I get a call from Interview 10 minutes after the appointed time—they still haven't heard from Santi. They'll get me back on the line once they've tracked her down. Already a diva, I think to myself. It shouldn't, but her lateness makes me love her even more.
I look at the questions on my tricked-out Mac screen and play the YouTube clip of Santi singing "I believe," the catchphrase from the Santogold anthem "L.E.S. Artistes." She sports a black-girl blow-out and laughs as her friend Rose, a "crazy cool" white girl, engages the crowd with an ironic irreverence I haven't seen since Madonna's Blond Ambition tour.
Santi is the front woman for Santogold, whose self-titled album was released in April. The group's sound is outrageously infectious. It mixes dub, electronica, punk, and, to my ears, funk and hip-hop, into a nostalgic, futuristic piece of ear candy. Because the music is so out of the box, I'm expecting a renegade artist, someone who doesn't give a shit about what some music executive thinks.
When Santi is patched in, her voice is more Valley girl than home girl, and I get it immediately. Santi is an innovative rebel and a polished industry professional. Her vibe is edgy, but slick and seductive, too. Just like her music, Santi White is smart as hell.
Rebecca Walker: How does it feel to be on the cusp of superstardom?
Santi White: I hope the record does really well, but I don't feel like I'm on the cusp of superstardom. I feel like I'm on the cusp of my record coming out.
RW: Do you have a coda or a manifesto or a thesis for Santogold?
SW: I knew this was gonna be one of those interviews where I had to think. [laughs] I don't have a manifesto or a thesis or anything like that. I have a lot of industry experience, and I have a lot of life experience. I've been through a lot of stuff in the last couple of years, and I feel like I had a lot that I wanted to say on this record. I didn't want to compromise, and I wanted to do a lot of genre-hopping. I've learned, from mistakes I've made in the past, about how to align myself with the right people.
RW: I think all artists have to negotiate patronage and, at the same time, create a seductive product.
SW: I really like a pop format-melodies you can sing along to and stuff like that-but I don't think that necessarily has to mean that you write some really watered-down, dumb stuff. Unfortunately, most of the commercial pop out now is like that.
RW: Can you briefly describe Santogold?
SW: It's just me, and I collaborate with different people on the record. I wrote most of this record with my friend John Hill. He's a writer and a producer, and he used to be the bass player in my other band, Stiffed. I did some songs with Switch, who is a producer from the U.K. Then I worked a little bit with Diplo and had some collaborations with other friends of mine.
RW: Are you a band leader? A composer? An engineer?
SW: I don't think there's really a method to it. Things get thrown at me, and I have to step up and do them or else they don't get done. And it's usually really hectic. This record's been a weird process. The first time we finished it was last year, and we were under this crazy deadline-it took eight weeks to write and record the whole record. I'm in the studio and then I'm also doing interviews the whole time. Then I'll have to run and do photo shoots, and then go to London, then come right back for two days and be in the studio. I'm kind of all over the place. Luckily, that's how I do best a lot of the time.
RW: It's interesting that you're not just putting yourself in one role.
SW: I'm really a hands-on person and a complete control freak, actually.
RW: How would you describe your sound?
SW: I always just say that our sound is a mash-up of different styles, because there are so many different things. I don't have a term for it. It's got some dub and some indie rock, some electronic, some New Wave, some punk. It's all kind of wrapped up in there.
RW: To me it's very funky-it's got funk and soul.
SW: I don't think it's funky. When I hear "funk," I really think of Parliament, or even the Red Hot Chili Peppers' guitar. I don't draw from funk, because that's not a kind of music that I really love. I have in the past, but right now that's not where I draw from. As far as soul: When I think of the modern connotation of soul, it's all of these ballad-y singers I really don't like. But if you're talking about soul like Aretha, I'm totally with you on that. Do you know what I mean?
RW: Totally. I'm talking about soul like Aretha and just soul-
SW: Like old Tina Turner?
RW: Oh, yes.
SW: Ike and Tina?
SW: Yeah, I'll be that. [laughs] The fact that you chose to call the music funk—that's your reference point for it. But for me, it's punk and it's the same shit, you know?
RW: Yes. I was with a musician, Meshell Ndegeocello, for eight years. She would say over and over that music is music. When you start trying to put it in a box, or call it one thing or another, it's a degradation of it.
SW: I leave that to the writers. They're the ones who always need to come up with what the cultural phenomenon is. I just want to make stuff.
RW: Because you're a creator! So what do you think the record is about, in terms of what you're dealing with right now?
SW: I wrote the majority of the material on this record when I was coming off of having just lost my father. I'm not going to go deeply into this because I don't really want it printed. I'll just vaguely say that in Philadelphia there was, and maybe still is, this whole situation where the FBI was doing a municipal probe for corruption in the city—whatever that means. Philadelphia is a Democratic city, and it was run by a lot of black people—the mayor was black and a lot of people around the mayor were black. Basically, they started digging dirt on everybody. And my dad, who worked really closely with the mayor, became one of the primary targets of the investigation, and I watched my family get dragged through the mud. Basically, my family pretty much fell apart. And then my dad died shortly into it—he got cancer.
RW: I'm so sorry to hear about your father.
SW: Needless to say, I was super fragile, and really angry and sort of disillusioned. And I had pretty much creatively just shut down for a while. And then, as soon as that was over, I moved back up to New York and started working on my music, which was the first time I had been able to do that in such a long time. So most of this record ended up being about my frustrations with the government and how people are voiceless and afraid to speak up for themselves. I'm not a really political person, in that I don't watch the news. But I know enough to know what's going on and what's right and wrong. I speak about stuff in a more subtle and indirect way. So I think that's mostly what the record's about. [laughs]
RW: Do you think about having kids one day? Can you imagine life on the road as a family?
SW: I've been thinking about it a lot. Many of my friends have kids. And I have decided that I need to make a lot of money before I have children.
RW: It's very expensive. [laughs]
SW: When I have kids, I would like to have enough money that I could have help with the daily routine, because I'm not—and I don't know how this sounds—interested in the busywork of parenting, you know?
RW: I do.
SW: I want to be totally involved with my children, but not have to clean up the kitchen every time after I've cooked three meals, or do all the laundry. There's a little bit about what Virginia Woolf was saying that is true. You really need to have some sort of space and some sort of time to just think about yourself. I know that when you have children, you have to create that space, and it's hard—especially if you're a single parent, which many of my friends are.
RW: I do a lot of speaking, and I tell young women that you have to strategize how you want to have it happen with children.
SW: You have to have a plan, and if you don't, then it's gonna probably take you several years to figure it out.
SW: Because you're so busy in the meantime, so you kind of lose a couple of years.
RW: What's your ultimate vision for Santogold? Winning Grammys? Top 40? Stadiums and Sweden? Art spaces in Berlin?
SW: Honestly, my main mission for what I'm doing right now is to see popular music become art music again. Like back when the Police and Prince and Michael Jackson and Devo had pop songs you heard on the radio. I'd like to bring that back. I'd also like to break down genres and barriers and help black people not to feel so stuck musically in one genre. Help little black girls to know that they can do all kinds of stuff and still be black girls. Through music, I'd like to help people to think for themselves and change the world-and win Grammys at the same time.
RW: You go, girl.
had a lot that I wanted to say on this record—Santi White