Most of us can remember exactly where we were when MTV's Making the Band became a cultural phenomenon. Seeing some of the most talented unknown artists from all over the country vie for an opportunity at realizing their dreams was enthralling. Right from the start, the New Orleans native whose grind and talent shined through, Dawn Richard, became the girl we all rooted for.
Her story was one we recognized, for we were all little Black girls with big dreams and drive even bigger who just needed a shot. And she got it. However, the story would be too much of a fairytale if it simply ended there. It would not account for the resiliency, innovation, or the genius of Dawn. It would not capture the sheer majesty of a woman who defies all barriers put in her way and finds a way to stay, simultaneously, lightyears ahead of us all while current enough to reach us where we are. It would be too pretty. Too perfect. Too fitting for an industry that works in absolutes. Absolutely Black. Absolutely palatable.
Dawn Richard is not, necessarily, an absolute. She's an outlier. A beautiful disruption of the status quo. A mirror for a world and an industry that has bored itself with labels. Dawn is what many think they are, but few have the heart to be: a true individual. But, as her new album Second Line proves, she is also a woman who has a vision. Vision for what music can be. And more specifically, a vision for how resolutely music can connect us all. If only we're brave enough to let it.
Iman Milner: Who is Dawn Richard now? As a woman and as an artist.
Dawn Richard: I'm the same person I was before. I just work with more of a purpose. Back then, I knew who I wanted to be, but I was hesitant. There were no examples, and there was no support system. I had to push myself. Now, I'm confident in how I move, and I am receiving of everything I need. I'm the same artist but with more intention.
IM: You've always been ahead of your time with everything from music to sound and style. That can be hard. What would you tell the Dawn who was breaking away after Dirty Money about the journey she's about to go on?
DR: I would tell her to just commit. At the time, when I did A Tell Tale Heart, I was feeling it out to see if I could even exist as a solo artist. I would tell myself to go balls to the wall. Don't second guess it. And plan accordingly because you're not going to have a whole lot of people running to you. Everything you're going to do may not be received now, and that's okay. That's not the kind of artist you want to be anyway. Make something that's incredible, and go for it. Don't be scared, fuck fear. I was slowly grasping the vibe I was trying to create and hoping people would receive it. I was looking for the validation, and it's just like…screw the validation. You don't need it.
IM: What's been the hardest lesson you've learned thus far?
DR: I've learned that the color of your skin is part of people boxing you in. I didn't know that being a Black woman would stifle me in any genres. I thought I could be a versatile artist like my peers. I thought I could be like what Lady Gaga has managed to do. Do a jazz album, get nominated for a Grammy, do a country album, get nominated for a Grammy. I think that's beautiful because she's a songwriter first.
It doesn't seem odd to me she's been able to expand, and I never thought as a Black woman that couldn't be the same for me. I've learned that though I feel that is a natural thing, when you're in a society, especially in this industry, and you choose to be versatile, it makes people uncomfortable. They don't know where to place you. There aren't enough of us being celebrated or being part of that norm to give us the inspiration to feel that we can continue to do it. I never thought that would be an issue for me. But it has been.
IM: The boxing in happens with the audience, too, right? We're not always used to seeing Black women in other genres either. We put those limits on Black women artists too.
DR: Absolutely. I never just put it on the industry. When I speak in my music, I speak on the entire journey. Because I have been in this for so long, I didn't know how I looked would dictate how people would view me sonically. I never received music in that way. I was a Black girl who loved all genres of music. I never thought I'd have to wear that as a badge that I have to make R&bB music because I am Black.
No matter how different my music is, there's going to be an adjective, and then R&B. "Alternative R&B." "Experimental R&B." They're going to put that on the music, and our peers don't get that. We never look at Adele, and because she sings soulfully, we don't say her album is a contemporary soul album. We say it's a pop album because she's Adele.
IM: How would you define yourself as an artist, if at all?
DR: I make music for the times. I am an artist first. I don't lead with a genre. I lead with a sound. I think I've built enough of a sound with the albums I've created that I have my own mark. Hopefully, people will be like, 'That's Dawn.' When you listen to Chaka Khan, you don't say R&B. You say that's Chaka. And that's the truth. I hope I've built enough of a signature where that can be the case.
Specifically, I've called it electro-revival with this album because I feel I've bridged the gap between soul and electronic music. I've put New Orleans on electronic music. I've put an afro-futurist idea together where I've put Black on progressive. Black on innovation. Instead of telling people to put a term on me, I'm telling them this is putting the base of the soul at its essence toward the electronic wave. But my hope can stand on its own enough where people just see it as Dawn.
IM: I couldn't stop listening to Second Line. It's truly a gorgeous offering.
DR: Thank you so much.
IM: How much time has gone into this project, and what are you hoping audiences take away from it? What's the feeling you hope comes through the speakers?
DR: I want a cathartic experience for people. I want them to feel hope. I try to be as truthful to the experience, so I am honest with the way I say things, and sometimes they are dark because that is truth. But at the end of the songs, there's hope. The trouble is acknowledged, but you don't feel bad about it. At the end of the day, there's jubilation. To be okay with hurt, falling, failure, and rejection—understanding that's just part of the process.
You see, my career, I don't have a conventional journey. I wasn't accepted beautifully. I didn't get on a TV show, and then it worked all out for the best. No, my shit was all over the place. I was constantly in situations where I had the potential to make millions and, unbeknownst to me, someone just took it from me. I didn't even have the chance to have my hands on it. I've had to just figure it out. Not just musically, a hurricane took everything from me. That's no one's fault. It just happened, and I had to figure it out. I don't want to be a victim of anything. How do we celebrate where we are now? If I sit in the bad stuff, in the truth of it, you can get bitter. When I push to be ahead, I create my own possibility. I create my own great. And I want this to be the record people play when you want to acknowledge the possibility of what you can be—the dreamer.
IM: I think you've far surpassed that with this album. There's a lot of conversation about what artists should be doing, but this felt like something you wanted to do.
DR: Yeah. And it's for us. I hope this album breaks some glass ceilings. In electronic music, women aren't acknowledged as DJs, producers, or artists. When you look at that genre, it is white, and it is male. If there are Black men, there are tokens, and you don't see anything else. I want to prove that we are out here. There are so many Black women in this space who have been in this space who are just not being recognized. And I want to do it in a way that's not preachy but is shown through the art. Let's not forget about the lack of us in these different genres.
IM: How do you find your peace? As Black women, it can feel like we are always striving even for things that should be our birthright. So, how do you find that for yourself?
DR: I told someone that I got in the line for Making the Band at 19 years old, and I feel like I've been in a line my whole life. Constantly trying to prove to someone I deserve to be in these spaces. You always hear 'You're so ambitious,' and I get that you think that, but it comes naturally to us. We were built to be these ecosystems. Black women constantly have to pander. We can't wear this. Our hair can't be this way or that. It's constantly a battle to fit into these circle pegs when we were built to be triangles. Yoga saved me. Spiritually. Just breathing can help me. I am a natural recluse. I escape through nature; I escape through travel.
My entire music career, I'd constantly had people telling me what I should look like and always having cameras on me. I never had peace. I couldn't even sleep well. Having my career in my own hands now, my wellness is solitude. Being alone and being able to build my world myself that grounds me. I take my moments seriously. I don't travel with an entourage. I'm enough, on my own. I don't need any of that. Growing into loving yourself as a Black woman, it means everything. So many people told me I wasn't enough, and I kept looking for someone to affirm me. I had to do that for myself.
IM: When you hear the word 'beauty' now, what comes to your mind?
DR: A Black woman. Period. And I have to be purposeful in saying that because that wasn't my mindset. When I thought about beauty, I thought skinny with European features. It was a certain thing that wasn't me. So, I am firm in saying there is nothing more beautiful than someone who has been under-appreciated but continues to shine through. And that is Black women.