not be able to speak out themselves.

SHAPIRO: Dawn Richard's new album is "Second Line."

Thank you for talking with us about it.

DAWN RICHARD: Thank you for having me. Spin it all day every day. I promise you it'll be the coolest thing you'll hear all day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOOMERANG")

DAWN RICHARD: (Singing) And your love keeps coming back to me like a boom-boom. And your love keeps coming back, keeps coming back - boomerang. And your love keeps coming back to me like a boom-boom. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.