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Sudan Archives' sophomore album 'Natural Brown Prom Queen' resists categorization

"I did not want to be fake, saying what I'm going to say and cover it up," Brittney Parks of Sudan Archives tells NPR.
Edwig Henson
"I did not want to be fake, saying what I'm going to say and cover it up," Brittney Parks of Sudan Archives tells NPR.

Sudan Archiveswas feeling homesick during the pandemic. So, she made an album about it.

Her second album, Natural Brown Prom Queen, is Brittney Parks' ode to the home she is building for herself — one that bridges her birthplace of Cincinnati with Los Angeles, where she currently lives.

The homecoming here is creativity unleashed, with Parks' technical craft, instrumental inventions and hypnotizing beats sending listeners through her musical world. The album has received critical acclaim, including the music outlet Pitchfork, which gave it a score of nine out of 10.

Sudan Archives joined Weekend Edition's Ayesha Rascoe to talk about what it means to build a home in an album.

The following interview has been condensed and edited. To listen to the audio version, click the link above.

Ayesha Rascoe, Weekend Edition: You were originally going to call the album Homesick. Why? What made you change it to Natural Brown Prom Queen?

Brittney Parks: The album was supposed to be called Homesick because there [were] a lot of elements of home on the album. But it felt to me that that wasn't the title — I think it was like, the mood board word. I remember my manager was like, "So what are you saying in that bridge?" I was like, "I'm saying, you know, I'm a natural brown prom queen." He was like, "That sounds good." I was like, "All right."

It seems like the emphasis listening to the album is on the "natural" part. You talk a lot about colorism, then you got this song, "Selfish Soul." [On that song], are you talking about being accepted in the music industry? Obviously, I'm a Black woman too — I know the hair, I know the color, I know what that is. Why did you want to expound on that?

That was one of those songs that I was [making] up 'til 7 a.m. one day. I pressed record and I just kind of said some things that, when I listened back, it made me cringe. I was like, "Am I really about to say this?"

I know you got another line: "Sometimes I think if I were light-skinned, I'd get into more parties."

Yeah, that line made me cringe. And I remember thinking, "Oh, that's a placeholder. I'm going to redo that part."

Why didn't you redo it and why does it make you cringe?

Because I did not want to be fake, saying what I'm going to say and cover it up. Like, why? It's about talking about the things that nobody wants to talk about and breaking free from those expectations.

Breaking free from the idea that you got to look a certain way or even sound a certain way. As an artist, you've been described in a lot of ways: R&B, pop, pop-experimental. How do you define your music, your sound?

I don't know how to really describe it, but I'll like joke around and say it's like electronic fiddle, funk, R&B. If I wasn't a Black woman, that looked like ethnically ambiguous, then it wouldn't be R&B. But because I'm brown-skinned and I got the body of Janet Jackson, I'm R&B, I'm soul.

Is that frustrating, though? Is that fair or do you not pay it any mind?

It's not my job to care. It's my time to have joy — to have Black girl joy. Making art, loving, dancing. So I'm not trying to be vibrating low [and] thinking about all those things. I just kind of feel like it's a trap, in a way. Once I start thinking about that, then I'm in a box. So I'm free.

You were born Brittney Parks. How did you get the nickname "Sudan" growing up? And why the "Archives?"

My mom gave me the nickname Sudan because at first I was going to call myself Tokyo. I don't know why I was going to do that. She was like, "I really like the name Sudan and I know you don't like your name. What about that name? It's so beautiful." [And] so, you know me, I'm so random — I looked at my music theory book and it said "archives" on it. I just put one and two together. I noticed that Sudan means "land of the Blacks" and archives means history. So in a way, my name just means "Black histories."

The last track is titled "#513." That's the area code for your hometown, Cincinnati. You seem to feel homesick and have some longing for it, but I know it's more complicated than that.

Since the first song was about opening up my home and letting people come into my life in L.A., and how it feels, finally it's coming together, I knew that the last song was going to be about my real home, where I'm from. I just wanted to talk about how I've got a really good balance going on of mixing the roots together and becoming this person I am now.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Jeongyoon Han
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