Since 2005, Dawn Richard has proven – without fault – that she is an eclectic musical artist with tremendous staying power. Garnering international acclaim as a member of Danity Kane and Diddy-Dirty Money, in pursuit and preparation for a solo career, she has deftly balanced and seamlessly transitioned between “pop” and “urban” aesthetics. With the blessing of Sean “Diddy” Combs, Richard left Bad Boy Records in 2011; the following year, she would independently release the gold-selling Armor On EP via Our Dawn Entertainment and Cheartbreaker Music Group. Armor On serves as musical appetizer for her debut album, Golden Heart.
In support of the music video debut for “BOMBS,” Dawn Richard spoke with AllHipHop.com about the influence of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indians, her childhood passion of marine biology, and the artistic traditions cultivated by her parents:
AllHipHop.com: In many ways, your music career is embarking upon the "dawn" of a new era. But every journey has a back-story or a beginning. Both your mother and father were very involved with the arts. Reflect on your early years, and share the direct influence your parents had in shaping your love and passion for dance and music.
Dawn Richard: My mother had a dancing school since she was 21 years old. Long before I was born, she was already on her quest to have a dancing school and conquering the world with that. When I was two years old, she put me in some tights and said, "Okay, go dance." So I kind of had no choice in the matter. I just fell in love with dancing as a baby. My father was the director of our church choir, and since you could have kids in this choir, I started singing very young. My father was also a musician. He was signed to RCA Records with Allen Toussaint in a group called Chocolate Milk. My parents were also educators, so they always let me know the arts were beautiful and fun, but also that it was a very limited success rate in the arts, so education had to be first. So I always did those things, but they were after-school. Education was always the first priority.
AllHipHop.com: It was incredibly vital that you had not only the love and the passion for entertainment, but that you were also exposed to knowledge of the industry’s backdrop. When a lot of artists come into the industry, they do not tend to have a firm understanding of the business side. As you were pursuing your artistic dreams, was there a defining moment that helped you understand that the music business is just as much about the business as it is about the music?
Dawn Richard: That was iterated to me by my father. I was already ready for that part of it. My father was in a group, so royalties and writing was a big issue. There was a lot of thieving. My father wrote a lot of the records, but because he put his band members on the publishing, he got less than what he deserved. I think he made that clear to me, coming into it, especially about being in a group—be careful about your publishing. He made it very clear to me. He never painted this beautiful picture of the industry. He painted the truth. He made it my decision whether or not I wanted to continue that path, but I got the picture early. Even as a child, he let me know what the business was. I think the first reality I had dealing with it was being in Danity Kane and realizing firsthand. It wasn't a surprise, because I knew it would be difficult and a little bit more business than music.
AllHipHop.com: Born and raised in New Orleans by educators, you eventually found yourself attending college. What was your field of study? And in what ways did your collegiate experience prepare you for life in the music industry?
Dawn Richard: I attended Nicholls State University first. That's in Thibodaux, Louisiana. I was originally supposed to go to Hawaii Pacific University for marine biology, but my father told me, "No way you will be able to do music if you're over there, too." I had to make a choice, and it was a choice that I wasn't really happy with. And I understand now that, that wasn't my path, because had I gone, the tables would have been a little bit different, being so far away. But I stayed three years at Nicholls State University, majoring in marine biology, and then I was doubling up dancing in the NBA with the Hornets as a Honeybee.
It was becoming difficult to record and dance, and do school. I had no choice, so I transferred to the University of New Orleans in order to be close to the studios and close to the networking part of it. They didn't have marine biology at the University of New Orleans, so I took my credits that I had from Nicholls State and minored in marine science. Then I took on Internet marketing, since I knew that I was going to go into music, so I chose to learn the business side of it if I was going to decide to take that leap into growing in the music industry.
AllHipHop.com: I find your deep interest in marine biology very interesting. Normally, one thinks of an artist as being focused strictly on the humanities. You – on the other hand – had a passion for a genuine “hard” science.
Dawn Richard: I've always had a love for talking to manatees. That was going to be my concentration. I've always loved the ocean. I've always loved the water. I grew up falling in love with the idea of another life underneath the water. As a kid, biology was something that was really easy for me. I love animals – and whenever my parents asked me what I wanted to do, it always involved water. It was the only thing I wanted to do prior to that, and I was good at it. I loved learning about creatures. I loved always knowing their roles and their classes. It's almost like going to med school. It's a lot of work! Labs take over a lot of your time. Sometimes your labs are an hour or two, which left little time to do anything else. Because it was consuming a lot of time, I had to realize that I was doing a lot. I graduated with honors, but I had to make a choice. I wanted to make sure my grades were always great.
AllHipHop.com: Prior to "Making the Band", you recorded a solo album entitled Been a While. What became of those tracks? And when you made the transition into a group act – with Danity Kane – did you find it difficult?
Dawn Richard: I wasn't that unprepared. I started out with a group called “Realiti” with two other girls, so I was already aware of the group life. I enjoyed it. I liked sharing the stage with other people who shared the same dream. It was dope. And then dancing, with the Hornets beside 21 other girls, it prepared me for dealing with cattiness and different personalities. I was 17 or 16 years old on the Been A While CD. I was working with my father. He was playing the piano. He was helping me do the tracks. We were co-producing the tracks ourselves. And that album was simply a young girl trying to do it on her own in New Orleans, Louisiana, when there were not many outlets.
Even though it is a musical city, it did not have many avenues for R&B singers at the time. It was only for rap. My father and I took that CD and we drove to LA, and we visited the offices of Warner Bros. and Sony and Capital – waiting for hours. The age-old hustle, you know. When people hear it, they're like, “It's a really great album.” It was great for its time and what I was trying to do. And it definitely was a proud moment for me to do an album with my father.
AllHipHop.com:I am intrigued to learn more about the relationship between you and your father. Fathers are not typically shown in the best light within the mainstream media, but the two of you seem to be very close – recording and promoting your first album together.
Dawn Richard: Honestly, not just my father, but both of my parents. I never remember a time when they weren't there. And I'm not talking about just the music. I'm talking about everything. They worked so much, and I just don't understand how they did it. They're just brilliant, to me. My brother and I both were in everything, literally. Football, basketball, soccer, everything you could think of. I don’t remember them ever missing a game. They were at every tournament and academic event. The same for my music as well.
My dad and I shared a bond in music – because he loved music just as much as I did. I think a little bit more. He was really good at it. He has a masters in music, voice and piano, and he's really great at what he does. I see this passion in his eyes every time he talks about music and every time I question him about music. I love that fire that he had about it. His excitement just made you wanted to be around him and learn more when he talked about it. My parents have been together 40-something years now. They met when they were 16, and they never looked back. I think that relationship, in itself, is beautiful. And then the fact that my father is just as amazing with me as he is with my brother. He’s consistently one of the best men – and probably the best example of a great man – that I know.
AllHipHop.com: My favorite album of 2011 was Last Train to Paris. It was an incredible work – and terribly underrated. When you look back and reflect upon that recording experience, in particular the transition from Danity Kane to Diddy-Dirty Money followed by your solo career, what lessons or improvements – whether technical or artistic – have prepared you for this current moment in time?
Dawn Richard: All of it was like going to school. All of it was preparation. You know, Last Train to Paris was one of the most brilliant albums done, I think, in a long time. When I heard the music and I heard the message, I was so grateful to be a part of it. That was one of the reasons why I said yes to the project in the first place. You dream and you pray that someone will be able to let you freely write and freely choose to do musically what you really want to do. I think Last Train to Paris was that beginning frontier for me. When I transitioned from Danity Kane, the mixtape – [The Prelude to A Tell Tale Heart] – was kind of my “internship” experience. It gave me the opportunity to figure out if this was something that was going to work for me. Following Danity Kane and Diddy-Dirty Money, I combined all the knowledge and capitalized on the things that were brilliant about each project. And from that came the Armor On EP.
AllHipHop.com: The EP is incredible – and so are the accompanying music videos. I hope you don't laugh too hard at this question, but how were you able to dance in the video for “BOMBS” without tripping over your train? I know you are a talented dancer, but that was an accident waiting to happen!
Dawn Richard: That's a really good question. There were a lot of bloopers that day. I could go on and on about all the crazy things – but I really wanted to dance in heels. I love to dance in heels! I had to fuss with my choreographer. She was like, "No. No. You will fall." Anything hard, I'm the one that wants to do it. Everything that's a challenge, I want to totally conquer. And she was like, "No!" The train actually, in the midst of it – getting in the way between my thighs and literally almost falling off – it fared pretty well! [laughing] It could have been far worse. I could have wound up with my butt out on the ground! [laughing continues]
AllHipHop.com: You also incorporate several African motifs within the video. As a long-time fan of Kelis, you have followed similar terrain as far as expanding the possibilities of R&B and incorporating “pop” and “dance” aesthetics.
Dawn Richard: Interesting. The comparison with Kelis – that's a first. I've never really heard that one, but I do understand what you mean by her trying to break through, and I think she did in a way. I think it's two different things in terms of what we're doing. Her vibe is a little bit different than where I'm trying to go musically. But I do understand what you mean by reaching a certain demographic of people and pushing the genres on each side. She has been doing it long before I came into the picture – far longer. She’s already opened that lane for us to be able to push people in that manner.
I think what I'm trying to do is a little bit different, as I made sure to incorporate the culture of New Orleans into the whole aesthetic. Growing up, I was exposed to Mardi Gras, and I fell in love with the crew of Indians. They come out and do all of their handiwork. They do all of their costuming by hand, and it really is beautiful. Each tribe has a color, and they come out with these beautiful headdresses and beautiful traditional garb. It’s gorgeous, even more to me, because they are black people with Native American heritage. It's gorgeous to see the contrast, the contrast of going into the hood and seeing these crews compete by dancing and showing their garb. I think it's beautiful, and I always was fascinated by it. I applied this “warrior” concept to the whole look and feel of the album, Armor On, in what we shot visually, I wanted this all to be cohesive. This is origin of the tribal vibe. I just didn't want to do it and make it look gimmicky. I wanted it to be natural and also have all brown girls. This video is something that isn’t done a lot.
AllHipHop.com: No, it's not.
Dawn Richard: When I had the dancers in the studio, the first thing they said [was], "Look at all of this chocolate." It was so funny – and great. I didn't know if people would get it. I didn't really care if they did. It was going to be my kind of underlying secret life story, because it's kind of what I wanted. I'm trying to push that boundary of seeing the brown girl not only as a beautiful thing, but beautiful in the eye of pop culture and the eye of R&B culture and in the eye of world culture. I really wanted celebrate it in a different way, because I think a lot of time we lose that factor in R&B. There are some beautiful, brown girls killing the game right now. I'm just saying I think there should be more. That's not to say that there's a war between “light skin” or “dark skin.” I think it's all beautiful. I’m just being who I am – and that’s something that I would love to see more. That's why the choreography is so powerful.
AllHipHop.com: Yes – and beautiful!
Dawn Richard: It's so strong. I wanted to prove that we are coming for something different. There are a lot of dancers out there that are fantastic, but I just wanted to put my own lane out there and have trained dancers. It's not a sexy dance.
AllHipHop.com: Your reflection on the choreography lends a nice transition to the title of your EP, Armor On. The warrior aesthetic showcased in the “BOMBS” video can also be related to armor. When you look into the future, as you prepare for Golden Heart’s release, what do you consider to be the essential element in your personal armor?
Dawn Richard: Armor On is the story of why I need the armor in the first place. Golden Heart will be the actual heart being showed. Like when I think of us, I don't think of us as a color, and I don't think of us a faith. In the end of this Golden Heart trilogy, I want people to feel like it never was about the color of their skin. It never was about their faith. It was about the character of their heart and what it looked like. And at the end of it, I'd love to look behind me, and everybody will be see-through, and all you see is golden hearts. All you see is armored hearts. And I think that's what makes us beautiful, and I don't say armor in the negative.
When I say Armor On, I'm speaking of the reason why I need to guard my heart in the first place. I always quote Daphne Guinness because she's my all-time favorite. She said, "I went out to the world, and I realized it wasn't friendly and we needed armor." And this is reality. We come into this world so naïve. I'm not telling people not to come into it. I'm choosing to tell people to armor up, suit up, and go out into this battle called life and conquer it. I think that's me loving literature from the old days.
My grandmother had a Ph.D. in library science, so I grew up in libraries. I love literature – and I always wanted to be a musical narrator, a musical Poe, or a musical Hemingway. For me, both Armor On and the Golden Heart trilogy are like modern-day versions of the Joan of Arc story – fighting a crusade. I really feel like I'm fighting for something. Once people go on this journey and see what I've gone through, they will come to realize that they are fighting the same battle – whether it's fighting your looks, fighting to belong, fighting to be different, fighting to love in a relationship, fighting to stay relevant in your relationship. Armor On is the prelude to battle, and if you listen sonically, it feels like you're preparing for something.
Follow Dawn Richard on Twitter (@DawnRichard) or visit her official blog.