I don’t immediately recognize Dawn Richard when I first spot her guiding a van through a gate to load-in for her performance at Pitchfork Music Festival. Dazed by the creamy white and disco diamante of her stage costume, I didn’t immediately realize who I was looking at, but it was impossible not to know that I had just seen someone famous.
Later, when most artists would be getting their hair and makeup done in an air conditioned trailer, she’s overseeing the assembly of the LED triangles that glow behind her as she performs, making sure the tubular bulbs meet neatly in the apex of the structure. Devoted fans linger in the front row, watching her make the last minute adjustments and sporting her T-shirts, sun-faded dad caps, and even custom-molded USB drive necklaces holding virtual reality visuals for her latest album Redemption.
"They're so amazing, because they don’t have to like me. They're not being force fed. I'm not mainstream. You gotta find me,” the artist—now known primarily as D∆WN—says as we chat in a Chicago rehearsal studio. During the course of our conversation, she cites influences as diverse as the music video director Chris Cunningham, the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, and even, Cher.
Although many were new fans, 20-somethings weren't the only ones wearing her merchandise at the show. "My dad embarrasses me," D∆WN laughs. “It was cool to have [my parents] there, and for them [to] see that crowd and that reception. I think my dad's always the proudest, because this is his field,” she explains, referring to both her father’s master's degree in classical music and voice as well as his stint in Chocolate Milk, a band that toured with The Ohio Players that continues to live on in a breakbeat sampled by many, including Eric B. & Rakim.
On stage, D∆WN sports a custom open-back diamond pantsuit from the ‘genderless brand’ TLZ L'Femme. She asked Tlazsa, the young woman who created the garment, "Can you just do something different, that you've not designed yet with anyone else?"
As an artist, D∆WN knows the importance of being an individual. “I promised myself,” she says, “that I wouldn't be afraid to be who I was when I chose to do this music thing. I love what a women embodies, I love our bodies, I love the way we communicate with our bodies, I love the way dance creates movement. It's art in motion.”
Reflecting later on her connection with the crowd, she compares it to a cult following. “I'm lucky to have a cult group of people who just get it, they get me. So festivals like Pitchfork, Sónar, Moogfest—they give me an opportunity to touch [a crowd] in a place that I don't often get to. I feel like these festivals allow that opportunity for us to just be exactly what we are [without] judgement...That's something I can always just be grateful for.”
At her performance during Pitchfork, D∆WN displays visible emotion as she surveys the crowd gathered around her, addressing them directly. “I’m too humble right now, y’all. My first Pitchfork and y’all look like this. If you gotta pop your cherry...do it like this.”
Once known for her role in Diddy’s reality show Making the Band (and the resulting groups Danity Kane and Diddy-Dirty Money), D∆WN has defined herself from birth by blurring the lines between music, dance, and fashion while steadfastly refusing to pick a lane.
Her recently completed trinity of full-length LPs are each defined by a different producer and a strong visual aesthetic, often with a color scheme referenced in the name of the album. Goldenheart, produced entirely by Teyana Taylor collaborator Druski, follows a warrior through epic battles ripped from mythology and scripture that mirror D∆WN’s own struggles with the music industry. Blackheart traces the dissolution of identity through Noisecastle III’s compositions and the confession of dark dance floor desires. Redemption, produced largely by Machinedrum, is the most political of the trio.
“My movement has a large community of trans and gay culture, and [a lot of times] they don't get to have a voice,” D∆WN says, explaining that she was inspired to write “Love Under Lights” after hearing about too many people connected to her circle killed due to a confluence of factors: being black, being transgender, living in poor communities.
“I know what it's like to be different. I was not accepted. And that's what Redemption is about. It's about speaking about those who don't get an opportunity to have a voice for themselves. I will fight and...be on the front lines with them every chance I get.”
The exact genre of D∆WN’s music is unclassified, with online music services first listing her as R&B, and more recently slotting her work into the electronic charts. However, as a native of New Orleans, defying categorization is something she was born to do. “Any given day [when] you walk on the street you see someone tap dancing, singing, wearing a headdress...there could possibly be a parade happening in your front yard.”
The Big Easy’s influence is perhaps most apparent in D∆WN’s stylistic choices: sculptural headwear, sheer fabrics, and jeweled heels. “If you know New Orleans, if you know that culture, [then] you understand me perfectly...New Orleans is all extra and it's basic to us.”
D∆WN’s family inheritance is a rich artistic lineage tied deeply to the city’s culture. She was raised watching relatives paint coconuts and sew costumes for the city’s vibrant Zulu Parade in a home filled with the sounds of Debussy on the stereo.
“Most of my family were educators,” D∆WN says. “My mom has taught about four generations of kids, they all grew up, they all know her. My mom owned the dancing school, so [when] I was two...I wasn't even walking that well, and my mom put blue tights on me. It was like I had a job at one. We had to help with the dancing school.”
Slowly but surely, dance wasn’t just a job for D∆WN, but a way of life. "I realized how much dance would be a part of my entire aesthetic," she continues. "I can't tell you what that feels like when you have girls or boys rocking next to you on a stage, that energy, you just feed off of each other." Her love of connecting with other dancers carried through to her early years as an NBA cheerleader. "And to be funny, to be real, we wore Reeboks. The NBA always had us wear Reeboks, and we had some similar to the ones I have on now, and that was our vibe, you know."
She uses every influence as a tool at her disposal to innovate, something that makes her art unclassifiable and accessible on multiple dimensions.
Her technological accomplishments include performing the first ever 360 degree concert broadcast on YouTube's VR live streaming platform and creating explorable VR visuals for her songs. The fact she’s venturing into virtual reality at all is impressive, considering that some of the only artists to have used it are Björk, Run the Jewels, Childish Gambino, and Jazz Cartier: all artists signed to major labels.
Because of her independence, she’s working with a much smaller budget at her disposal than most. “I know how hard it is to build your own set, to find $10 and try to make it look like $50,000, and I'm not the only one doing that. I know I'm not.”
D∆WN’s ability to cloak herself in choreography and couture, paired with the techno-futuristic dazzle of digital renderings, is just as intrinsic to maintaining the fidelity of her vision as her music. Never one to kowtow to limitations, she’ll do anything she can to bring her concepts to realization.
“Whether it's putting on the diamond encrusted pantsuit, or whether it's me wearing these Reeboks...it's a story. Art is a story,” she emphasizes, “My music speaks of warriors. It speaks of women being kings, and this sense of pride of being more, even though you have less.”
Hours after D∆WN's performance, a golf cart carrying her entourage parts the Pitchfork crowd. A pale girl totters in front, delaying the driver’s egress as she struggles to frame a gram-worthy selfie with the vehicle in the background.
Despite the delay, D∆WN, her mother, and her dancers remain in high spirits, waving and smiling at the crowd like the royal court in a Mardi Gras parade. After a day of backbreaking work and sweat in Chicago’s summer sun, the heavily crowned heroine was finally ready to take a victory lap.