By Emma Madden
This interview begins in silence. Sudan Archives, with her hair styled into a Geisha-like updo, has just come from a music-video shoot and is now leading me through the meditation gardens of Los Angeles's first Self-Realization Center. We bound past sweet-sour smelling flowers, a tiny waterfall, seats carved from stone. It's 75 degrees, the temperature you'd expect heaven to be. "I used to come here and sit for hours," the artist born Brittney Parks says, pointing to a patch of green shrouded by trees as we pass a sign that reads NO TALKING.
We settle ourselves onto a stretch of grass overlooking the classic L.A. vista of rolling hills speckled with mansions, when a worker, mirroring Sudan's soothing, purposeful tone, coos in our direction, "Please, don't sit on the grass." Sudan floats us along silkily, gracefully; she's been "obsessed with geishas lately." The way they move, the way they look, the way they're disciplined. "For their whole life, they just work towards becoming a geisha. Sometimes when I'm onstage, I feel like one. The audience aren't even dancing. They're watching and they’re mesmerized — probably because of the skill I'm giving them."
Sudan has been playing music in public for the better part of five years. Performing solo — which often takes her audience by surprise — she's steadily been making a name for herself as the Singing, Dancing Violinist. At a typical Sudan Archives show, you might find her pizzicatoing while whisking her body around the stage, chopping at the violin strings with her bow, as her body contorts to the sound.
Despite her magnetizing skill, calling Sudan a "violin virtuoso" at this stage might be slightly missing the mark. She prefers the term "electronic composer." Either way, it's undeniable that no one is making music quite like Sudan Archives. Her debut album Athena, which arrives via Stones Throw Records on November 1, evinces Sudan's singular style as she blends trap, jazz, R&B, and punk with oral traditions from Sudan and Ghana.
The album charts Sudan's journey from her strict, religious childhood home in Cincinnati — where she first learned to play violin in church — to her early adulthood in L.A., where she now thrives. "Watch me frolic through the fields, bitch," she sings on "Confessions" with deserved gasconade. Athena also helps to rewrite Western music's misrepresentation of the violin. "There's this saying that if you were a slave, but you played fiddle, you were worth more," Sudan tells me. "So it goes back to Black history with violin culture." It's a history that's gone mostly overlooked in the U.S. "Researchers and record companies avoided Black fiddling because many viewed it not only as a relic of the past, but also a tradition identified with whites," writes Jacqueline Codgell Djedje, a prominent ethnomusicologist whom Sudan admires.
Carved into stone with a fiddle in hand, Sudan on Athena's album cover alone gives a vision to the often neglected instrument. The violin, as championed by Miri Ben-Ari across Kanye West's The College Dropout album and cuts by Twista and Alicia Keys, "was basically the sound of hip-hop" at the turn of the millennium, though Sudan says that even this recent history has almost gone unnoticed. Now, Sudan makes it impossible to miss.
From the moment she released her self-titled debut EP in 2017, she caught the attention of Pitchfork, the New York Times, and NPR, and was invited to play Coachella that same year. "That's now how it's supposed to work," she says, "because what I'm doing is so unconventional and un-Western, I didn't think it would fit in, especially not in a mainstream world." Receiving so much premature attention has meant that she's had to construct her own artistic persona, and all the trappings therein, in public.
While she felt weary of "the business side of things" at the start — the promotion, agencies; everything extraneous to the music — she's since found her own way of enjoying it. "If I can make it like a game, I can make it fun. If I think about it too deeply, I'm like, 'Oh I'm just a performer,' and it starts to feel meaningless." She's thinking about the bigger picture, too: "I have a family name. The bigger I get, the wealthier my family will get — when I die and stuff. I wanna produce more mentally healthy people who are born into a world where money isn't an issue."
Ultimately, Sudan's main priority is to inspire. "And the bigger it gets, the more people you inspire."
While Sudan’s main source of inspiration comes from herself ("I promise I'm sincere, and I steer my own wheel," she sings on "Confessions"), she attributes some impact to the unparalleled energy of Erykah Badu. "Somebody told me the other day that I was the next Erykah Badu and I was like, 'Are you serious!' I don't really worship people, but I love Erykah Badu 'cause she affected me when I was a little girl. Her body, how she looks, it kinda reminds me of myself. When you find someone who you can make a similarity with your vibe, and even how you look, it can really impact you a lot, 'cause you’re like, maybe I can do that."
By naming her album Athena and emulating the goddess herself on the album cover, Sudan is hoping to give another spin on an Egyptian myth that's more commonly presented in her Greek form. "I've never seen an Athena that looks like me," she says. "There should be more Athenas that look different." With the image, Sudan hopes to inspire young girls who, like herself, don't click with modern media dominated by artists who are valued for their ability to cohere to a trend above their sound. "I see a lot of Black women doing alt and avant-garde and I'm like, 'Oh wow, that's amazing,' but I definitely don't listen to stuff like that. I like to listen to older stuff, like those R&B classics or just some weird, obscure traditional music that nobody knows about. I've always been like this. I don't like brands, I don't like trends, I don't like just listening to people just 'cause they have a bunch of followers. I like to stumble upon beauty, not just watch what I'm getting fed. I've always felt like I'm unique and different, period. Not even musically."
Anyone who finds Athena will be stumbling upon beauty, too. Within a small space of time Sudan, has gone from "a broke artist making donuts" to a highly revered, narrative-shifting master. "But what if this album comes out and everything just goes... bloop?" she asks. By her own trajectory, the very opposite should happen. To use her own words: Watch her frolic through the fields, bitch.