Sudan Archives: Destiny Fulfilled
Brittney Parks never went to prom.
The 28-year-old artist more commonly known as Sudan Archives tells me this when we jump on a Zoom call – her screen turned off “to preserve her appearance” – to talk about her new album, Natural Brown Prom Queen, and the wave of acclaim building in the wake of its release. “I didn’t go because no one asked me,” says Parks of her decision to skip one of the most crucial events in an American teenager’s calendar. She sounds slightly baffled by it all, even now. “Everyone was making such a big deal about it. They were more upset than me!”
Parks is in Toronto where she is due to play a show later that night as part of her Homecoming Tour, taking in most of North America and parts of Europe. She has already spent much of 2022 on the road, playing at least one show every month since March; but this tour, headlining the biggest venues of her career so far, is her final prolonged stint of live performances for the year. These shows have been gratifying for Parks. As someone who “never fit in at school”, she is now at liberty to throw the prom bash of her dreams, night after night. “Prom is important to most women when they’re 16,” she says, stressing the “most” to avoid generalisation. “I feel like in our [American] society, prom is a changing point. I don’t know why though,” she finishes. “Why is it such an important thing?”
The thought hangs. It’s easy to see why a young Parks, who spent most of her adolescence feeling like an outsider, might have viewed prom not as a key milestone, but just another quintessential high school experience she felt shut out from.
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A musician from the age of nine and a working artist since the release of her self-titled first EP in 2017, Parks’ star has quietly been in the ascendent for the past five years. Her debut album, Athena, arrived towards the tail-end of 2019, but in just a few short weeks, the record’s avant-pop hooks and R&B experimentalism shored up enough critical acclaim to land a spot on several end-of-years, including fourth place in the New York Times’s Top 10 Albums of 2019 list.
A robust promotional campaign should have followed. Would have followed. But we all know what happens next. Less than six months later, the pandemic took hold, bringing the Athena campaign to an abrupt end just as it was getting started. At the beginning of March 2020, SXSW Festival, where Parks was due to appear, was cancelled for the first time in its 33-year history. She had just managed to squeeze in the shoot for her Tiny Desk Concert performance, under socially-distanced conditions, before NPR postponed live tapings until further notice. As the world shut down, Parks returned to Los Angeles, hunkered down in the small studio she built in the basement of the home she shares with her boyfriend, rapper All City Jimmy, and waited it out.
It has been ten years since Parks moved to LA, and only now is it starting to feel like home to her. “I was never home much because of all the touring, so I never really put the effort into interior design, but I feel like I have a secret talent for that,” she smiles. “I got so many plants during Covid. I love being at home watering my plants – they’re all hanging up and mounted on the wall and it looks so cool.” She draws a lot of inspiration for her music from nature, and her redecorating efforts clearly struck the right chord creatively: the aptly titled album opener, Home Maker, places the imagery of her “lovely cottage, feels so green it feels like fucking magic” over warm, melodic synths and rhythmic claps.
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“I had a lot of time on my hands!” remarks Parks. “Since I couldn’t go anywhere, I thought I may as well make music every day.” She didn’t consciously set out to make Natural Brown Prom Queen, but the album’s dominant themes of family and domesticity give a strong indication of the thoughts at the forefront of Parks’ mind during the writing process. “This era is a lot more honest,” she admits. “Sometimes I have no idea what I’m trying to say. I just start making music and then once I hear it, that can inspire what to say. Sometimes I’ll have the words but not the music, but it’s usually the other way around.”
If there’s one thing you should know about Parks, it’s that she is resolute. Her twin sister, Cat, is the same but different. Where Cat pursued a more diverse career in songwriting, Parks didn’t deviate. “It’s just the way I’ve always been,” says Parks. “I never wanted to do anything that didn’t feel right or that I didn’t agree with.” As a child, she went to five different schools, where she felt like the “rebellious” twin to her sister. She didn’t stand for the pledge of allegiance. She didn’t, as previously established, go to prom. This commitment to her truth has, naturally, extended into her artistry. “I just want to be authentic in my music, because if people love my music and I’m not being authentic, they don’t really love me – they’re loving what I’m pretending to be.”
From any other artist, this stock answer could feel like deflection. But it’s a theme that she returns to again and again in her lyrics. “I don’t really wanna follow tricky, trendy little things/ Hollywood will make you hollow/ I’m too rooted in my ways”, she sings in #513. ‘Authenticity’ has all but lost meaning in 2022, with everyone from corporations to ordinary people carefully curating facades of reality. With Parks, at least, her claims come over as genuine.
“I know people think I’m good, but I don’t want to be good, I want to be great”
Personal, then, is perhaps a better word to describe Natural Brown Prom Queen. For this record, Parks goes meta with the idea of authenticity, adopting the character of Britt, “the girl-next-door from Cincinnati” – where she lived until the age of 18 – overlaying the earthy sensuality of her violin-centred neo-soul with a glossier, more ‘American’ aesthetic. Britt is a tangle of insecurities, most of which relate to her appearance, and masks them with an extroverted veneer of mainstream trap beats and attention-grabbing outfits. She’s fun and feisty, no matter the inner truth; the kind of girl who would go to prom and take home the crown. It’s through this character that Parks can lay out her story – another side of her story – and confront the complexities of her life.
Where Sudan Archives is abstract and indirect, Britt is frank and explicit, weaving anecdotes and vignettes from her life into songs dealing with race, gender, relationships, sexuality and the multifaceted concept of home. Parks’ family is both a theme and a feature: her sister contributes lyrics to Yellow Brick Road; the song Ciara is about her “cousin in Chicago”; and her mother provides a spoken interlude over the rejuvenating piano runs of Do Your Thing (Refreshing Springs). “Growing up, family is all I had,” says Parks. “When you change schools all the time and you’re the new girl again, you form relationships with people that you then move away from. I’m close to my family because I don’t really have a best friend that I knew my whole life.”
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Parks’ father was a minister (his voice also features on funk-fuelled interlude It’s Already Done) and she grew up around the church, where, with the encouragement of her mother, she taught herself to play the violin, learning by ear from the musicians who formed the choir. She first picked up the instrument in fourth grade, after being inspired by the Canadian fiddle band Bowfire, who performed at her school. (She would later symbolically smash that first violin in the Michael and Janet Jackson Scream-esque video for OMG Britt, a proxy for breaking generational curses.)
Do Your Thing (Refreshing Springs) is a recreation of the kind of encouragement Parks has heard from her mother all her life, and the message resonates far beyond its context. (“Hey so Britt, get up there/ The other musicians aren’t playing my music either,” is my new imposter syndrome mantra). “My mom would be like, ‘Go up there’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t know how to play music.’ She’d say, ‘It doesn’t matter, go out there and do your thing,’” Parks remembers warmly. “That’s why I wanted her to be on the album – she was the one who pushed me.”
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The name “Sudan”, meaning Land of the Blacks, was also her mother’s idea, initially suggested for no other reason than the fact that she liked the sound of it. Although she doesn’t have Sudanese heritage (she and Cat did a DNA test together – “Our results were the same! We could have just paid for one!” – and found out they are Nigerian), it holds a deeper meaning. Parks’ first introduction to the violin was through Celtic music, but it was actually the African violinists she discovered on YouTube that influenced her to play in the unconventional, or, rather, non-Westernised, ways that have been so crucial to her success. “I found these Sudanese fiddlers and they were plucking the strings, moving to it and just playing wildly,” she says. “It was crazy because they looked just like me. I was inspired by their playing and then was inspired by the representation.” She added “Archives” later; simplified, her full moniker means Black History.
Natural Brown Prom Queen is Parks’ own Black history: rooted in Africa, nurtured in Cincinnati and transplanted to LA, where she has flourished on her own terms. For the first time, she was able to work with a team of people who expanded her creative vision, “bringing my ideas to life in the way I envisioned in my head, instead of stopping at where I could take it”. She generally defies classification, as Black artists melding folk, electronic, funk and myriad other influences with West and East African fiddle techniques tend to do. But Natural Brown Prom Queen is indisputably a pop record; confident, immediate and heavy on the hooks, yet so intricately composed and unabashedly vulnerable, there have been occasions when listening to it where I have almost laughed out loud in wonder at how effortless she makes it sound. “It’s funny because everyone says this album is so pop,” Parks says with a laugh. “I make the music that I want to make because it feels good, and then if it becomes popular, that’s cool. But I’m not making it to be popular. You know what I mean?”
“This era is a lot more honest”
Historically, Parks has had a contentious relationship with the word “pop”. As teenagers, she and Cat formed a short-lived duo called N2, under the direction of her stepfather – a former music executive closely affiliated with LaFace Records, the co-venture between industry giant L.A. Reid and hit-making producer Babyface, who launched the careers of TLC, Usher and OutKast. Parks quickly became dissatisfied with the creative direction, which didn’t allow for much of her own input. Instead, she immersed herself in Cincinnati’s music scene, more excited by local raves and learning how to produce the electronic music that propelled them, than the limiting experience of becoming a pop star. “My stepdad was like, ‘You’re gonna make pop music to be popular’ and I just didn’t like that. I don’t make music with that intention,” Parks says, getting to the origins of her aversion to being pigeonholed in that way. N2 came to an end when she was told to make curfew or leave home, a period of time she details in a disarmingly succinct verse from NBPQ (Topless): “Got kicked out ‘cause she laid on her back/ Well that’s how it seemed to her mommy and daddy.”
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Despite the conflict, Parks credits her stepfather, who sadly passed away just before she signed her record deal, for recognising something in her that no one else had before. “Me and my sister had really normalised our talent, to the point where we never considered music as a career because we thought everybody grew up writing a bunch of songs. We didn’t think we were special,” she says, matter-of-factly. “He was the first person to believe in me and made me want to take it seriously. All he would really want is for me to be doing music and be happy, and that pushes me to continue, in honour of him.”
It is only now, three years after the release of her debut album, that Parks has been able to fully experience just how many people now see her in the same light her stepfather did. “It’s surreal. This is my first time headlining a tour and all the shows so far are selling out. People are filling these little arenas and I’m like, ‘Dang, people are really paying attention to me!’” she exclaims, sounding like her eyes are bugging out of her head. “It makes me feel a little more pressure to make sure that I’m on my shit, bringing my best.” To that end, she has been taking vocal lessons, and, for the first time, violin lessons, too. “I know people think I’m good, but I don’t want to be good, I want to be great,” she says firmly. “I have to perfect my craft. There’s always room to grow.”
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Before each show, Parks blows up a bunch of gold and cream balloons for the crowd to toss around, in a nod to the Natural Brown Prom Queen artwork; a literal flip on the balloon arch portraits that are taken at prom. On the cover, Parks stands topless in a long black skirt, nipples covered with sparkling hoops dangling from black pasties, arching backwards with her hands behind her head so that her long, neon pink braids almost touch the floor. The image has been rotated so that Parks emerges from it sideways, like the figurehead of a ship, leading the way.
Parks may have reframed the way high school ended for ‘Britt’, designing a world where presumptions and fickle notions of conformity do not reign supreme. But she has purer intentions than merely fulfilling the typical “returning to the hometown I left behind as a triumphant success” fantasy, however tempting it may be. “I grew up Christian, but I think of my religion as love and I try to live a lifestyle where I give love,” she says in a peaceful tone. “I think my music has been able to bring people together. Love ministers people more than judgement. I want to embody that in all that I do.”
Natural Brown Prom Queen is out now via Stones Throw