Dawn Richard evokes a sense of freedom with her music — it’s always been that way with the Danity Kane lodestar. Ahead of her time in both music and personal philosophy, Dawn (f.k.a. D∆WN) has never been afraid to embrace where she’s from (the 9th Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana), or who she is: A Black woman working in the music industry. On her latest album New Breed, her first full-length solo project since 2016, Richard celebrates the young girl raised in the 9th Ward’s homecoming. According to the album’s track “Spaces,” she lost that little Black girl from JonLee Drive somewhere on Hollywood and Vine.
“I had so many men in power telling me I was too brave, too confident, too Black, too ugly, too thin,” she told me last week over the phone, discussing the song. “That girl believed them. But deep inside, the girl from the nine said f*ck them.”
And on this album, Dawn was able to find that girl from JonLee Drive on the daring and independent ten track EP that radiates a sense of total liberation.
“It took me a while,” Dawn said. “Because in the beginning of my career, I was this confident girl from the 9th Ward. I thought it was normal, the things I saw. The Mardi Gras headdress, Black people with native braids with feathers to the transwomen poppin’ in the middle of the hood with a bounce record. I thought that was normal because that’s what I was used to. The way women talk. This cockiness we have. This air we have. When I came to LA and New York, I wasn’t really prepared for the amount of fear.”
The fear Dawn speaks of is not her own; it’s the music industry’s fear of a Black woman who doesn’t fit its formulaic idea of what society perceives an “acceptable” Black woman to be. Nothing shakes society more than a confident Black woman who openly speaks her mind without tap dancing.
Dawn experienced the industry’s push back as soon as she began her career as part of the beloved pop-R&B girl group Danity Kane, created by Diddy on MTV’s reality show Making The Band 3 in the early 2000s. The multi-platinum group comprised of Dawn herself, Aubrey O’Day, Shannon Bex, and now former members Wanita “D. Woods” Woodgett and Aundrea Fimbres, all representing a diverse group of women with their own stories to tell. Dawn and D. Woods were the only two Black girls in the group and their struggles, because of this, were often highlighted on MTB3.
“The more different you are as a Black person… I didn’t know that was fearful for people,” Dawn said. “So they make you conform and they confine you. They say well, ‘No this ain’t it, do this.’ Before I knew it and the more I was getting into the industry, the girl I knew was being shaped into someone completely different than what I wanted to be. I had played [the game] for so long, that one day I woke up and was like, nah, I’m good on that. I’m tired of it.”
The talented recording artist born Dawn Angeliqué Richard always knew who was before even appearing on the reality show. Coming from a musically inclined family, Dawn was equipped with knowledge of how to utilize the uniqueness of her voice and write really good songs.
It’s why Dawn is a special treat to have in the music industry. Puff knew this — when he disbanded DK, he kept Dawn and put her in a group alongside himself and the lesser-known, yet talented singer-songwriter Kalenna Harper, to become the trio known as Diddy-Dirty Money. Their first (and only) album, Last Train To Paris is an out-of-the-box, eclectic masterpiece that was way too far ahead of time when it made its debut in 2010.
By industry standards, the cult-classic-level of love DDM received for Last Train To Paris is a moot point considering how a powerful guy like Diddy is. The hip-hop mogul knowingly entered into a music group with two Black women, who essentially shaped the album’s sound. As long as Puff’s been in the business, he’s keenly aware of the colorist politics woven into the music industry’s fabric, however, even he wasn’t even prepared for the amount of fear his vision would receive from label heads.
In an interview with Cosmopolitan last year, Richard recalled when Interscope co-founder Jimmy Iovine called her unattractive, as a member of Diddy-Dirty Money, in a boardroom of fifty people then questioned why Puff didn’t have two lighter-skinned girls by his side instead.
“That’s normal for him, for him it’s dollars and I understand,” she explained. “He knew a formula and that’s most music labels. They have a formula and if you get the correct team, for the most part, it works. You force-feed an idea of an artist. People come out and they see this idea of an artist and it’s given. ‘Like ‘these records and ‘like’ these songs. Big budgets are given and it works.”
Unfortunately, Black women aren’t afforded the luxury of speaking up without the “angry” label. On MTB3, Aubrey was often used as Danity Kane’s voice to address issues concerning the group. As someone who has followed Dawn since the beginning, I always found her grace inspiring.
“It wasn’t meant to be disrespectful to Jimmy,” Dawn elaborated. “I think anything that was different was uncomfortable. Puff was trying to pitch something that was uncomfortable for a lot of people. Puff wanted it to work. He had a vision but he was frustrated because a lot of people didn’t see the vision. If you look at that album it was ahead of its time, it was so great. But even visually, people weren’t ready for that amount of chocolate on a stage and doing that kind of music. It wasn’t just the look of us, it was the entire package.”