Artist DΔWN talks new album, representation for Black indigenous communities

Sasha Samsonova/Courtesy

When you glimpse the cover art for Dawn Richard’s, or DΔWN’s, new album New Breed, it’s impossible not to focus on the white, flowing headdress that hugs her as she lies back in the sun.

The headdress, along with the entire album, which released Jan. 25, is the artist’s way of paying homage to her New Orleans heritage. As a Black woman with family roots in the Washitaw Nation tribe, Richard finds herself grounded in the Black indigenous community in New Orleans.

Given her background and her platform, having already produced three independent albums, Richard decided to tell the story of her community, her city.

So she asked Chief Montana of the Washitaw Nation whether she could use this headdress, which he had hand-sewn.

“When I decided to do this album, I told my family the only way I would do it is by telling the entire story of our culture,” Richard said. “What it’s caused is dialogue. People who are white don’t even understand the concept of a Black Indian. It’s interesting because in New Orleans, it is so local to us.”

The idea of being unseen is central to New Breed, Richard reflected. As an independent artist, she says her work has always been dedicated to people who have been largely excluded from mainstream music and society — the “other,” as she referred to them.

As for many female artists of color, Richard’s musical career has been rocky and oftentimes limited by the stereotypical expectations projected on her from the music industry at large. She began as a part of Danity Kane, a band that was formed through an MTV contest and led by Sean Combs, otherwise known as Puff Daddy or P. Diddy. The band was able to produce two back-to-back singles that topped the charts, thus starting Richard’s music career.

She recalled, however, several different occasions when her career was reliant on the whims of Combs, who disbanded Danity Kane on live television and derailed a tour for Diddy-Dirty Money, another band that both he and Richard were in. After a rocky start to her career, she set out to produce music on her own, without a label or producer.

“I released Golden Heart in 2013, and they didn’t know how to peg it. … When you’re a brown girl that’s doing anything that’s not R&B or hip-hop, they don’t know where to put you,” Richard said. “As time has progressed, more and more Black girls are being seen, so this leads to my new album that I just dropped: New Breed.”

In 2005, while Richard was a part of Danity Kane, Hurricane Katrina destroyed her home, and her family lost everything. Richard and her family became homeless, and they had no choice but to recover from their massive loss. This experience was key in informing Richard’s music and her message as an artist.

“(New Breed is) a revisit to my roots in New Orleans, Louisiana and an opportunity to visit my home after having so much loss … my family finally went back home,” Richard said. “This album is a love letter to New Orleans.”

Richard’s uncle was a part of the Washitaw Nation, which she said is not federally recognized. Thus, this Black indigenous culture is invisible to the rest of the country and hyperlocal to New Orleans.

While Richard’s album title brings up the idea of novelty, there is a rich history to her community that she highlights in the album. New Breed is an aged history of integration between enslaved Africans and indigenous communities in New Orleans.

“From that heritage, because New Orleans was a port city, you had all these different races coming to New Orleans in this melting pot,” Richard said. “The natives taught how to sew, the thread … so the power of the needle is imperative to every tribe. … Out of respect to both the native and the African culture, they would print both African and Native American stories on the headdresses that were worn.”

To Richard, this means the world because she wanted to create a narrative of New Orleans that is positive and beautiful.

The album features interludes in which Chief Montana speaks as well as a recording of her father’s band’s first performance ever. Richard said the musical style is just as eclectic, with more electronic and funk tones than traditional jazz and rap, which is associated with New Orleans.

“New Orleans shows culture in every facet. Whether it’s naming the street Tchoupitoulas, which is an Indian name from the Choctaw tribes, or naming a street St. Peters from the French people that colonized it. … It’s appreciating all of its elements,” Richard said. “I wanted to create music in that same way. And I think New Breed speaks to that and speaks to why I am the way I am. … For me, what made me a ‘new breed’ is the city I live in.”

Contact Malini Ramaiyer at [email protected] .