Santigold’s latest work has me diggin’ through the proverbial crates. February 26, 2016 she released her third solo album, 99¢, which quickly sent me to Joan Armatrading and from there Grace Jones. Such is the ‘mind life’ of a DJ - we look back to better understand the now.
In the retrospective glance, I found a thread—a shared dance on the lines that connect UK new wave to roots reggae, and Caribbean punk—musical elements of the Black Atlantic coupled with rhythmic traces of migration. I understand Santigold and her place in music to be somewhat of an anomaly, but only when juxtaposed against pop artists who shine bright under the light of America’s marketable musical mediocrity. This is why I can’t bring myself to categorize her sound as alternative. In my world, pop culture doesn’t set the standard for what's normal, regardless of mass appeal and the conditioning of the public it requires.
I was introduced to Santi White through her involvement with the artist Res. The album How I Do made it big on the low with only one breakthrough song: “They-Say Vision.” The song reached #37 on Billboard’s Dance Chart. There were no platinum sales or regular radio play for any other track.
It was an album that lived on the edge of the underground, but managed to make its way through the speakers of music heads across America and beyond. Res held her own as a vocalist and felt at home in the delivery and phrasing of the lyrics. How I Do, in all of its soul cult classic glory was an important not-to-be-slept-on collaboration. Santi White was the executive producer and co-writer for the project and my learning of that information was colored by incredulity, like word? Well who is Santi White? And what’s this I hear about her romantic connection to Mos Def? There were rumors, ones I never felt compelled to confirm or deny, but upon falling in love with the album, I, like a number of listeners, squinted my eyes, the way that people do to increase their hearing, to understand the meaning behind the track Golden Boy. Was this a sonic calling out of Mos Def the celebrity versus Yasiin Bey the personal jerk? If nothing else, I felt humanized by his ‘complexity’ and impressed by Santi White’s emotional honesty. If the rumors were true, I appreciated Res’ performative role as a representative for the perils and pleasure of black love.
And would they love you if they knew all the things we know
We've got these images
We need them to be true
Not ready to believe we're no more insecure than you
I kept my ear to the streets of Santi’s musical movement, waiting for the release of her first solo album. When she finally dropped Santogold in 2008, I knew she had staying power and exciting force behind her creative process. The album made its mark, introducing us to the experimental nu-dub sounds of producer Diplo and pulling off that hard to achieve mature blend of electronic music and the one drop—accentuated by an unexpected black woman’s new wave voice floating between and on top.
Santi was born and raised in Philly and I’m quite sure that her ear caught wind of the regional rhythm that city is known for. Not only was she within listening range of the Philadelphia Soul sound and the masterful ministers of dance floor activism (Gamble and Huff), she grew up alongside the burgeoning Soulquarian movement, a ?uestlove led crew heralded as the founders of the annoyingly misnamed neo-soul music.
To be clear, Santi is a formally trained musician. She took her Philly soul education to one of the nation’s most prestigious music schools, Wesleyan University, and double majored in African-American Studies and music. I can feel how sonic cultural knowledge and intellectual curiosity show up in the vocal arrangement, drum patterns, and lyrics in her music. I’m equally moved by the fact that she dropped out of college to become an A&R rep for Epic Records—a proper nod to her anti-establishment punk roots.
Between 2003-05 she worked with Bad Brains bassist Darryl Jennifer, placing herself in direct conversation with Black punk (pre Afropunk) royalty. Santi was the founding member and lead singer for the Philly based punk band Stiffed and she and Jennifer co-produced the band’s two albums.
This is a big deal! Black girls have existed on the margins of punk music/culture for years and we can trace Santi’s footprints to NYC’s and Philly’s underground early 2000s punk and post punk scene through her work with this band. Both Stiffed albums, Sex Sells (2003) and Burned Again (2005), are now part of a Black punk archives, excavate at will.
It was on the east coast punk scene where she was courted by London based independent label Lizard King Records. This wouldn’t be the first time that the UK, while poking their heads into American underground culture, would find some of our brightest; see N’dea Davenport, Jhelisa, Carleen Anderson and early Detroit Techno pioneers for proof. The UK soul scene (Soul II Soul, Massive Attack, D’influence, etc.), drew influences from diasporic Caribbean riddims, continental African polyrhythms, and Black American funk. Santi fits well within this tradition—this transnational artist community. By 2006, she was offered a solo contract by Lizard King and was pushed even further along her path.
When we talk about Black Magic Women, a phrase first introduced to me through the music of Santana, I geek out thinking about the many worlds from whence this specific brand of sparkle can be found. 99¢ is exciting not only because it’s a well produced arrangement of captivating songs that speak to a range of emotions and human experiences, but also, as reactionary as it may seem, important because it challenges the limited engagement of Black women as brilliant musical creatures. That phenomenon of erasure leaves the American collective imagination about black women’s relationship to the creation of music, dull at best.
Fortunately, social media, the people’s platform, has given us so much access to unpopular Black magic women with hidden, but righteous art, ideas and intentionally developed talent. For decades we’ve been using independent media platforms as a vehicle to resist erasure, and as a tool to dismantle static ideas about beauty, gender and politics that echo out our voices as cultural producers.
Consistent with indie culture, a tradition where Santi is steeped, her latest album 99¢ is complete with interactive videos. The album cover boasts a pink background and has the artist shrink wrapped amidst a few of her favorite things, including: multiple keyboards, a pair of golden clogs, a disco ball, and a license plate with her name spelled out from Brazil. With a little homework I discovered that the license plate is a souvenir from her performance at the 2012 Back2Black Festival in Brazil, which implies that her album cover is, again, akin to a living archive. She also performed during the week of the album’s release at Jack’s 99 Cents store in NYC, a decision that seems directly related to the DIY approach found in the early hip-hop economic model.
Santi White is functioning at capacity in an underworld, a world that must be sought out and unearthed. An underworld without super video budgets, automatic radio play, a world where concerts' ticket prices will not exceed that of a car note.
Let's explore this further. I’d like to challenge you to think of Santi as a variation of Beyoncé, or better yet, think of them as variations of each other. While the two are read as polar opposites, it’s only because we’re not given much of an opportunity to interface with the large number of multifaceted Black women who make music. I would argue that both women stand in their craft with high levels of artistic integrity and did so for at least a decade before being ‘discovered’. Both women have a clear commitment to the mastery of technical skills. And while the distinction between the two are worth investigation, I’m moved by their collective drive and clear that the evolutionary aspect of their respective practices, the fine tuning of every part of the project, is largely ignored because they are Black women. People get real stingy when assigning the title genius to these particular bodies, and too generous in framing their work as naturally good versus ruthlessly perfected.
Collectively, Bey and Santigold’s work share impact - different scales of impact, but recognizable impact. That said, Beyoncé doesn’t have to be the standard against which all Black women are measured. I am very aware of her hyper-exposure, but the comparison between the two felt like an outlandish and therefore exciting way to think about how even the most visible Black women are unseen.
In 2012, a few years had passed since I’d heard from Santigold. This was after her first solo release, and I felt good that she didn’t rush into her next album. I’m not moved by the push to ride the buzz of first album success. I’d rather artists be given the space to carefully craft an album. I’m a student of the school of Sade, who averaged a new album every two-four years. In true Capricorn fashion Sade made us wait 8 years between between Love Deluxe and Lover’s Rock, then nearly another decade between Lover’s Rock and Soldier of Love. And I say yes! Let it marinate, experience life, take your time, do it right. By the time Santi’s “Master of my Make Believe” dropped March 1 of 2012, I felt good and ready, with just a slight bit of anxiety about her return. The wait between albums creates intimacy between you and the artist, it’s so precious. And the second album was indeed a demonstration of artistic investment.
So is the third - I like all but 1.5 songs on the 99¢ album. The half comes from a song on which I love her verse and the music on a track (“Who Be Lovin Me”), but that features a less talented emcee, iLoveMakonnen. To be fair to her, I have a low tolerance for guest rappers in general, most times it feels like a music industry ploy to expand the market. The other song I struggled with is the first single from the album, “Can’t Get Enough of Myself,” a necessary anthem for young people and people in general who are listening, but it left me wanting more or, to be honest, had me worried that she was abandoning her soulful punk core for some chart friendly shit. I wasn’t having it. After falling in love with the rest of the album I was able to engage the opening track from a distance and I plan to introduce it to my pre-teen niece, but I will probably forever start the album from the second track and dive head first into the dopeness of every other song on the project.
Santigold is an artist who comes from a lineage of fierce, independent, business savvy, cutting edge, socially conscious women who find a way to produce and not be (publicly) swallowed up by the by-products of success. Her presence in the music industry is no small thing, and when you check her ghostwriting credentials you’ll see she’s written for so many of your favorite people (Lili Allen, Ashlee Simpson and Blaqstarr to name a few). I’m a witness to her maturation, her growing global presence, and her interdisciplinary approach to the arts. Santigold embodies voices of the unsung.
She’s on tour now and I had the opportunity to see her Black excellence live at the Hollywood Paladium last week. But I have to admit, I was thrown off by the sea of white millenials that made up the majority of concert goers. They were there in force, mouthing her lyrics verbatim, dancing a step behind the beat, and representing the fact that she lacks the support of Black radio and the embrace of Black youth. It became more clear that Santi is one of those artists who is vulnerable to the belief that hers is not Black music, but from my gatekeeping position as an authority (DJ), my work here is to place her where she belongs, squarely between the tradition and the future of Black music.