Dawn Richard
Dawn Richard
Photo Credit: Clifford Usher

Dawn Richard's Journey From Bad Boy To Indie Pioneer Has Been A Creative Pilgrimage

Since Dawn Richard left Bad Boy, her indie music career has been led by experimental self-expression. In conversation, she discusses being a musical chameleon, her latest album Pigments, and her resilient spirit.

It’s a chilly October afternoon when I meet Dawn Richard at her Boerum Hill hotel, four days before she releases her new album Pigments. Though she’s wearing a mask, her warm demeanor shines through her body language. Her arms are never crossed; she laughs easily and speaks excitedly as we begin our conversation talking about New Orleans, and how the city has been integral to her being, since moving there at the age of two. 

“There's art always happening and there's a hub of vibrant colors. It would be a disservice if that wasn't present in every move that I made,” she said. “Because in all of the artists, in all of the city, there is almost an obligation in our blood to incorporate the uniqueness of our city.”

She is clear when she explained how she puts on for her city, whether it was in the girl group Danity Kane, the iconic Dirty Money trio, or her ongoing independent career. But the city has also helped her, too, its resilient spirit helping her navigate the chaotic, masculine-centric music industry she was thrust into when she first embarked on her career with Bad Boy. 

For the past decade, Richard has been forging her own lane as an experimental, alternative artist. Her last album, Second Line, is a stunning love letter to her beloved city that finds her exploring Black dance music like Bounce and house, as well as other genres like jazz, R&B, and soul. To the naysayers who feel her artistic direction appears to have come left field, Dawn said she’s always been an indie alt rock girl. What else would you expect from someone who shared that their first show ever was pop-punk icons Greenday?  

Now, she has released Pigments, which is yet another enjoyable showcase of how Richard can bend genres and create beautiful results in the process. Alongside multi-instrumentalist Spencer Zahn, Richard was able to experiment with the contemporary classic music scene. At a private listening event in Dumbo later that evening, she said the collaborative album was difficult for her. But it allowed her to create a lyrical ode to her mother and father, a skilled dance instructor and talented musician, respectively, whom she lived with during the pandemic. 

“I was just singing things when I was getting them,” she said. “When I chose to speak and write, it was intentional.” 

In an expansive conversation, we touched on Pigments, Louisiana, her thoughts on being a Black woman in the music industry, and being a figure who has been creating house music for years.

Do you feel like you had any points of your musical career where you thought, “I want to pour Louisiana culture into my projects?”

Dawn Richard: Since the beginning of my musical career [with Danity Kane], I've brought the world into the city. When Katrina happened on national television and people experienced that with me when I was on television with Making The Band until now as an independent artist, that has always been the move. I also think that is the reason why I've been resilient enough to still be here in this business after everyone has always talked about the Bad Boy curse, or talked about when you're with Puff — the realities of that. I'm from New Orleans. We survive and we dance through that survival. So, I think that has been a part of the DNA of why I've been able to not only put it in my music, but also the trajectory of my career has been so unconventional. Very much in the ways of how a New Orleans native handles things. We're still dancing as a city, and I'm still dancing as an artist.

What can you tell me about the earliest stage during the Bad Boy era of your career?

I feel like being signed to Bad Boy, I didn't know the reality of what that would be. I just knew that I got a shot. I handled that with respect because I knew I had my city on my shoulders. No one had ever gotten that opportunity like that, and I wanted to represent my city in a certain way. So, I never thought about it like, "Oh I'm about to be on a rap label." I just was like, “[This is my] opportunity [to] go the fuck off. This is a job.” And I treated it like that.

Musically, do you feel that you were able to express yourself while signed to Bad Boy?

I think no artists coming into the industry as a mainstream, manufactured thing can ever express themselves. This is going into a job as a mail person. You go to your big corporate job, but you are the mail person. So, you're not going to make decisions on the things you want. I understood that. Our situation was even worse because we were women and we were a multicultural group under a rap label.

That’s a lot. 

Right? With a man who is the star of all of it. He's an artist and the boss. That's a lot against you — if you are the artist and the boss, you're [the] priority. Then, on top of that, if you are a man in a world where women are ostracized and treated like trash, this is a rough one for you. Then, on top of that, we were young women who didn't know much about the industry. We weren't given the red carpet but we were given opportunities. Interestingly enough, men tend to think that when they give women opportunities we should be grateful. 

Did you have any issues getting paid on time during that era of your career?

Yeah. I mean again, you're a mail person. And this is [the] truth in all things — artists, they're the last to be paid. Everyone has to get paid. Your manager, label, [and] everyone has to be paid before you. There's expenses that have to be paid. So, you're working the hardest but you're the last to be paid. That's all artists, that ain't just Bad Boy. We didn't have people who had our backs enough to fight for us to be respected in that way. So, we were fighting those battles on our own. And that's the belly of the beast. If you look online now, you'll still see artists fighting their labels for all the shit they're dealing with. 

Can you tell me more about what you feel was different about the music industry back then?

We didn't have an outlet. I was very happy with Normani being able to speak on racism with her being in a multicultural group because she was the only Black girl. Me and D. [Woods] couldn't do that. D. didn't have an opportunity to speak on her version of what was [happening], and I wasn't able to speak on mine. So, we had to navigate that.

We were doing pop music and visually, the aesthetic had to be pop. So, a lot of our albums — if you look at it, me and D. are on the outside or in the back. But when we're in the studio they want us in the front. We couldn't dare speak of those things without repercussions. We wanted to but no one was strong enough to talk to us as Black women and say, "You have a voice and you aren't an angry Black woman. You can speak on these things." No one was helping us navigate that, so we were quiet. I spoke in my way as a writer. I really fought to be able to write on these albums. But it still was hard to be able to speak on money.

In a way, that puts you in a corner. 

It just [was] reality at the time. It puts us in a corner. Also at that time, no one was speaking the truth. Women in all aspects from corporate to industry, we just didn't have the platforms to speak without paying the repercussions of it. We were all very strong women. We just all had different agendas of how we would apply that.

When you finally got out of that contract, was that the most free you felt in recent years? 

When I walked away I was able to walk away with my masters. I was able to walk out with knowledge, and knowing I would never fucking do what I did then. So, leaving meant if I did get another shot it would be all on my terms. That has been my MO for the last 10 years as I've been an independent artist. My independent career has been a pilgrimage. A mecca to what can happen when you choose yourself, your vision and trust, and believe in your message first.

How do you feel about being a figure who was ahead of the curve with house music, especially since it’s had such a huge moment this year?

I'm very happy to see that we are now finally in the world I have been dancing in for years and hoping for us to take back, because it's been ours, to begin with. It was never lost. We just were blind culturally. For whatever reason culturally, we don't see ourselves in it until [the] mainstream sees it. That sucks but that's real. So, now that we have so many mainstream artists now delving into it, I think people will listen. For those who have been there underground, we're just like welcome to the party. 

Your last album Second Line was a deep dive into Bounce music and your Creole roots. Why?

Second Line was really about the death of ideas. I wanted people to see dance [music] in a whole new light. I wanted them to understand I've been doing this sound for about nine years now, and Second Line was special because I feel like it really talked about the emergence of what house, dance, [and] Bounce has been in our culture, and how we had lost touch with women specifically in this genre. So, having disco [in] the record “Boomerang,” and having “Bussifame,” which is an ode to Chicago footwork, Go-Go, and a little bit of Bounce [music]. Then, records like “FiveOhFour” and “Pilot (a lude),” which are Bounce records deconstructed. [Second Line] spoke to why dance culture was always Black, and how it was stripped from us, and how we have to regain it.

I threw a funeral for the old concept of what an artist is, and it's the emergence of what a new artist will look like. I had no idea that releasing Second Line, the next year Drake [and] Beyonce would do these records that were really speaking to the same kind of concept. I had no clue that this would become part of a conversation I had been trying to have with everyone about the beauty of dance music.

What can you tell me about your latest album that you created with Spencer Zahn, Pigments?

I want to do things that feed me, that heal me. I want to touch people in a cathartic way, and Pigments is an extension of that. I'm not just telling my story but I'm telling multiple stories. People who feel the same way that I do and they're painting the world with their art in their way. And that to me was to love self, to love color, to love your pigment, and your truest and purest form.

That's the story I want to tell, and I've been lucky to have a career [where] I've been able to tell [my] story constantly and be genuine, purposeful, and intentional with every move. I hope to continue to stay that consistent because that's the real aim. That's the validation I want for myself. It's [how] can I remain intentional with every move that I make, that it comes with purpose. That's my only care. It always has been. I don't care what the genre is — it's the purpose.