Dawn Richard has never taken her solo act to a New Orleans festival.
It feels like that should be an impossibility, especially for someone born and raised here who grew up watching her family hit the streets with Mardi Gras Indians before she made it big and landed in a pop group signed to Diddy’s label.
But that changes now. Richard’s name is finally on the lineup for a major New Orleans festival, and it’s one that makes perfect sense with the route she’s taken to get here. Richard, who first broke out as part of the pop group Danity Kane, plays her solo act for the first time at Essence Fest this July.
“I’ve tried to put on for my city for a long time,” Richard said. “I wanted to prove New Orleans had pop stars, and we could bring New Orleans to mainstream culture.”
The city that made Richard fuels her music, and it’s evident on “New Breed,” her latest solo album, which dropped in January. The project started just when Richard thought she was done.
Having just wrapped up a musical trilogy inspired by love, loss and redemption, Richard was exhausted. She was spent. She needed a break. What she needed was to go home.
“My mom and dad had finally moved back after 10 years of Katrina (exile),” Richard remembered. “And I started walking and talking and meeting all the people I had missed my whole life, and I realized I wanted to make this thank you letter to New Orleans.”
But if Richard was going to do that, she was going to do it right, so she started from the beginning.
Her family roots are with the Ouachita Nation, and while she grew up seeing her uncle Herald Fedison march with and sew for Mardi Gras Indians, she wanted permission to reenter that world. When Big Chief David Montana welcomed her in, Richard said, her work truly began.
“I started on my quest to apply the Mardi Gras Indian and indigenous black culture of New Orleans — that history, all that past and heritage — of what we could be, and that began ‘New Breed,’” Richard said. “That’s a new breed of Indian, and a new breed of New Orleans.”
Listen to the album, and it’s hard to miss. On “Jealousy,” a Mardi Gras Indian queen intones an introduction: “We bring the fire, we bring the rain.” “The Nine” is a tribute to the Ninth Ward of her youth. The track for which the album is named has an ethereal call and response, a direct link to Mardi Gras Indian chants.
But it’s still Richard, so every track travels through an Afro-futurism vibe — and a sense of strength.
“I always felt New Orleans was a woman who led like a king,” she said. “I wanted to tell that story.”
And now Richard gets to hit the stage at Essence Fest, in the place that created and inspired her; she’s preparing accordingly.
“We’re always extra over here,” she laughed. “It’s going to be ridiculously New Orleans, and there’s no other thing it should be.”