Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels
Santigold Refuses To Treat Music Like It's Disposable
Okayplayer spoke with Santigold about Spirituals, getting acknowledged by Beyoncé, and the different ways she’s exploring herself creatively.
Santi “Santigold” White has been a visionary artist at the vanguard of music since the inception of her career. First, as the frontwoman of no-wave-meets-new-wave band Stiffed; then, as a Black woman at the forefront of the rising alternative scene in the late aughts as a solo artist. Refusing to be boxed in by contemporary conventions on genre and marketability, her sonic palette and foundation has drawn from a broad range of indie rock, reggae, hip-hop, and electronic dance music, boldly reinventing the limitations of what a “pop sound” could encompass both in lyrical quality and tonal color. This, along with her collaborations that range from the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O to A$AP Rocky, have made her a point of reference and inspiration for evolutionary trends in popular music over the last two decades, so much so that even Beyoncé name-dropped her on “Break My Soul (The Queens Remix).”
It is that same fearless defiance that frames Santigold’s newest record, Spirituals. The title is a reference to Negro sprituals, connecting the divine relationship with music within the Black American South to Santigold’s process of crafting her newest offering of music — her last release was 2018’s I Don’t Want: The Gold Fire Session — during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This music allowed me to transcend my circumstances and environment and sort of the struggle and the pain and the lack of freedom and the darkness and the heaviness,” she said. “To ascend above it all and create beauty and life for myself…that's what spirituals did for slaves who were not free.”
While the melodies may not all evoke the framing of a traditional deep South spiritual – that would be entirely too literal for Santigold – the thematic throughline is very potent in both the audio and visual output from this record, exploring perseverance in deep malaise, faith in the midst of struggle, and embodying deep care for community and legacy. Although she enlisted producers like Boys Noize, SBTRKT, and Psymun to help build out Spirituals sonically, she intentionally decided not to have any features, not wanting a guest to potentially mess up the songs she was already satisfied with.
“There's always the pressure like, ‘Well, if I want to sell any records’ — which is like an outdated notion — you need features,” she said. “The reason I was trying to get features was because of something external that really had nothing to do with what I really felt.”
The end result is an ambitious album that serves as her first release through her own label, Little Jerk Records.
“I'm happy to own my own masters, and I'm happy to make my own decisions and do things how I want to do them,” she said. “I've been on major labels for a while and didn't really benefit from it at all. I'm really into the idea of artists taking ownership back into our own hands, and I'm interested in the new models to come. I do think that what's not going away is the new communities that have been forming.”
Being an artist is a labor of love that has increasingly diminishing returns, something Santigold knows all too well. Her 2016 album 99¢ was a commentary on the devaluation of music at the time, with conditions only continuing to deteriorate for artists attempting to maintain viable careers while holding onto their artistic inclinations.
“I fucking hate the music industry. I think it's the worst business in the world, and I don't want to be in it anymore," she said. "I'm not saying that I will stop making music because I love making music and I'll always make music. But this career is wack, honestly.”
“Sometimes to be honest, I feel like it's not worth it,” the renegade added toward the end of our conversation. “But I can't do it any other way.”
Okayplayer spoke with Santigold about Spirituals, getting acknowledged by Beyoncé, and the many different ways she’s exploring herself creatively. This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
One interesting thing about the themes that you brought out both visually and sonically is a focus on the Southern gospel tradition and how you pair that with the visuals.
Santigold: I am southern — my mom is, my family's from Mississippi — and I actually was working on a book proposal that was talking about generations of Southern women in my family. I was trying to capture that idea of multi-dimensionality, and being more than a being in one space, you know? Ascension in the moment moving through space and time, and connecting with your higher self and spirit — all of those things at once. I wanted to encapsulate that in a photo or in a video. I wanted it to be timeless and very raw and natural.
The visual that captures the whole idea of what I was feeling in the process of making this record is in the church. I went to church. I did not like it; my mom's church was really boring. But my dad's family lived in Baltimore and my great grandma was a pastor and my great aunt was an organist, and they had an awesome church. People were jumping up and falling out, and the ushers would catch them and fan them. They would sing and the music was good. I only went there a few times but I loved it. So, I had this idea of these ushers — there’s this one person who is just catching the spirit in the moment of ascension, and they're just falling out, speaking tongues — and there's two ushers and they're holding this person up. When I think about this record, I'm the person in the process of ascension. I'm also the ushers holding me up.
“My Horror” was more about feeling trapped in a part of myself that was too small. I was in the role of mother perpetually. I was exhausted and felt so suffocated. There was never time to step away and be myself. I love being a mother but I have to have balance in it. To be a good mother I have to still be able to be myself. So, it was partially about being stuck in the mundanity of that environment. It was also about the world outside, because there was so much going on and there still is, and I find that a lot of us had to numb ourselves as a way to survive and just disconnect. Whether it's disconnecting through living in the metaverse or social media world — what is it like to live in a world where everybody is turned off and everybody's numbed out? It's almost like living in a world of The Walking Dead.
Let’s use your discussion of your father’s church to transition to the single “Shake.” The production behind “Shake” has a lot of the most direct Black church inspirations. You always use a lot of multi-genre influences, but this one has a very heavy use of tambourine, gospel choir arrangements, and vocal inflections. It was interesting how you mentioned your relationship to your experiences at your father's church — the lyrics are like a slice in time of what you're kind of portraying to me there.
There is definitely a feeling of that scene I was describing in that it is the most churchy of all the songs, and it is the only song that I think sonically does tie into the theme. This doesn't often happen, but that was a track that was handed over to me from SBTRKT completely done. I added tambourine. He’s such a brilliant producer, and he had all these tracks that were so complex and complicated and interesting. Then, I heard this one — it was unlike anything I would have imagined from him and for me. Honestly, it kind of reminded me of Stevie Wonder a little. Like, just the track itself. Within like five minutes I just sang the entire melody — "Shake, shake" — which doesn't happen often. Then, I wrote the lyrics in like five minutes. It really was the quickest prefab song where I just had to accept it..
That video [for “Shake”] did touch on the struggle of Black people in this country because I was inspired by Civil Rights protests — particularly the images of when people were getting hosed — and how much it took for them to take that and keep going. My mom integrated a school and there was a cross burned in her yard. They got back up and went to school the next day. I was really inspired by that type of fortitude, and that video is an art performance piece as an homage to those people and what they endured.
“High Priestess” into “Ushers of the new world” is a great two-song sequence where the visuals really made it potent. You on the side of the road with the costuming that you had for “High Priestess” somehow made a very contemporary old gods meet new look with the neon lighting. Then transitioning to a song like “Ushers of the New World,” where you are kind of making a protest song where we are the ones who are going to be here to take up the fight. What kind of space were you in when you were working on both of those songs?
“High Priestess” was one of the earlier songs I started but I didn't finish it until later. I was really struggling. I wanted to have a real punk feel and I was trying to do it in a literal way at first with guitars and live drums. It's a real delicate line to walk if you try to merge rap and punk and not blow it. Ultimately, I worked with Boyz Noize, Psymun and Ryan Olson, and at the last minute Psymun and Ryan came with some really cool, futuristic sounding punk stuff. It had the angst, the push and pull, the griminess, and it really came together. For the visual of “High Priestess,” I wanted to highlight the idea that anybody could tap into their power at that level. This homemade light up creates a sense of majesty — you are your own highest being if you can just tap into it.
I started “Ushers of the New World” in LA, but when I finished that song I was in Canada in the middle of this place called Squamish, which was in between Vancouver and Whistler. It's just mountains and rivers and moss covered forest for five months. Nature really had a feeling that I needed at that time after being locked in the house for a long time in LA and not really going anywhere. Sometimes when you're in the mountains, it feels like you've crossed into another realm. We went up into the backcountry in Whistler on this crazy snowmobile mission that I did not know I was getting into. You could hear avalanches going off. Just all white snow reflecting the sun and the sky, and it feels like you have slipped into some next place, you know? I felt like the music of “Ushers” felt like that feeling. I was trying to have an ethereal feeling across a lot of songs on this record, and I feel like that one really does have that.
It was a pleasant surprise to see you get shouted out on that Beyonce “Break My Soul (The Queens Remix)." To me, Santigold has been informing the girls for decades now.
You mean for someone to finally acknowledge it? It was nice, it was cool. For me, the coolest thing was the other names. To be shouted out at the same time with Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, Grace Jones and Rosetta Tharpe, and some of the women that a lot of people probably don't even know who they are. I think that it was really cool that she used her platform to really shine some light on some Black women who changed history, and who never necessarily got the credit or the accolades that they should have for that. Also, the fact that the original Vogue vocals were all white Hollywood stars. Just to take it back in that way, I thought that was cool.
To your point about finding new ways to engage with artists and music, that's part of what you are trying to do with Spirituals, right? Not just the album and the visuals — which already is an interesting and valuable dynamic in and of itself — you are already trying to expand into tea, natural skincare, and other ways to express yourself creatively.
That is what I was talking about. Just being able to have a space where you are directly in touch with your fans and if it cuts out the middle person, I think that's a great idea. That is not my goal for the future, though. I don’t want to become this ultra-marketer of everything. I want to create things and not just music. I'm so excited about my teas, and I'm working on body products. I'm also working on a podcast — which is almost done — and I'm almost about to finish the book proposal. I've got this film that I’m really excited about. I don't really want to run a marketplace to sustain my music career. You make music, it costs a lot of money to make the music, give it away for free. Now go and figure out a way to make a living. That's not right — that's what people are doing.
Shamira Ibrahim is a Brooklyn-based writer by way of Harlem, Canada, and East Africa who comments on culture, identity, and politics. Her work has been featured in Teen Vogue, NYMag, and The Root. You can follow her comings and goings on Twitter at @_Shamgod.