Dawn Richard Talks Pop Autonomy, Staying Vigilant in Trump's America

"I think hate is very present," singer-songwriter says. "But it should encourage us to be louder about who we are"

Dawn Richard discusses her path from NBA dancer to reality-TV star and budding R&B mogul, and how the ugliness of the Trump era fuels her creativity.

Electro-soul pioneer Dawn Richard lives her life like the mythical protagonist of her own comic-book saga. She dresses the part, too: the singer-songwriter arrives to her Rolling Stone interview decked out in white, her eyelids gently dusted with glitter and iridescent purple shadow. She visited the RS offices just before the November release of her most dauntless LP, Redemption, the final installment of her epic trilogy dealing with stardom and its many, many pitfalls. It's not just any record release, she says – the album will be distributed via sterling-silver USB drive. ("You can wear it like a necklace," she stresses.) Scanning the RS cover wall, Richard stops at an image from August 1997 – in which the Prodigy's Keith Flint sports fuchsia hair, parted in the center and shellacked onto opposite sides of his head. "That's my shit right there," she laughs. "I wanted to be that guy when I was a kid. Pink hair, wild as hell."

Richard's inspirations range from Aphex Twin to Sun Ra, and the breadth of her taste nourishes her sky-high imagination. Yet as tempting as it is to place her origins somewhere in outer space, Richard was born into an accomplished New Orleans family: Her mother founded her own dance studio at 21, and her father, Frank Richard, fronted the disco-funk ensemble Chocolate Milk, which doubled as Allen Toussaint's backing band. In this career-spanning interview, she traces her ascent from her days as a dancer in the NBA to her breakout role in Sean Combs' MTV series Making the Band 3 – and her further collaborations with the mogul and his Bad Boy label – and reflects on her present status as a staunchly independent pop trailblazer. 

I wanted to talk about the trilogy as a whole and then really get into Redemption. What is the overarching story behind these albums?
It's about a warrior … a woman who's trying to make her way through the industry and falling in love with it, realizing it didn't love her back, and then trying to understand what it is she wants out of the journey. I mean 'she' as in me, but it could be anyone. How do you fit your passion in a world that doesn't always accept your passion, you know what I mean? We expect people to give us that gratification or that validation. Then you realize it was never for other people, you didn't need their validation. You needed something for yourself. That's where I'm at with Redemption – a warrior with a sword in her hand, trying to take on the world, the underdog. The age-old story, that is cyclical. You have the Bible, you also have The Odyssey, The Iliad – these quests, the mighty Hercules and Zeus and the story of Achilles and all these really beautiful stories of grandeur. These warriors set out for their own destiny and their legacy and try to find out what that really is for them.

And so at what stage do we find you in Redemption?
There was the Gold Era, then the Black … now I'm in my Red Era. Redemption is self-discovery. I think my entire life, I was a bit different. And I didn't think I was different; I just kinda always stuck out. At first, when you're young, you think that [there's] something wrong with you. ... Then, as an adult you realize you don't need the validation from people to say who you are. You are what you are. You have to find that love within yourself. And I think especially now, after this election, I think it is imperative that you discover who you are, because that's the only way you'll be able to sit in the chaos that is life. I think "Redemption" is that song. It's that realization that it was always about you and never about how other people see you.

When you know who you are, you know where you stand.
You sit in it, man. And it's take it or leave it. This is the take-it-or-leave-it album, you know what I mean? Not that I convince you what I am as an artist. I'm not gonna convince you that because I'm black, I'm supposed to ... This is it. This is what you're getting. And if you haven't fucked with it by now, it's not gonna be something you're gonna fuck with ever [laughs]. And that's fine. I've been in the industry a long time now. I don't expect anything from it anymore. I just ... I am who I am and it's not about where I fit in. It's about where I am in my own journey, and if they choose to accept me, great. If they don't, fucking fuck you.

I think a lot of people are reaching that point or need to reach that point. I think ... with political issues, with the issues that are going on, whether you're gay, whether you're straight, whether you're a woman, whether you're of color, there's a lot of choices we have to make right now. We got a lot of things coming our way that was already there but is now amplified. We've gotta figure out how that works for us. And I think the best way to understand that is by knowing [yourself] and not being afraid to be OK with yourself.

You've always made warrior music. Very gutsy, in-your-face, come-get-it kind of music.
Large balls. Big cojones. This is a blatant celebration in front of anyone who's uncomfortable with you. I'm gonna dance right the fuck in front of you with my hijab on. With my headdress, with my freckles, with my green eyes, with my gayness, with my drag. I'm gonna dance and I hope you're uncomfortable because maybe then it will make you feel something. I think we've been too numb to the idea that there is hate. I think hate is very present. But I think it should encourage us to be louder [about who] we are. Just be so obnoxiously yourself.

What was it like to grow up in New Orleans?
It was great. It was weird. It was all those things. My father was a musician, my mother was a dancer. But they were both teachers. We were a very strict and very educated family. When my dad went to college to get his master's from Loyola, he was playing Debussy and Chopin and Beethoven. But he played all that New Orleans stuff, too. I would go with my dad to gigs, pick up the piano and the speakers and I would be like his roadie. And I would sit here and listen to him play "Tennessee Waltz" … Otis Redding and Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. My grandfather played with Fats Domino.

Then you got into Prodigy.
Me, loving alternative music – it came out of left field. Prodigy, No Doubt, the Cranberries, Tori Amos. ... My mom was so confused. She was like, "Why can't you just wear a dress and wear pink and just listen to Mariah Carey?" That music was an outlet for me. I didn't see color; I wasn't purposely liking these artists – they were white but they connected with me. I just loved the sounds. I loved the choices and I loved the lyrics. So I gravitated towards that. But I still love that New Orleans sound. … I fell in love with Debussy. You can hear all of that in my music now.

Your father played in a popular funk band, Chocolate Milk. What did you learn from him?
My dad loves music and to this day he is phenomenal in it. But he gave it to me straight. My dad always told me, "Man, I had [a] horrible experience in the industry." He used to tell me all the stories. When you're in a group, you split so much that you make no money. So, I wasn't looking at music as a career. He was kinda like, "There's no money in it. It's ugly." So I was kinda like, "OK, that's a no."

But you became a musician anyway.
Music was something I still did, but only for the love of it. Besides music I was all, school, school, school. And softball. I played the game since I was four and I wanted to go to the Olympics for softball. I got a full scholarship through softball.

I grew up around a musically and artistically inclined family. … But I had no idea I'd make it a career. No idea, but then I felt the stage for the first time and I felt the presence of connecting with people on a level where you're on one heartbeat almost. Like, everyone is singing your lyrics and there is an appreciation of healing going on right there. ... So once that happened, it was over. I was like, "OK, I'm gonna try this music thing," and that became the goal. That was later in life, though. That was college.

What was college like?
I was 17. Originally, I was set on going to Hawaii Pacific University. We visited the campus in Hawaii. I was gonna be a Rainbow Warrior, I was gonna play softball, I was gonna major in marine biology. Everything was set. Then my dad was like, "So you're not gonna do music? If you do go to Hawaii, there's no studios there, baby girl."

I was devastated, but I had to make a choice: I stopped softball and stayed in Louisiana. I went to Nicholls State in Thibodaux and started dancing for the NBA [with the New Orleans Hornets]. I wanted to sing the National Anthem at the games, so it was a business move. They wouldn't get just anybody to sing the National Anthem unless they knew them. So I was like "Well, shit. I'm finna try out for the dance team." After I made it, I was like ,"Yeah, so about that National Anthem." And that's how I got to singing it every year.

Then about my senior year, I was getting ready to graduate, and that's when Making the Band happened. It was so random. I didn't even watch Making the Band. But the girls [in the dance team] knew I could sing and dance, so they were like, "There's this show we think you should do." I finished my degree online at the University of New Orleans. I graduated with a degree in marketing and a minor in marine science. I'm glad I did marketing. It kinda saved me, now that I'm trying to build my own business. Business law was the worst class I'll ever take in my entire life, but it wound up becoming so beneficial – it taught me about all those little loopholes and contracts later on.

You got a real taste of the music industry when you did Making the Band 3.
I had no idea that it would dictate the rest of my life or pigeonhole me musically. I was just happy it was a band because I had been loving bands my whole life. Even though it was a pop group – I just love the aesthetic of being around a team. Since I was four, I had the best girls around me always. So I was just like, "This is gonna be fun." Boy, was I wrong. You know, the fucking cameras in your face, girls being catty. It was something I was not ready for.

And it's broadcast for millions of people on television, which adds a whole other layer to the madness.
Listen, I was a kid that was into punk and shit. I wasn't wearing that kind of makeup. I had no clue my skin was fucked up. I had yellow weave. I wasn't prepared for the game of television, where you're supposed to brand yourself. I just knew I wanted to sing and dance. They built your story based off what they saw.

Which is why it was so important for you to break out and do your own thing.
Well, Puff was onto something. I liked the idea of being in a group; it was smart. I thought Danity Kane was bigger than any of us could ever be by ourselves. … But we were just too different. All of us were competitors, but Puff wanted us to be sisters at the same time. A Spanish girl, two black girls, two white girls … There was too much difference to try to make that work and so fast. I'd explain to the girls how hard it is, you know, being a black woman in this world and sometimes they didn't get it. But I think it's come full-circle now, to see how shocked people are about white supremacy today. I think liberals were living in a bubble. They didn't realize. In some ways, it's beautiful that [the election] happened this way, because I think now [it] opens people's eyes to the reality of what people of color and people who have been discriminated [against] have been saying for the longest time. People have always been telling me I'm overreacting when I say, "No, I feel this, and this is what it is and it's harder for me." When I look back, I see we were just different girls from different walks of life that couldn't really connect.

"In some ways, it's beautiful that [the election] happened this way, because [it] opens people's eyes to the reality of what people of color ... have been saying for the longest time."

For being remarkably different from each other, you all made great pop music together. But did it even come close to what your artistic vision was?
I mean, in all fairness the idea was already there before we stepped in. We signed a contract. We couldn't get in without signing a recording contract, so we were already being built. I think that was a lot of artists during that time. … Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Christina was just like, "Fuck everybody" in Stripped; Pink started out as an R&B artist, but all of a sudden you was like, "This bitch full rock?" They had Rihanna do the Barbados sound for "Pon de Replay" but then she was like, "I'm so much more." Everyone's manufactured when you first come in, 'cause they're using you as a product. It isn't until you can decide to break free that you find who you really are, so I think that was the case for every artist, especially during that time. They didn't even think we could write until the second album, so ...

I really liked your role in the band because I feel like when you grow up the "alt" kid in your community, you also recognize that in other people.
I was giving so many flags to people about what I was. I had a fairy patch ironed on my pants, I got this unicorn dress from a vintage store [laughs]. … Even the name, Danity Kane, came from a character that I drew.

Your manga character!
I was flagging everybody. Like just thinking back to when we did this competition – we had to open for Backstreet Boys, and they split us up into two groups. We had to pick our names –the other girl group picked SHE (She Has Everything). And I was like. "Well, let's just call ourselves Chain Six." We dressed as, like, paper boys from Oliver Twist.

Yeah, those newsboy caps? In 2005 that was a gender play.
The other girls came out in sexy velour. … And we were, like, gender. The newsboy caps with capris, heels and, like, half-tops with vests, clock watches. I was the one saying, "Let's do that." I think if you look deeper, I was always like that, you know? I had a fucking fairy on my pant. Who does that, dude?

How hard was that decision to leave Bad Boy and start working on your own?
I gave 10 to 11 years to Bad Boy, so I think it was just time. And I was very loyal to Puff. He was a hard-ass boss. But if you want to be able to survive the sharks, you need one of those. He doesn't sleep. I don't sleep. I think he prepared me for every fucking horrible person ever in the industry.

I would totally have stayed on the label as a solo artist, but Puff was just like, "What you're doing is too different. They're not gonna accept it. … We see you as like a Mary J. Blige or a Keyshia Cole." I knew, because of my tone, people were gonna pigeonhole me as sounding a lot like Brandy. I think Brandy is just incredible, like why would I go into her lane if she's the best at it? She's the only Brandy. So I just left. Thus came the door slamming, the nos and the rejections. And it was fucking awesome [laughs].

It was awesome being told "no" a lot. Not back then, but now? It's led me to learn how to do everything for myself – like literally learn tech, stage production, lighting, finance, everything you could think of! I consider myself a startup company. I don't just do music either – I do tech, animation and virtual reality. I've been taking animation classes at Studio Arts in L.A. and working on a series for Adult Swim. I do ID tags for their shows – Squidbillies, The Venture Bros. And it's been a journey, figuring out how to take art from paper to 4D cinema and creating that world for my videos. We released Redemption on USB necklaces full of VR content, which hardly anybody out there is doing. I just saw Björk and Run the Jewels do some amazing things with VR. But these are big names and to be pioneering among them… I'm excited because that means we're on a pulse and we're figuring it out with nothing.

You're unlocking a strategy as it's still evolving.
You have to constantly learn and evolve. Every time somebody said "no" to me, I learned how to do their job. So if I went to a booking agent and they were like, "We can't book you because you don't have a label," I learned how to be a booker [laughs]. I cut that shit out, you know. I pitch a sponsor and they say, "Well, you're not big enough." So then I say, "OK, I'm gonna figure out to market myself." I take that job, study it, learn it and then put it and apply it for myself.

Being able to control your artistry and the business of it is fully owning it for yourself.
Yeah. You gotta own the great and the fuck-ups, too. At first that was very difficult for me, but now I've got a system that works. We fuck up, we fail, but to me it's the recovery that matters. It's not the fall; it's the recovery. And that's, again, going back to this album, what this really means to me – it doesn't matter how bad you fall, it's where you go from there. This album is the celebration of that recovery. How do you get back to yourself?

We live in a singles world right now, where if you get a great single, you're good. You don't have to make a great album anymore. It's all about singles. I don't deal in that context; I think your body of work as a whole should speak to you as an artist. Because no one is singularly one thing, so the fact that one single can dictate your success is so odd to me now. You get a Number One single, you can live off that forever. That's great, but no artist is one single.

I agree. You want the whole catalog!
There was a time when albums were experiences, like Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder. You had to listen to the whole thing to really fully understand and grasp the kind of artist you were getting. And one album alone couldn't dictate it – like what Michael Jackson did with Dangerous and then Thriller. It showed he was complex. He was like different types of great, you know? I miss that. I miss times when you could just sit back and press play and let it flow all the way through. And I think you're starting to see a lot of underground artists go back to that and make you feel like, "Damn, fuck the single. The album's better."

You did put out some singles between your albums, though.
In marketing you'll do a survey. You put out something and you get the response. So I just put them out there to get a temperature check. I knew that the Black Era would be jarring for some people who adored that R&B essence of Goldenheart. So I put "Meteors" out there, and by the time we got to Blackheart, they were at least prepared for the shift. Before Redemption, I gave them "Not Above That," I gave them "Dance," these really heavy electronic tracks with the producer Machinedrum, so that they were prepared for the shift. You know when you read novels? You need a minute to catch up where you left off. Or else you're like ,"Shit, wait, who are these characters? Where the fuck did these people come from?" So I had to make them connect, but I had to prepare people for the shift.

So what shifted when you began working on your Red Era?
Well, it's crazy because I never knew Redemption would speak so close to what's going on right now. For me, lyrically, it's my most honest and it's brutal to write. Songs like "Black Crimes" that speak on the constant killing of our culture. Not just people killing people, but our culture. People call these crimes hate crimes, but they love doing it. There's a sense of a smirk when it happens. So I ask the question, "Why does your love look so much like hate?" I'm not pointing a finger as much as I'm genuinely trying to understand the psyche of where we are as a people.

Now musically, with help from Machinedrum and Scott Noisecastle, who did Blackheart ... I really wanted a live element to this album. I wanted to show that old New Orleans sound could work in electronic music, which is not easy to figure out.

Many would think the two are completely disparate.
No one's ever really heard that before, but we managed to figure it out. I only chose New Orleans guys for my features, players like PJ Morton and Trombone Shorty. "Renegades" is an ode to the marching band – my brother played in the St. Augustine Marching 100. Any Southerner who knows marching band knows they're a thing. Machinedrum carries his signature 160-beats-per-minute, Chicago-footwork essence and combines it with that New Orleans brass. "Louvre" opens with that Cajun fiddle, you can almost see somebody playing on their porch, just like on the Bayou. Then "LA" is where Noisecastle comes in; it's like the love child of "Adderall/Sold" from Blackheart – playing that live blues guitar along with the synth and analog, explaining my transition from being a girl in Louisiana to a girl in Los Angeles. How do I not lose that Louisiana girl in L.A.? I had Trombone Shorty finish it off – like I'm getting off the bus and I open my eyes – then you hear that trumpet. The guys send me features, then I put on my producer hat, cut and paste and set it up in a way that feels like a story. But it's really a team effort. … I was forcing these guys to trust me, you know? Sometimes they're like, "That's not gonna work; that's not gonna work," and then it works. I like to surprise them, in a good way.

They have to take a trust fall when they send you anything.
Every time. But I know what it is in my mind. I wanted to push for something original, but very, very close to home at the same time. The best compliment that I've gotten thus far from critics is this sounds like nothing that they've heard yet. It's so cool to see that after the third album, we are still giving something that's refreshing and surprising.

You're making up everything as you go – your music, your visuals, your identity.
The music may be abstract, it may be a bit different and uncomfortable and beautifully, like, awkward. But you know, only to certain people. To me, it sounds normal. From the beginning of time there's always a person who is a prophet, someone who has a beautiful, positive message to send ... and people have their eyes and ears closed to it, by any means necessary, you want to deliver that message. Joan of Arc shaved her head and had to damn near be a man for them to see her, because they couldn't even get past her womanhood. And she was willing to go to the bottom of the earth to deliver that message.

I just feel like I'm just another person with a message that I'm trying to evoke. It took me a long time to get to self-love and I want to help people get there a bit earlier. It's not rocket science, you know. It's supposed to heal you. That's what music is supposed to do. You can call me a flop, that's totally fine, you know what I mean. Because we're built in a numbers system where people feel like if you sell a certain amount, you're successful, you know? I don't live in those terms.

If not measured by the numbers, what does success mean to you?
I think success is when you reach your very highest level of passion, like your very highest level of where you feel your happiness is and you touch that. If you can touch your own happiness, your own peak, you are successful. Period. That's your peak. When you get to content, that's successful. 'Cause that's very hard to do in a world that's built for you to fail.

For the woman, for the black woman, the person of color, for the lesbian – we've gotta go harder because we're all stigmatized right out the gate. We gotta go twice as hard. We just saw it happen in this election – someone who was overtly qualified lost to somebody who had no experience. Sure, I care about the shit Trump's said about women, I care that Clinton was reckless with her emails, but let's just start from the bottom: qualifications. When you fill a fucking résumé out, you have to prove you can do the job.

We can't keep lying to ourselves and say, "Oh, no, but everything's equal." No, it's not. So imagine, if that's happening to a white woman at that level, what does that mean for a woman of color? Let's stop lying to ourselves. Let's see it, then acknowledge it and grow to fix it. And I think the level of success is finding and understanding that if you can reach your best level of whatever that is for you, you have succeeded. That's to me what success is.

For what I want … there is no existing structure, there is no machine. But if you get creative and innovative, you can create a structure around yourself that is way beyond what you could have ever imagined it to be; you'll find this little niche and you grab it and you just go. And who knows, by the time you put your head up? You'll sit up and you'll have a force behind you that you never thought you could have.