Santigold Gets Her Flowers

With a new album, Spirituals, on the way, the musician reflects on her late aughts ascent, getting a Beyoncé shoutout, and embracing a more political sound.

The musician Santigold wearing a bridal veil that covers two small children at her side, standing in...
Photographed by Frank Ockenfels

The musician Santi White, known by her artist moniker, Santigold, was sitting on a deck in Jamaica when her phone started blowing up. Beyoncé had just released “Break My Soul (The Queens Remix),” which revamps the verse full of name drops from “Vogue,” replacing Madonna’s creative heroes with her own. Instead of “Greta Garbo and Monroe/ Dietrich and DiMaggio,” Beyoncé opens with “Rosetta Tharpe, Santigold/ Bessie Smith, Nina Simone.” In the following lines, Santigold is revealed to be in the company of other legends, including Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Grace Jones. I asked White how it feels to win the pop cultural equivalent of a Lifetime Achievement Award. “I was obviously honored to be among those names!” she told me over the phone earlier this month. “The coolest thing about it to me is that Beyoncé is using her platform to educate people. Often, Black musicians—particularly Black women musicians—never get the recognition they deserve.”

Conversations about White’s icon status have been building for the last year. Thanks, in part, to the launch of the Instagram account @Indiesleaze, the internet has been brewing with nostalgia for the "alt" sounds and styles of the mid-to-late aughts—many of which were cultivated in New York’s Lower East Side and Brooklyn. While there is a great deal of silliness (think: shutter shades) and smuttiness (American Apparel) associated with this chapter in history, among the most meaningful and impactful cultural products of this era is Santigold’s music.

In 2008, the Philadelphia native’s debut album, the critically acclaimed Santigold, hit the indie music scene like a meteor. In a recent podcast for The Fader, Mark Ronson described himself as “gobsmacked” after listening to the record. “It felt as if she had dropped down to earth a fully formed, genre-spanning superstar,” he said. Building off of her foundations as a punk musician, White’s solo work fused the best of new wave and post-punk with dancehall, Tropicália and trip-hop. She engineered an edgy new sound, punctuated by sassy lyrics and enhanced by the flexibility of her piercing, inimitable vocals.

Rolling Stone declared "L.E.S. Artistes" the second best Single of the Year and Santigold the 6th best Album of the Year. The New York Times critic Jon Caraminca described her work as “forward-thinking and sensual” and as “smart music for mischievous late nights, as relevant to downtown New York around 1978 as to the downtown of today.” Shortly after Santigold’s release, White was featured on Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard” and Drake’s “Unstoppable.” In the coming years, she would go on tour with Björk, M.I.A., Jay Z, Kanye West, The Beastie Boys and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and collaborate with Karen O; Tyler, the Creator; and David Byrne.

“2006 to 2010 was a really special time,” White told me. “It was such a creative time!” During our chat, she reminisced about a period shaped by early internet optimism, when new digital tools and social platforms like Myspace allowed musicians to circumvent industry gatekeepers and connect with fans themselves, for free. “Music was so great because all of the sudden there were all of these artists whom labels wouldn’t have believed in.” White was one of them. Prior to her solo career, as the front woman of the punk band Stiffed, she was told by labels that “Black, female, punk artists would just never happen.” She met similar resistance when shopping her first album around: “I had a meeting with one A&R guy who said ‘It’s kind of all over the place, I don’t get it.’ But then I had Björk reach out to me on my Myspace page!”

Months later, after signing with Downtown Records, White was upstreamed to Atlantic, where she was assigned to the same A&R guy that turned her away. She recounted the story with humor, rather than resentment—as if it were a game of gotcha. “Can you imagine? If it wasn’t for the internet, which allowed you to put your stuff out there and prove there was an audience for it, it would have never happened.”

This new sense of freedom cultivated by the internet also manifested sartorially among indie crowds in the early-late 2000s. “There was this big art moment in fashion! It was like anything goes,” White said. She accredited the look, in part, to the comeback of Jean-Charles de Castelbajac and the heyday of Jeremy Scott. Both designers influenced White’s whimsical style, which often included loud patterns, oversized gold jewelry and bold makeup looks. “All of the pop stars at the time were still wearing bustiers and stockings. Once we realized we could have fun and [wear] anything, within two seconds, all of the underground indie artists were doing it. The next thing you know, here comes Lady Gaga!”

White says the artistic synergy in ’00s New York was also a byproduct of political optimism. “This was when Obama first became President,” she said. White, who lived in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood at the time, shared an anecdote about Election Day: “I remember, I walked out of my house and saw a line of Black people wrapped around the block to vote. I started crying!” For White, the word that Obama campaigned on defined the zeitgeist. “The underlying vibe at the time really was hopeful. When people feel lightness and joy, they create and connect.” Needless to say, the climate (both metaphorically and literally) has changed dramatically since then. "2008 was great, but we went the wrong direction from there. There's a disassociation and disconnectedness [in culture] because we've made a decision to distract ourselves from actually living."

While White’s earliest music chronicles her coming of age in a creative utopia, her most recent body of work narrates the harrowing realities of life in a political dystopia, with the same gripping lucidity. On September 9th, Santigold will release her fourth studio album, Spirituals—the title of which references the genre of Christian music sung by enslaved people in America. Created mostly during the lockdown periods of the pandemic, the production of Spirituals allowed Santigold to find “transcendental freedom” in the absence of physical freedom. Sonically speaking, the record is a strong nod back to her first—it's uplifting, danceable and ferocious in a good way. Lyrically, it's moving. White is grappling with the most pressing issues of our time, with the intimacy and nuance she's well known for. “California was on fire, we were hiding from a plague, the social justice protests were unfolding. I’d never written lyrics faster in my life,” White shared.

The record is attuned to a new zeitgeist, one largely shaped by Black Lives Matter. The empowering messaging in tracks about the Black experience, such as “High Priestess,” “No Paradise,” and “Ain’t Ready” bring to mind Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise.” In a short video promoting the single “Shake,” White plays the tambourine while being sprayed with a water hose, referencing the Birmingham riot of 1963. “I talk a lot about personal power on the record,” she said. “It’s about being able to create change by going inward, and then upward.”

For White, music and social commentary have always gone hand in hand. “Growing up, the music I was exposed to at home was all topical music. Everyone that my Dad was listening to was singing about change.” She rattled off a list of household favorites (Burning Spear, Joni Mitchell, Public Enemy) before revealing that she wrote her first song, “City Streets," at age nine. Between belly laughs, she recited her first-ever lyric: “People need our help out there/ and there’s no one to listen!” In the wake of Trump, the pandemic and BLM, White lamented that popular music nowadays is overwhelmingly apolitical. “I think of the job of an artist as being a bridge to the future, to progress. Maybe by being a mirror to society and allowing people to take a real look at themselves, we help find a way forward.”