Dawn Richard has seen more sides to the industry than most. She’s been part of a chart-topping girl band Danity Kane, formed a group with Diddy (Diddy – Dirty Money) and spent almost a decade releasing music independently. Few have traversed the turmoil of the commercial record industry and emerged with boundary-pushing, innovative music but that’s a testament to Richard’s undying passion and motivation for music.
“It’s not about being bitter, it’s about being better for me,” she tells me from the phone to New Orleans where she’s opening a plant-based restaurant, one of a number of projects she’s undertaking in the city as a way of “giving back”. She has a deep appreciation for her roots but she undertakes everything with a futuristic vision, looking to explore new ideas. It’s the sort of attitude that has made her solo career a constantly evolving project.
In 2013, three years after the release of her collaborative album with Diddy – Dirty Money, Richard emerged as a solo artist. She stood out as a visionary in Danity Kane but this was her chance to materialise her own aesthetic outside of the mainstream industry. Four full-length projects later, she’s established herself as one of the most exciting independent artists, blending together R&B and electronic influences to create something that feels plucked from the future.
“It was intentional for me to be myself. I couldn’t be anything else. In groups you can be yourself but you have to be yourself at a limit,” she says, speaking about the transition from groups to a solo project. She doesn’t talk down about her experience in the mainstream pop sphere but out on her own she’s been able to fully explore the electronic influences that had excited her growing up from Aphex Twin to Chemical Brothers.
At first, she was labelled a flop. People expect commercial success from an artist coming from two successful groups but her debut project Goldenheart reached further than that. “Nobody really embraced a chocolatey girl doing that especially coming from the mainstream,” she says of the initial experience. By second project Blackheart, however, she’d been embraced by the underground, nabbing the attention of Pitchfork and FACT as well as the electronic community. She doubled down on that collaborating with Machinedream for Redemption to create some of the most innovative and genre-defying music of the 2010s.
It’s what she imagined herself doing before joining Danity Kane but she recalls, “I didn’t know the world wasn’t ready for that.” Electronic and dance music has long had an issue with diversity, often being labelled as a boys club. This year, there isn’t one woman or POC nominated in the best Dance/Electronic category at the Grammys and that’s not unusual for the ceremony.
“We don’t have a lot of black girls being accepted within the electronic space to win awards and go forward into mainstream,” Richard says.
Growing up, Richard was inspired by the art that was coming out of the electronic scene from Aphex Twin videos to Björk robotics but there was a lack of representation that made the road forward unclear.
“I knew sonically and visually that’s the kind of music that I wanted to make,” she says, continuing, “But I was also a black girl in New Orleans and that was easier said than done.”
“I had a few black influences but I loved electronic and rock and indie-pop. There wasn’t a girl who looked like me in that space. I had to dream a little harder.”
She’s now a completely independent artist with the freedom to move wherever she likes artistically. It may not have been the norm when she departed the world of major labels but now, “everybody is screaming independence,” as she says. Artists from Chance The Rapper to Tinashe have made headlines for going it alone.
While Richard is not scaling the chart heights that Danity Kane was did, she’s developed a devoted cult audience. She acknowledges that she’d love to be topping charts but not to the detriment of the work that she’s making. Her solo music goes beyond simply reaching for spins on the radio.
“What’s bigger is the legacy I leave for myself. That’s more important for me to leave something that touched somebody so much that it influenced a person,” Richard says.
She continues to explore the connection between her heritage and the future, mixing off-kilter, experimental production with soul influences inherited from her experiences in New Orleans. In her videos and live performances, she moves between reality and futuristic surrealism.
Right now, she’s launching the NEON era based on an alter-ego she created for herself during the Dirty Money days. Slim Thicc and Ay Papi look to her Haitian heritage for sonic inspiration, delivering a dancehall sound with Richard’s usual forward-thinking touches. She’s eyeing a new EP for the era which will be the polar to last year’s NOLA-inspired New Breed.
“New Breed was the heritage behind New Orleans and what that influence was and then NEON will be the heritage of the Haitian side that I’ve discovered and what it means for me,” she explains. Her latest work tightens her aim to bring the past into the present and beyond. You get a feel for where Richard has been but, as always, it’s about her vision for the future.
That extends beyond music. She’s currently working on a Vegan art space in New Orleans to foster creatives and boost the city’s opportunities to practice clean art. “This place matters and I want to keep it that way,” she says passionately. Speaking to her, there’s an overwhelming sense that it’s hard to build walls around Richard. She’s acutely aware of the inequality that continues to exist in the arts and music world but she’s intent on breaking down doors that make it better for future generations saying, “I want my people to win.”
“I’ve never been bitter about my journey,” she concludes.
“It’s always, how do we improve?”
Dawn Richard’s latest singles Ay Papi and Slim Thicc are out now on all streaming platforms.