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How Santigold Helped Me Claim And Keep My New York Dreams

Santigold's self-titled debut combines "look what <em>I</em> can do" attitude with a galvanizing magic.
Santigold's self-titled debut combines "look what <em>I</em> can do" attitude with a galvanizing magic.

NPR Music's Turning the Tables is a project envisioned to challenge sexist and exclusionary conversations about musical greatness. Up until now we have focused on overturning conventional, patriarchal best-of lists and histories of popular music. But this time, it's personal. For 2021, we're digging into our own relationships to the records we love, asking: How do we know as listeners when a piece of music is important to us? How do we break free of institutional pressures on our taste while still taking the lessons of history into account? What does it mean to make a truly personal canon? The essays in this series will excavate our unique relationships with the albums we love, from unimpeachable classics by major stars to subcultural gamechangers and personal revelations. Because the way that certain music comes to hold a central place in our lives isn't just a reflection of how we develop our taste, but how we come to our perspective on the world.


It's been 20 years since I first heard a song from the mind of Santi White, but at the time I fell in love with it I didn't know I had her to thank. Back then White lived not in the spotlight but mostly in liner notes and underground scenes, a Black woman grinding, like so many before her, to make a name for herself in the music industry. Her final form — Santigold, the genre-defying heroine who'd later burn bright in my consciousness — was not yet a glimmer.

In those early days of 2001, who I did know was her Philly friend Res (a singer whose debut album, it so happens, White largely wrote and produced). I'd managed to get my hands on How I Do months before it was officially out — one perk of dating the man for whom I'd recently moved to New York City. He was a music journalist with bylines in glossies like Vibe and Spin, a Queens-born hip-hop head. At the countless shows we saw Res open for Talib Kweli or Mos Def over the years — me tagging along as my man's plus-one, because my unglamorous gig slapping HTML around website copy could never get us on any guest list — I watched him nod hard to the bass-heavy tracks, and like a good girlfriend, I nodded yes too.

But my favorite — that song I fell for fast — was How I Do's opener, "Golden Boys." I loved its sound — Res' voice alternately sneering and soaring over music that, foreshadowing Santigold's own mashed-up aesthetic, couldn't be pinned as alt- or neo- or whatever prefix you tried to give it. And then there were the lyrics, written by White — a rebuke of deceptive images and false idols. "Why are you selling dreams of who you wish you could be?" she scolds in the very first line, putting on blast a nameless "prince in all of the magazines." The coldest read comes at the chorus, though, courtesy of a sisterhood side-eyeing this prince from the corners:

But then there's girls like me who sit appalled by what we've seen
We know the truth about you...

I remember hearing these lines the first time, the synths swelling in the background, the beat picking up. Those "girls like me," that all-knowing "we": They begged me to sing along, so I did. Was I cool enough to hang out on this scene, though, savvy enough to float free of its traps? Ask me today, with the benefit of hindsight, and I will assure you that back then, I was far from qualified. On some level, you might even accuse me of poseur tendencies too. Trailing behind a man, after all, wasn't exactly the feminist move.

But if you'd asked me back then? When I was 24 years old and high on the bravado that even a nascent version of Santigold could stir in me? Well. For that runtime of 4 minutes and 38 seconds, you couldn't tell me jack.

***

The exact details of my first dalliance with Santigold elude me — probably because when it arrived, in 2008, it instantly felt ubiquitous. (Technically, back then, the album was called Santogold, as was the artist – but both have been known as Santigold following a name change in 2009.) I heard "Creator" playing in the bars that my man and I frequented on the Lower East Side; I glimpsed her name in bold while flipping through the Fader or scrolling on Pitchfork, any number of those buzzy outlets obsessed with the new and the next; who knows, I probably even posted critic Leah Greenblatt's capsule review of the album on EW.com (where I worked at the time). When I nabbed my own copy I got a good look at its cover, connecting the sounds and the name I recognized with the image of the artist behind them. Imprinting, almost. And sis glared back at me, 100 percent grit — the only glam thing about her the gold glitter spewing out of her mouth. Whoa, I remember thinking, what's the story here?

I discovered, to my delight, that Santi White and I had a lot in common. Both of us Black women, of course, and both 32 that year — the wrong age, race and gender to just be making a name, especially as creatives in youth-obsessed New York City. Like me, I'd learn from the profiles I'd dig into as companion pieces to my regular listening, she had paid dues behind the scenes before trying out for the showier roles (though her days in A&R and fronting a punk band called Stiffed were obviously more exciting than mine toggling between media jobs). Also like me, she was musically ravenous. Her skinfolk had steeped her in a love of traditionally Black forms — jazz and soul, then Afrobeat, dub — but she was interested too in other genres beloved by the weird white kids she'd befriended in school (among favorites she's cited: Devo, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Pixies, David Byrne). At some point she'd mustered the gall to mix it all up, and in her stew of an album I recognized a freedom, a flouting: the soul of Black folk banging alongside punks, pop idols, knob-twiddlers, new wavers. I thought about the long stretch of time between her start in the business and this inspiring moment, and sensed that art this accomplished, this sure, couldn't have come on any other wavelength or timeline. Considering our similarities, I held her success very close to my heart.

Amid all the incredible music coming out of New York in the aughts, her style and perspective spoke the loudest to me. Lyrically, much of Santigold carried the swagger of the hip-hop I loved (from "Creator": "Tell me no, I say yes, I was chosen / And I will deliver the explosion"), but minus the misogyny that often stopped me cold on the dance floor. And though the era's resurgent rock & rollers like the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs sparked electric, channeling the city's jittery energy, for me Santigold's debut was funnier, sharper. She had a mean eye-roll, reserved for the city's suckas and the indignities of competing against them ("L.E.S. Artistes," "Shove It," "Starstruck"). But a wink was there too, in her stories of overcoming doubt ("My Superman"), cops and robbers ("Unstoppable"), even power outages ("Lights Out").

The album has big "look what I can do" attitude, and in that way it speaks to the New York dream of looming exceptional — one singular sensation — above the masses. And yet what is this city without its people, without the connections you make on your way to the top? To that point, some of Santigold's songs have a galvanizing magic too. There's the "us" in battle on "You'll Find a Way" ("Can't pull us under/ You better watch out, run for cover"), but the most famous example opens "Shove It": Seven years after the Res song that invited me to be cooler and smarter than I actually was, Santi White dropped another meaningful "we"— Brooklyn, we go hard — and the phrase was so rousing, such a rallying cry, that Kanye West built a whole banger around it for Jay-Z.

By the year of Santigold the man and I repped the borough of Brooklyn too, capping a years-long Goldilocks hop around the city (our new garden apartment in Fort Greene was heaven, following stints living in cab-sparse Queens and stodgy Midtown Manhattan). I should say that along the way we'd tied the knot, in a DIY wedding-slash-cocktail party that, thanks to a reporter friend, made half a page of the Daily News. Finally settled among so many striving, thriving Black folks — this was, of course, just at the tipping point of gentrification — it finally felt like our "we" was expanding. The streets exploded with joy on Election Night, impromptu dance parties right outside our windows to celebrate the new President who looked like us, and I had never felt such a strong connection to my adopted home.

At work I got promoted a few times by editing other people's stories, but still I dreamed of writing my own — a novel one day, if I could figure out how to hone my hustle. In the meantime, I took a few workshops in the West Village on Saturdays, trading amateur short fiction with other aspiring artists, and on occasional Sundays I joined a group of girlfriends for book club. All of them were girls like me, transplants to the city with blooming careers and ambition to spare. We read E.L. Doctorow and Ntozake Shange, and argued about them over brunch. We lovingly dubbed ourselves the "Army of Bad B******," and hyped each other up for the Mondays ahead.

***

In 2012, Santigold dropped a new album, Master of My Make-Believe, but at the time I was too busy to get into it. I had just started a new role as an executive editor at a media brand — still not working on a novel or even short stories anymore, though I tried to justify proximity to writing as close enough. I didn't have room in my brain for much of anything else (except TV, my sedative at the end of the day). The only new music I heard was in the background of prestige dramas or car commercials. The dreamer inside me, dying.

On the surface, my life gleamed. Down South, my family was so proud of my climb that my mother framed and mounted on a wall of her house the masthead of a magazine where my name sat two lines away from the top. And in Brooklyn, the husband and I bought a new-construction condo down the street in Bed-Stuy, the down payment and later the mortgage drawn from my salary (since he'd quit his own day job to write movies on spec). The pressure was unreal, but wasn't I up for it? Wasn't leveling up the entire point? I imagine if I had listened to Santigold then, her effect might have been different. What I needed, what I wanted, more than a jolt of confidence to grow into the woman I wanted to be, was confirmation I'd conquered New York.

But by summer 2013, what I'd assumed was gold turned a sickening green. At work, budgets shrank even tighter, and I resented wielding the hatchet come layoff time, resented my days reduced to numbers I could never make work. Meanwhile, at home, the husband expressed, in various hurtful ways, that this whole marriage thing just wasn't his jam. In the end I kept the condo, and the increasingly agonizing job that paid for it. I still had my Army of Bad B****** and they rallied around me whenever they could, but many of them had children now and/or their own stressful careers. So I spent much of my time off alone, wandering aimlessly, bitterly down Bedford Avenue.

Eventually on those walks, I did listen to music again — my old favorites, Santigold among them. The confidence I remembered was still intact, but now, in songs like "L.E.S. Artistes," my heart perked up at the earnestness, the desire glinting through disillusion:

I can say I hope it will be worth what I give up
If I could stand up mean for the things that I believe
Change, change, ch-change, change
I want to get up out of my skin

"I'd had this psychic reading," Santi White would later tell Mark Ronson in a 2021 interview, recalling the time before her breakthrough. "And she's like, 'Well, you're going to get where you want to get to, but it's going to take longer because you just got to let go of wanting to get to a certain place and just make music for the sake of making music.'"

At my own crossroads, I had no such visions into my future. No clue yet that I could succeed on different terms, in more satisfying ways, or that it would take leaving New York for a while to get there. I would tap my savings and every ounce of courage to quit that big job, immersing myself in writing until it became not a dream but my purpose, my mission; until I had a whole novel centering a Black woman rock idol that Santi White might have admired the same way I'd always admired her. I would not know that this book would attract an agent, or sell to a publisher, or that anyone would even care to read the passion project of a 45-year-old woman. I, like Santigold, would learn to make art for the sake of art, and I would never feel more free.

But that wandering summer, I was afraid. The only thing I knew, by instinct, was to listen to the arsenal of what I still had: a voice, a heart and just enough faith.

So I put one foot in front of the other. Ran back the track, started over again.


Dawnie Walton is author of the 2021 novel The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, longlisted for the Brooklyn Library Literary Prize and praised by the New York Times as "a packed time capsule that doubles as a stick of dynamite."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.