Dawn Richard talks New Orleans, new album, entrepreneurship, and building a brand solo
Born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, straight out of the 9th ward, Dawn Richard appeared in her Neon green Cowgirl garb fresh off of the stage from an epic Essence Festival performance with the help of stylist Joey Thao.
“I gave love to home and you know neon is the color right now. That’s the trend. It’s really the star and plus chocolatey girls look good in the neon.”
Paying homage to New Orleans, Richard performed songs from her new album “New Breed” and also brought the carnival Indians out for the performance.
“I’m a part of the Washitaw nation, so I wanted to do something that was vibrant because they have offset of purple and this will bring out the Mardi Gras colors.”
Richard copped her spot at the 25th Essence Festival the old fashioned way—by winning a talent competition, the NOLA Challenge. Back on May 30th, ten Crescent City singers and musicians participated in the first New Orleans Music Showcase for a chance to perform at the 2019 Essence Festival. The contest, judged by New Orleans soul singer Irma Thomas, poet/singer Tarriona Ball of Tank and the Bangas and Essence Fest Entertainment Editor Cori Murray, gave four individuals the chance to perform across Essence Festival Platforms.
With input from online voters, four artists were selected in the end to perform at Essence Festival events that across the Superdome, the Morial Convention Center, and Armstrong Park. Although Richard already achieved mainstream success with a group and was advised not to perform in the showcase for that very reason, she said nothing is too small or big when it comes to her brand.
“I was like nothing’s ever too embarrassing for me at all. So my dad sent me the application and I sent it in. I had just done Tiny Desk, NPR–Erykah Badu had just done that after me. I never looked votes. I was just like I just was accepting the reality that New Orleans wasn’t gonna be a market that I was in. My dad had a Jazz Fest like 17 times. So it was just gnarly to me. Then, they called me like ‘you know you’re winning, you’re winning so far’. And I’m like ‘Oh. Okay great.’ So then they said ‘Okay you’re a part of the top 10’. So I said I’m going to fly in. So I spent a lot of money, brought everybody–the dancers–I just went ridiculous. You supposed to do one song but you know I was extra. So I treated it like it was a concert. I brought everybody. We made sure we did it right. I honestly thought that they would pick me because of the fact that I had been, you know, already touring and I thought it would be more for people who probably didn’t get that opportunity. But I wasn’t getting any looks and I was I never too great.
They couldn’t say that and I never wanted to give anybody that opportunity, so I treated it like it was a full-on–like it was any other show like we just did. Like Danity Kane or Dirty Money or my own stuff because I normally have like a hundred days that I’m so extra, I’ll go broke trying to make it incredible shows.”
Coming off of a career high with Danity Kane and Dirty Money with music mogul Puff Daddy, Dawn said although she’s had much success in her career, she’s never been able to fully book her own market on her own.
“I performed here with Dirty Money and Danity Kane, but never as a solo artist. Fifteen years later, on the 25th anniversary of Essence, it was my first time–full circle. I’ve been trying to get home, I’ll sell out a New York show in a second because we were born in New York in the sense that Making the Band was born in New York. I just did that overseas tour, sold out Amsterdam, and the one place I want is home. And finally.”
And on her own she did it. Superwoman she is. On the ground at the Essence Festival with just her family, Richard commented on how it’s completely different when she’s in L.A. She even did her overseas tour solo dolo.
“I did it with no label. [I’m] indie in the sense that I have no manager, no PR no team…I build my own sets and create them.I pay my own dancers. I was mainstream. “
“When I’m not here [in New Orleans], it’s not my family. When I’m in L.A., it’s just me.”
Dawn said although being a mainstream artist allowed her access to many resources, she wanted control of her art and her business at the end of the day.
“I treat my art like a business. I run it like a small business. I just wanted to have control over my art. I had just come from dirty money and we just did an incredible album called ‘Last Train to Paris’ and it was insane. It was the most incredible work that I had ever worked with, but it didn’t hit like Puff wanted it to. And he was discouraged by it. And I told him that I would love it if he would take me on as a solo artist, but I want to do this type of music and I want to take it further. And he said if you do that they’re not going to sign you.”
Puff gave her some advice that she didn’t agree with—“If you are you look the way you look you should do R&B music, you should sing like Mary J. Kiesha Cole–that’s your lane.”
“And I said no, no that’s not. I started in a pop group. I started trying out for pop and I wanted to do something different. So nobody took me. So I had a choice and I took it and took control of it and I just try, try. And one album turned into two and it went number one. And then the next one went number one. And then before you know it, Indie got cool and wasn’t cool when I started.”
Richard expressed how hard it is when you have walls holding you back; but, she gets innovative, diving into the world of tech and experimenting with different types of creative visuals.
“I started doing working in VR, doing visuals with virtual reality. I would do eight to 10 visuals with VR augmented reality with no budget. And I was proud of that. I was doing some really credible things even though I wasn’t having a mainstream success rate–because it was hard because we don’t have platforms in indie. I don’t have Billboard Awards, Grammys–we don’t get put in there. You don’t have a label and you’re not on a billboard, you are not being seen. In pop culture, it just costs so much to be a part of the average.”
Richard said she just wanted to prove that indie artists could compete with quality and began building her brand to the innovative company it is today. Richards has an animation and licensing partnership with Adult Swim where she has complete ownership of her masters.
And as it is well-known, to every positive on social media, there is a negative. However, Richards doesn’t have the time to look at it at the negative because social media is free marketing for her business.
“How you go to work every day and you hate your boss? Right? This is my job. And I have to take everything with it. So I take that bad, because social media is also the only reason I have a fanbase because I have no other avenue or platform. So I gotta respect that. You have to evolve. Most companies and corporate companies pay for their marketing. That’s free marketing for me. So if I do it right. I win. So I’ll take the negative because that’s the way I get my album out. That’s the reason I get number one. That’s the reason I can talk to my fans. That’s how I get the analytics to know with tours. How to route my tour because I’m booking my own shows. So, I look at those numbers and that’s how I write much about my shows and that’s how I make my money.”
Richard said her next steps are pioneering tech platforms for the indie artist. At the moment, Dawn is working with TechStars, which is a company that works with accelerators to push forward small businesses and startup companies.
“I want to teach the indie artists that there is another way. There are ways for indie artists to thrive and be wealthy. For them to own their stuff. Own their content, create their content, get views on YouTube, SoundCloud–monetize their stuff and make a lot of money. My dream is to create an awards show for them, platforms for them to be able to shine because I honestly think the Grammys should have an independent section. I think Billboard should have an independent voice. I just want to create platforms for us because I didn’t have it.”
As far as advice for new artists, or multifaceted artists who do not box themselves in, Richard cautions that there is no easy road.
“Anything that you’re creating that is new will be difficult because there is no role before you. So I understand that frustration. Don’t be bitter, be better, and create the lanes for yourself. It’s hard. It’s hard because people don’t look at you and you say ‘oh, because you’re indie, we’ll give you a shot.’ When you put out a video, it’s competing with Beyoncé. It’s competing with all those people. They don’t say ‘I like because it’s indie’, no.”
A huge part of understanding your business or brand, is also understanding how to budget, understanding finance, and becoming tech-savvy.
“I learned how to be a part of the technical solitude. That’s what sells. I love tech. I grew up loving animation in tech so I knew right away. I knew no one was looking at VR. No one, so VR companies were looking for branding and I was doing it five years ago and nobody was really looking at it. So they fund, they help. They want to partner with people who want to take you know be the guinea pig and take chances. Now VR is cool, but when we were doing it, nobody was looking at my video. They were like ‘that’s cool and all but can you just shake your ass?’ But for me, it was an opportunity to work in a different space and those relationships helped me get further and do different things. So for me, it was the end game and I think if any independent artists themselves think of it in that way and get innovative, you could be a billionaire nobody even knows. There are deejays you don’t know that are millionaires. There are producers that you don’t know that are millionaires, writers that you’ve never met that are millionaires. You don’t have to be one way and I never saw it as one way.”
Throughout it all, Richard has expressed the extreme importance of having the support of family through this entire journey and to know this is full circle.
“It’s just cool because they know how hard I work. I’m not good at the mingling thing. I’m good at doing the art. I like to work and so that sometimes is my crutch because I don’t really network. I just do the art and hope that this speaks for itself. So it makes it a difficult journey for me, right, but they get me in a way that I’m so grateful for, you know.”
Richard’s father is Frank Richard of Chocolate Milk, the New Orleans funk band that had major label success in the 70’s and played with many notable music legends. Richard said being able to play with her father is “gnarly.”
“We transformed the stage and this street. I bought all of the one way, the bench. We made it look like John Lee Drive. We bought all that, we brought them in a U-Haul truck. I just told myself if I’m going to do it I’ll represent the city right or not do it at all.”
When asked about recharging herself, Richard admits that she’s a workaholic and still hasn’t quite figured that out yet, but all women need to take care of themselves.
“You know what. So within the last two years I found out with self-love was. Self care. We as women-we don’t know that one because they groom you to be a woman your whole life and then you got to be a mother, and then you got to be a nurturer, and you, like, be forgetting yourself, like, you got to care for everybody else that you lose yourself. I’m a workaholic. I love to work but I found out your company [isn’t going to] thrive if you ain’t thriving. So I’d take moments. I love to travel. And love to read. So every day I take two hours and I just read. I read. And then one hour yoga meditation, kundalini, breathing, anything in that. Some days I don’t have the ability to do that. So then I go to the side and I’ll breathe oh just breathing that shit is small but it is big. Oh my God. Big.”
“Women take time for yourself. But for real life, we as women–they don’t they don’t respect us the same, right. We have to work twice as hard because if we are too boss–if we are bosses we’re angry black women, we’re bitches. So sometimes we have to pander. And I’m not really good at the pander thing anymore so we need to step away so that we can refuel. I’m finding that out I’m very new to that. It’s the truth.”
Right now, there is a trend of women “overstanding” the meaning of self-care. Richards emphasizes the fact that women have to keep that going.
“We need to tell each other that. we got to look at each other and say ‘Listen sis. You take a moment.’ Right? Like we need to say that because I think, you know, that’s important. And no one was telling me because my bosses were all men–very wealthy men who didn’t really understand the concept of respect for women.”
In speaking about her new album “New Breed”, Richard asserted that this is straight New Orleans flavor–a taste that the “outside world” don’t see too much of. Richard exerted her love for the city that raised her and her connection to her Indian tribe–the Washitaw Indians–and how her album wouldn’t be the album it is without a home. Richard said due to Hurricane Katrina, she lost all of her material, and was never able to make the album she always wanted to make that was rooted in New Orleans. Her uncle, Harold Fedison, was a highly regarded costume-maker amongst the different tribes, and is also in the Mardi Gras Indians Hall of Fame for his sewing. Richard said for the “New Breed” album, she went to the leader of the tribe, Big Chief David Montana, and asked for his blessings. Without it, the album would not have come to be.
“I wanted my album cover to represent a woman as a king. So I had Chief Montana sew my headdress and wore a King’s headdress just to make sure people understood that women are kings. When my mom and dad moved back on the 10-year anniversary, I came home, I thought I was done for a while. I had done a trilogy of albums and I was done. And then I came home and I started talking to Trombone Shorty, Troy, my boy–Troy Andrews. I had just spoke with PJ Morton and I missed home. So I told my dad if I do another album.
I want to show people a New Orleans they don’t know. Not bounce music–which is great. But you know, not rap. We have an indigenous culture that is only privy to us.
There are children who walk the streets and see Black Indians. That power is gnarly. I don’t think we understand the reality of that like we. You walk down the street and children see a man dressed in garb that he made by his own hand, that was passed down from natives. That’s powerful. So I went to Chief and I asked. I said I will not do my album if I don’t have permission from your tribe. I want to to learn. I want to mask. And I want to speak with you and have the permission and he gave it to me because of my uncle Harold, and I masked with them. I walked with them, sewed with them. I created. Black Panther was the theme of the Mardi Gras this year and I danced with them. And it was the most incredible and exhilarating feeling. And I told them every step that I would make… I would bring them with me and everything… And I’m very grateful for that. I think it was a beautiful thing. We give celebration to Gucci and Louie for selling all these –but don’t ever forget that’s a style house. The pavement is their runway. They sew that–oh you may be wearing it twice. We should respect that level. So I did a piece with Vogue, wanted to do something, and I say I’ll only do it if you cover Mardi Gras and the Chiefs. And so we did a whole fashion style piece on Chief Montana and Shaka Zulu and the tribe and they let us film it and again, it showed New Orleans in a light that I think most people don’t see.”
And as far as the city itself, which has changed so much since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Richard said she’s here for it, as long as New Orleanians never forget where they came from.
“It never changed for me. So the moment that I breathe the air–my friends, some of my friends have moved back directly after. So I wasn’t–never lost it. So that’s why, for me– because the mainstream shit they’re doing now is cool and all, you know. But the truth is there are things happening in our streets that people have no clue how incredible it is because it’s only happened on that one street, on a corner, on a side, but–Right. So I wanted to do something that showcased, that I feel like– the Mardi Gras, the carnival Indian–is fit. You look it up–there are maybe four documentaries, maybe, about the truth of that culture. Something’s wrong with that to me. Yeah, right? People scared, when I see black Indian, white people get uncomfortable. Black Indian? Yes. And people can’t believe it. They see it. I wanted to make an album. That’s why it’s called ‘New Breed’. New Orleans has brought a new style. I wanted to show that there was a new type of culture coming out of this, where a woman can be a king. She could be a chief and she can bring in a new generation of something great. You can make a new song and take the past and innovated into the future.”
Richard plans on continuing to be a busy and magical entrepreneur and songstress. While she is working with Adult Swim and creating indie platforms, Richard is also back with Danity Kane. The group, with members Aubrey O’Day, and Shannon Bex, released a new single, “Neon Lights” in late June.
Richard’s album “New Breed” is out right now.