Photography: James Anthony
R&B maverick, former Danity Kane member, and burgeoning tech wiz Dawn Richard, better known by her stage name D∆WN, is bringing her genre-defying, Afrofuturistic dance-pocalypse to New York this weekend as part of MOBIfest—a free, three-day, citywide celebration of black queer contributions to art, film, fashion, and culture, with a focus on promoting community, wellness, and personal development.
The event, organized by NYC’s own MOBI (Mobilizing Our Brothers Initiative) kicks off Thursday, May 17 in Harlem with events over the weekend in Brooklyn and Queens, culminating with D∆WN’s headlining performance at the Melrose Ballroom.
I recently chatted with the multi-talented artist about her own ambitions, growing up in a queer-affirming New Orleans, the state of black culture, and her unrelenting advocacy for the queer community.
OUT: Can you tell me about why you wanted to be a part of MOBIfest?
D∆WN: I think MOBI is special. The fact that it’s an initiative to help black gay men and the black gay youth—it’s really important, culturally, for us. MOBI gives a great platform for you to be exactly who you want to be and the opportunity for you to thrive in that. That just resonated with me. I grew up kinda being different and not having, especially being a black woman, anyone really embrace it. I can’t even imagine being shunned by your family because of the way you are, or because you’re different, or you’re not quite sure where your journey is going but you know exactly who you are and people don’t accept it. You need a family and I think MOBI is truly family-oriented and really trying to help the youth in the community they’re building around.
Can you speak about your connection to the queer community, particularly queer people of color, that you have had in your life and career?
Before it blew up, bounce culture was very heavy in our community and trans and gay culture basically ruled that sound. From Messy Mia to King Red, the culture of bounce was predominately queer culture. It was hugely accepted and a part of our underground world and all we ever knew. There was an acceptance of being who you are within New Orleans and when I left, I didn’t know that it wasn’t like that everywhere. It was very hard for me. So I made sure I educated people on what it meant to be accepting of anything different. And then when I got into Danity Kane, we had a huge gay following. The community just wrapped their arms around us and really took us in before anyone else. We promised ourselves that we would continue to advocate for the gay community because of the love and the stories that we heard along the way. Since my childhood all the way to now, I’ve had a really strong connection with queer culture because it was around me and it was always something that I appreciated and loved. I never wanted to turn my back on that.
What do you think is the role of the artist in today’s social and political climate?
An artist can be what they want to be. I’ve never felt like I needed to be an advocate for everyone, I just wanted to be a storyteller. I wanted to tell stories that affected my life, but I realized my story is a selfish one to tell by itself. So I wanted my stories to resonate with other people, and also to tell the stories of people who didn’t have a voice. Nina Simone was absolutely right that an artist should reflect the times. You have to be aware as an artist that there is an opportunity for us to have a voice. The mic is such a powerful vessel, it’s a bridge, so why not speak on things that affect you? Just use it wisely.
How do you feel about the state of black culture right now?
That’s a heavy question. I think we’re on the right track. Because of social media, like Black Twitter, you can see black culture really fighting for ourselves. I do think, though, because we have that power, we need to read, learn, and educate ourselves so that when we speak on these platforms that have the power to change so much, we’re changing the right things. And we’re not just doing it for shits and giggles or because it sounds cool or is trendy.
What’s been inspiring you most lately?
There is a powerful need for us as black people to stand in our truth and to fight for what we want. I’m not gonna lie, growing up in the South, I never experienced that because it was just very racist and very hard. It is a beautiful and inspiring thing to see us want more and demand it. It’s a beautiful time to be alive when you can see a black man be what he wants to be and wear what he wants to wear; when you can see black women be beautiful, be different sizes, wear their natural hair, and be celebrated. I was a bit off-kilter as a kid but now you see the celebration of the off-kilter black kid. You can be black and be a nerd and like anime. We’ve got BlerdCon and BlackTech and Black Girls Code. You see this evolution of black culture beyond a stereotype. I pray more and more that it gets even bigger so that people can understand that black is not one thing—that we are all things and that we can exist in all spaces.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a new album. I’ve been working with Adult Swim. I’ve been animating lately which I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I’ve been working in tech with my startup company, working in VR. I have these really great projects that show that black women can be in tech, we can be in animation, we can be in The Other, as well as be a musician. Not a lot of artists have taken that route and I think it’s OK to be unconventional in your routing. You can do it in a different way and it can be unconventional and you can still be quite successful.
Is it all going to be part of one project or multiple projects?
Multiple projects. I never tell a story that doesn’t make sense. I never do something that’s a one-off. It all makes sense in the grand scheme of things.
When can fans expect to experience all of this?
That’s a good question! When it’s ready. I’ve put out a trilogy, I’ve done a lot of different things. With this project I want to take my time. It’s a lot that I’m doing, it’s a lot of new ground, so I’m in no rush. In the meantime I’ve done some incredible collaborations, I’ve worked with a lot of different artists from all different genres. I just did a cover of Janelle Monáe’s “Pynk” and I’ve got a few more singles coming out this year. There’s no date on the album yet but I don’t think people will have to wait that long.
What do you plan on bringing to MOBIfest?
Oh, a party! We’re gonna dance. We’re gonna give an experience. We’re gonna be unapologetically who we are. We’re going to do all the good songs that empower. I just want people to be able to be who they are and dance in that. And that’s always what our live show is. It’s an opportunity for you to be exactly who the fuck you are and be flagrantly that.
Get your tickets to MOBIfest here.