Dawn Richard has built a career on being adaptable. Though the electro-pop/R&B artist and former Danity Kane member first gained recognition within the music industry’s upper echelons in 2005 on P. Diddy’s reality show, Making the Band, Richard (now professionally known as DAWN) ultimately parted ways with the major-label machine in the late ‘00s and began funding her own solo projects.
“I think I’ve become a connoisseur of adjusting,” she says over the phone. “Because I’ve been told no and been rejected so much… I think I wasn’t on the same page where [my] label saw me as an entity. There’s a fine line between artist and product. I don’t think the industry purposely does it, but I think that’s just the way they maneuver. You have to be careful that doesn’t become your story where you become a product and your art is tarnished because you’re just seen as a tool to make money.”
The 33-year-old New Orleans native expands on her relationship with the chronically fluctuating music industry on the forthcoming Redemption (out on Nov. 18 via Local Action / Our Dawn Entertainment). Her third full-length is the last in a trilogy, beginning with 2013’s Goldenheart and following up with 2015’s Blackheart. The 15-track release, which she co-produced with MachineDrum, experiments with a spectrum of sound, showcasing skittering, frantic beats on the hyped-up “Renegade,” industrial touches on the racially charged “Black Crimes” and spaced-out funk on “LA.”
Above all, though, Richard’s intention on Redemption is to celebrate herself—and encourage listeners to do the same. Below, she delves deeper into her ongoing journey toward self-acceptance, why hate crimes can also be referred to as “love crimes” and why she sometimes feels like an “awkward cousin.”
Paste: What does the title Redemption mean to you?
Dawn Richard: It’s self-realization. I think it’s time for me to reflect this whole entire experience with the music industry and my love and hate relationship with it. I think it’s come full circle. I think what I was searching for in the industry—the acceptance that I was searching for—wasn’t needed. It was more about a self-acceptance and a coming of age. I think it rings true on this album a lot, really speaking honestly and talking about issues that not only deal with me but world issues that have affected me personally. [I also] incorporated [my hometown of] New Orleans and what it has been for me as a musician and growing up as a kid who was quite different and loved a different style of music. The young girl that I was is still the woman that I am today.
Paste: How do you reconcile your experience with the major-label industry now that you’re fully separated from it?
Richard: I respected the label experience. I think that was all I knew at the time. I was thrusted to something, and then it was overwhelming. We just rode the wave. I understood it and I didn’t really know I was being slighted until ideas weren’t being listened to.
I think companies and labels are analytic and they go off of trends. I think for them it’s systematic, it has to make sense. I think creatively I wasn’t at a place where I was making sense; it was about being creative and making that go with it. I think a label doesn’t really want to hear you try out [new things]; they want you know what the trend is, because that’s what guarantees returns. It’s a business, and I can appreciate that, but I think for what I was, I wanted to try something [new]. The label saw me as an entity. There is a fine line between artist and product, and you have to be careful. I don’t think the industry purposely does it, but I think that’s just the way they maneuver. You have to be careful that doesn’t become your story where you become a product and your art is tarnished because you’re just seen as a tool to make money.
Paste: I like that you’ve gone out of your way to try and empathize with where a label is coming from, even if they promote a formula that doesn’t work for you.
Richard: Yeah, I appreciate the label, I get it. That’s just the truth. I just wanted to be an artist and give my music, and I understood why they were turning me down. I just think if they would have taken that risk, sometimes that risk turns into a reward. I don’t think anyone thought I would end up where I am now. I don’t think they thought this would be what it is, the movement it’s become. You have to decide as a company what’s that borderline between taking a risk on an artist that creates art and making that marriage happen. You do it right, you have the perfect blend between product and art.
Paste: The Renegade album cover is a sight to behold—you look so regal. How did you settle on its imagery?
Richard: I love headpieces. I come from a city where the headdress and costume and Mardi Gras is very present in our culture. My uncle is in the hall of fame for creating by hand some of the most intricate Indian Mardi Gras garb. I really wanted something that was face-forward, really present and knowing of self with a headpiece that resonated with me and my version of what that Mardi Gras Indian was. That was an ode to New Orleans and our culture and what we are, what Mardi Gras has been for us. I wanted [it to be] futuristic of course—I wanted to do my version of Afrofuturism. The fact that I’m staring directly at the viewer is a blatant sign of understanding of self. My first album, Goldenheart, was profile, Blackheart was profile. There was a point and a purpose to make sure this was dead on.
Paste: Right, you’re facing forward here.
Richard: Yeah, and the other albums are not. It was done on purpose. With the first one, there’s a sense of basking in the sun. It’s beautiful, but there’s an unsureness to it. The black hair was me putting on or taking off of the face, but the face is masculine, which put a play on gender and androgyny. But I was facing to the side, never really revealing the full face.
When you see what you really are, good or bad, there is a fearlessness to understanding your purpose. I have a great partner in my life; I always tell him he knows himself. When I see him with other people, he just sits in it so well. I’m always the awkward cousin, the person in the crowd. He just sits in it so well, and I think there’s something beautiful about sitting in your own life, your own work and knowing who you are because no one can really say anything. I thought that was really beautiful when I met him.
Paste: Right, when you find a person who is secure with themselves, it’s almost like you want it to rub off on you.
Richard: I think confidence is needed. I think in an era where people are telling you constantly that you’re shit, it’s good to be able to wear it for yourself. You don’t need validation from other people. You’ve gotta find it within yourself and sit in it and roll with it. I think that’s where I am at right now, being comfortable in my skin. All the shit I’ve been through just kinda molded me into this awkward, awesome-ass creature. It feels good to understand that all of that shit was necessary.
Paste: The song “Black Crimes” in particular struck a chord in me. Can you expand on what you were thinking about when you wrote it?
Richard: It’s just real for me. I feel like I’ve heard from people saying things like, “What’s going on with hate crimes and hate?” It’s the same as if they love hurting us or love the hatred that’s going on. I question why their idea of love is presented in hate. That’s a question I’ve been asking throughout my lifetime, within this industry, within this experience, within this society. It just seems so divisive and ugly. I looked and researched and they call this “hate crime” and “war against hate.” It just seems as if they’re more like “love crimes.” Like, these people [who commit crimes against the black community] love it when we’re at our worst. I wanted a record that spoke to that honestly.
It’s a question that may not have an answer. Because the song transitions in a way that leaves you with that question. When you hear that transition at the end of that record, it goes into a spiral that feels like you don’t know an answer to it. And that’s something that’s just gonna have to sit there until we as a people realize what we’re doing and ask for a shift.
We need to start loving. I just don’t know if we understand the definition of what that really means. We just witnessed that with the election—where what we thought we knew what we’ve done and how we see people. And they’re telling us who they really are. Their idea of love is hate to us, so that’s a true testament of when we will we all be on the same page. Some people think, “They’re killing black people.” And we’re like, “You’re killing us.” Then there’s other people who are like, “You’re hurting the cops.” So one person’s love is somebody’s hate.
Paste: I really admire the way you seek to understand the other side, even if you’re against it.
Richard: That’s been every album, from Billie Jean being the perspective of the woman in the industry and not looking her as a whole, but just hearing her out and her perspective. That’s been the way this entire era has been. I think it’s honest. It’s about understanding each other and seeing how we can grow from it. To me, that has been my journey within this industry. I’ve always just wanted to understand the industry and love it more. I just think the industry is not built for that. It’s not built to be respective, it’s built to judge. I’m hoping we can get to a place where we can let those inhibitions go and we just see each other from both sides.