DAWN Saved My Life

The moment the emergency room nurse put an IV in my arm, I wondered what Dawn would do.
Photo Credit: Robert Arnold

*Trigger warning: content related to suicidal ideation and a suicide attempt

My palms were sweating and I feared my stuttering problem would surface again. I’ve been wanting to interview Dawn Richard for over a year and now, I was moments away from hearing her voice.

Dawn, who goes by her capitalized first name, was promoting new breed. With four self-financed albums, Dawn already established her legacy as a genre-bending indie artist. Dawn’s trilogy (Goldenheart, Blackheart, and Redemption) is an EDM journey chronicling her (gold) idealistic aim of conquering a myopic music industry before the (black) lows of falling short, and the (red) recovery that followed.

Her self-chartered evolution after departing Danity Kane and Diddy Dirty Money is my blueprint for being a liberated black woman. She constantly defies the paint-by-numbers R&B stereotype that has hamstrung black women artists for generations. During my interview with Dawn, I teetered somewhere between a journalist and a fangirl.

“We have to fight twice as hard because if we get one … it’s a token … I aim for us as a culture especially as us black women to fight for each other and rally with each other because it shouldn’t be one.” — DAWN

I asked questions about the New Orleans influences of new breed while feeling unqualified as a writer. Two months before, I nearly collapsed in tears when another article was published without my knowledge in an unrecognizable form. What I thought would be my life’s work became an abridged article that made an angry PR person threaten legal action. Six months before that, I quit my small-town journalism job because dissatisfied readers and my grandmother’s death triggered depression. And two months prior to quitting, I wrote a humorous Valentine’s Day article that angered my boyfriend. I broke up with him and tried to kill myself an hour later. I could barely lift my head, but I called my mom and told her I’m tired of hurting everyone I love. After the ambulance came, it took a day to walk again.

The moment the emergency room nurse put an IV in my arm, I wondered what Dawn would do. She survived Hurricane Katrina while fighting for her Danity Kane spot in front of millions on Making the Band. She weathered the “black” of being rejected by major labels after performing rock star-level concerts with Diddy. And while her life was rumor blog fodder during Danity Kane’s second breakup in 2014, Dawn was grieving the loss of her grandmother and experiencing the stress of her dad’s cancer diagnosis that he later recovered from. I look to Dawn for inspiration because she is a black woman like me who learned how to love herself through it all.

Photo Credit: Monty Marsh

My mind scanned Dawn’s catalog even as I drank charcoal for the second time. I clung to the words in her unreleased song, “NLX,” like it was my salvation. “Chasing all the lights, whether wrong or right” became my mantra. Watching a black woman chase whatever she wants inspired me to chase what I wanted, which was simply a life worth living. I tried to avoid my trademark neurosis and pursued anything that would make me feel better. After getting out of the mental hospital (ironically) on Valentine’s Day, I took dance and voice classes, started weightlifting, and imagined living with depression instead of dying from it.

I also tattooed a triangle on my right hand a week after getting released to remind myself of Dawn and the possibility of achieving her trilogy arc.

Courtesy of writer
“The point of the trilogy was we get out of it and it’s okay to have the black. The black wasn’t a bad thing. If anything, it shows that a breakthrough is coming.” — DAWN

Of course, I didn’t tell Dawn all of this. (Well, I sort of did in an embarrassing email I hope she never read.) But by the end of the interview, I shared some of my story.

“Please know though that after black there is a red. There’s redemption,” Richard encouraged before making me smile from ear to ear. “You’re never alone … I’m so sorry you had to touch the bottom but don’t think for a second that it ain’t gonna make you the baddest motherfucker ever.”

Dawn also said she loves me and at that point, God could have called me home. My heart was that full. Somehow, someone who doesn’t know me (and who I don’t know as well), said the perfect thing you can say to a chronically suicidal person: that life will not be perfect but you can survive.

“I go through black cyclically, right? Black comes back all the time for me,” Dawn laughed. “The point of the trilogy was we get out of it and it’s okay to have the black. The black wasn’t a bad thing. If anything, it shows that a breakthrough is coming. There is hope after that. You got a red coming. And it’s going to be sweet because you touched the bottom. You know what it looks like; what it smells like. And that’s okay because other people have been there with you and you’re never alone.”

The Red Era

Red for me was being alive to speak with Dawn. I was listening to her — my living superhero — while on break at my new mental health job where I use my suicide attempt experience to help others.

I was only supposed to interview Dawn for 30 minutes, so I crammed as many (selfish) questions as I could. I asked Dawn how she became a vocal powerhouse to learn her secrets. (Answer: Her dad, Frank Richard, who is the lead singer of funk band Chocolate Milk, gives her voice lessons as well as other voice coaches to learn how to physically place her vocals to produce different tones. Dawn admires singers like Toni Braxton and Jazmine Sullivan for their lower register.)

I also discussed with Dawn how she taught me to navigate the world as a black woman.

“I know the looks we get when we walk into the room. I know what it looks like to walk into tech meetings, to walk into animation buildings and they look at you like, okay… and then once they understand what it is, now you’re the token girl. You’ll be the one person,” Dawn said. “We have to fight twice as hard because if we get one … it’s a token. We have to fight that daily. Instead of the world seeing it like we need more of it. Let’s have more Viola Davises. Let’s have seven Viola Davises. They say, ‘Nope, we got one.’ … I aim for us as a culture especially as us black women to fight for each other and rally with each other because it shouldn’t be one.”

I thought about Dawn as a child of New Orleans. She saw mostly working-class Black Mardi Gras Indians sew ceremonial suits that could cost thousands of dollars. As an indie artist and an animator, Dawn produces this miraculous alchemy. She creates cutting edge visuals and studies emerging technology (often on her own dime) while fighting for black women like myself to be included. This is invaluable.

“I’m so sorry you had to touch the bottom but don’t think for a second that it ain’t gonna make you the baddest motherfucker ever.” — DAWN

Dawn saved my life by helping me imagine black survival. While I felt achieving perfection is the only way I could live, Dawn managed to create in the harshest imperfections. I don’t need a cure for my mental illness or an understanding boyfriend to live. I only need myself and the creative ability to adapt. This is the crux of new breed and the New Orleans culture Dawn grew up in:

“Even when we have nothing, we dance.”

Imade Nibokun is a freelance writer and a mental health advocate. She interviewed DAWN for the Bandcamp article, DAWN: The “Girl From The Nine” Becomes an Electro-Soul King. Imade is a late bloomer who became a heart, or a dedicated DAWN fan, at age 30, the year Imade attempted suicide. She plans to get more DAWN inspired tattoos and continue living.