dawn's latest album is a love letter to new orleans
'new breed' is inspired by her life in the city pre-Katrina, and pays tribute to her heritage among the Mardi Gras Indians.
Photography Robert Arnold
Dawn Richard can do it all. The Louisiana artist is most famous for her role in the girl group Danity Kane, which formed on the third iteration of P. Diddy’s MTV series Making the Band, but she’s also acted, most recently in season 3 of Issa Rae’s Insecure, danced in the NBA for the New Orleans Hornets, and been a star softball player who had ambitions of making it all the way to the Olympics. She’s also released four solo albums, created content for Adult Swim , and is currently working on a docuseries. She really can do it all.
“Prince is one of my biggest inspirations and he played every instrument on that stage,” she says, sounding energized after having finished a tour with Kiwi popstar Kimbra the night before. “He could be all of it. I always wanted to be an artist that could be all of it.”
Released last Friday, DAWN’s latest album, new breed, is unlike anything she has done before. It’s a concept album; a love letter to New Orleans and a tribute to her heritage among the Black Mardi Gras Indians – her uncle is a proud member of the Washitaw Nation. It’s also a celebration of the sights, sounds, and smells that shaped her life before her neighborhood was ripped apart in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, and before she temporarily became a cog in the male-dominated music industry (DAWN’s four solo albums have all been released independently).
In November 2018, she introduced new breed on Twitter, telling fans that it’s “about what it means to be a Ninth Ward girl from Jonlee before all the industry shit.” Opening track “the nine (intro)” gets right to it. DAWN sings about eating snowballs and crawfish, participating in Mardi Gras, and kicking it with Shanda and Sonja, her two best friends since birth – “my best friends to this day,” she says proudly.
Jonlee Drive is a small residential street in East New Orleans where DAWN grew up. It’s part of the Ninth Ward, which was one of the worst affected areas during the hurricane. “My mom started her first dance school there, in a garage, and everybody in the neighborhood went to that dance school,” DAWN remembers (in Season 3, Episode 1 of Making The Band 3, the contestants visited the former school ). “It was so real and so tangible, because it was just a block of black kids trying to be more, and our parents trying to give us everything that they never had. It was better and simpler times and I will never forget those moments.”
DAWN has spoken before about how the sounds and smells of New Orleans are ingrained in the folks who grew up there, but she has never explored that narrative as unapologetically as she does on new breed. From the mention of local hotspots like Camellia Grille and The Trolley Stop Cafe on “the nine”, to the recordings of Chief Montana discussing the Washitaw Nation, and her father (who was a member of the band Chocolate Milk) singing his hit song “Groove City” that are threaded into the album, every detail is instinctively related to the city.
new breed is almost as sassy as New Orleans itself. “It’s uncut and it’s honest, and at times it’s very female, at times it’s very male in a female way; it’s androgynous. It’s blatant, it’s cocky, it’s confident, it’s all the things that, to me, embody the city,” explains DAWN.
But new breed is not just about DAWN honoring her city, it’s also about going back – to before Danity Kane, before she had a global audience and a platform to speak from (“before all the industry shit”) – to showcase who she really is (“the girl from Jonlee”). “I wanted to give you guys what I was before this,” she says. “Because, believe it or not, I was so much more before I even started this. I had so much influence and so much depth before I got into this business, because New Orleans is already that. I wanted to give that lifestyle its truth and its time to shine.”
Like a lot of families in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, DAWN’s lost everything in the hurricane. They were homeless for six months, until they relocated to Baltimore and built a new life for themselves. Then, in 2016, a decade after being displaced, they decided to move back to New Orleans. But things are different now, the landscape no longer resembles DAWN’s childhood. People that grew up together are no longer neighbors. DAWN is different, too.
DAWN is now vegan, having switched to the diet six years ago when her father was diagnosed with cancer. But being vegan in a city with a culinary history as rich as New Orleans’ has consequences. Crawfish sandwiches, roast beef and fried seafood Po’ Boys are no longer on the menu. It’s not enough to stop DAWN from craving one, though. “I’m vegan, but I’m still me,” she says emphatically. “Even though I don’t eat it anymore, [crawfish] is still my favorite food in the world. I know what it tastes like, I remember the taste as if I was eating one right now. That’s New Orleans food, New Orleans does that to you… I was the star. The MVP of crawfish, when I used to eat it. I was the best peeler in the world.”
Her decision to go vegan has been celebrated by the animal rights organization, PETA – she’s shot two ad campaigns for them – but DAWN’s not one to judge. She says, “I’ll never look at anyone for choosing to have whatever dietary choices they have, because coming from a city like where I come from, trust me, I get why you eat meat. Because it’s New Orleans. It’s good.”