Sudan Archives is conjuring alternative realities
In ancient Greek mythology, Athena is the goddess of warfare and wisdom. What’s lesser known, perhaps, is that Athena has also been linked to the Egyptian goddess Neith. It’s this detail that inspired white academic Martin Bernal’s work Black Athena, which explores the debt Greek culture owes to Africa and the Middle East. Across three volumes, Bernal argues that the classical world has been historically whitewashed – the (incorrect) assumption, for example, that ancient sculptures were white has fuelled a retroactive erasure of people of colour in antiquity. With the inaugural volume originally published in 1987, Black Athena ultimately drew criticism for its inaccuracies, yet it is still praised for pushing forward a reframing of classical history beyond a Eurocentric agenda.
Cincinnati-born Sudan Archives – real name Brittney Parks – has been reading Bernal’s controversial book lately, and thinking about blackness in unexpected places. Certainly her own work, often labelled as Afrofuturist, interrogates perceptions about white spaces. Sudan plays the violin, an instrument synonymous with classical and folk-adjacent sounds – two genres inextricably linked with white spaces in the West (a recent UK study found that only 1.7% of orchestral musicians were from a black or ethnic minority background). All of this is, in part, what inspired the title of her debut album, Athena, and its artwork: a nude sculpture of Parks evoking an ancient goddess.
Parks has always been influenced by powerful women. She references characters like Sailor Moon, Xena and Chun-Li; goddesses like Oshun and Mami Wata; as well as her mother – but, equally, she’s interested in challenging accepted dogma. “I like the philosophy behind questioning the roots of things,” she nods, taking a drag from her vape, smoke plumes dancing around the room.
© Melanie Lehmann
The shoot in the photographer’s home studio has just finished, and Parks’ been riffing warmly with everyone involved, meaning our conversation is interrupted with sweet goodbyes – but she always picks up her thread of thought again, furrowing her bleached eyebrows. “Like, what’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘bad’? That’s what the album is about: accepting that humans have flaws, embracing the light and the dark. But also questioning God and the devil – why are they mad at each other? Is the devil even a bad guy? Maybe they’re the same thing, the same spirit just with different personalities.”
While all this might sound cryptic, Athena is Parks’ most direct work to date. Since 2017’s self-titled EP, Parks has become known for glitchy violin loops that nod to the kinetic energy of West and North African fiddles (she first started learning violin in the fourth grade, after a troupe of fiddlers played for her class). Her stage name, incidentally, came from her mother nicknaming her “Sudan” aged 16 because of her fascination with African jewellery, but also because she liked to use Guitar Center on her iPad to find instruments like the djembe and thumb piano. Soon after, she began to make beats on GarageBand, all topped by Parks’ delicate vocals, singing quiet, enigmatic poems she’d penned. “I used codewords back then,” she says, “Everything now is more vulnerable, more confrontational. I’m not hiding anything anymore. That’s why I’m naked on the cover.”
In person she’s candid, and unafraid to take risks at the photoshoot. Her mother is present as she’s posing for the camera – the pair of them will head to Barcelona immediately after we’re done – and seems a little bemused at one of the topless styling choices (“What’s she wearing under that jacket? Oh, nothing? Oh, OK!”). But Parks is unconcerned. Everything about the way she poses for the camera, how she swings her long braid around as if it were a whip, even how she answers my questions with thoughtful assertion, shines with a regal confidence.
I ask if, in today’s political climate, she feels compelled to take up space by being unapologetically herself. “I feel like I’d be doing it anyway,” she admits. “But I wake up every day and deal with issues because of how I look. That’s also what the album’s about… dealing with being a dark-skinned girl and getting fetishised. It’s political, but they’re also my own real, personal situations.”
© Melanie Lehmann
It’s in contemplating the personal that Parks also considers her own morality. She honed her violin-playing in church, because the schools she attended didn’t have music programmes. Perhaps that’s why she feels an affinity towards spiritualism, although it is a spiritualism not specifically rooted in Christianity. For Parks, music offers one way to get in touch with a higher power, or frequency, and she worries that, as the world moves away from shared belief systems, people are losing that ability. “Everyone’s thinking about Donald Trump. I’m thinking about how maybe something’s up with our spiritualism,” she questions. “Church used to bring all these different groups together so they could be their higher selves, so what do we gotta do to come together now?”
Athena taps into this collective power. In Sudan Archives’ early days, the project was, in her words, “bedroom music” comprised of homemade beats and vocals recorded on an iPad, with additional production from Leaving Records founder Matthewdavid. Now her creative family has grown. Athena marks the first time she has opened her musical vision up to others, with production credits from major names like Paul White and Rodaidh McDonald – they’ve worked with Charli XCX and The xx respectively – as well as friends from Cincinnati.
The result is a record that’s glossy, luxe and cinematic, right from the delicate pizzicato opening of Did You Know – a song that soars into the cosmos with its reverb-laden finger cymbals, as she reminds us that “life is not perfect”. Black Vivaldi Sonata swirls with a seductive grandeur, imagining the possibilities of a war in heaven, while Coming Up opens with a classic hip-hop trope: the voice of an unknown man leaving her a voicemail. Athena is an album that draws from a vast palette of sounds that seem to exist in their own sublime universe, an Afrofuturist utopia.
© Melanie Lehmann
Some weeks after we meet, I call Parks at her home in Los Angeles. It’s occurred to me that, after all we’ve spoken about good and bad and Black Athena, we barely touched on Afrofuturism. I’m curious whether the label means anything to her and what she’s trying to achieve with her work.
“Well, what does Afrofuturism mean to you?” she throws back at me.
Before the book Black Athena, historians like Frank M Snowden Jr, a black professor at Howard University, were researching the ancient world. They were documenting an era where discrimination against black people did not exist. In the same way, Afrofuturism imagines alternative realities, societies and mythologies where people from the African diaspora exist free from marginalisation. It creates and celebrates superheroes – or gods and goddesses – who have previously been disparaged. I raise this to Parks and she answers thoughtfully.
“When I’m on stage, I want to be a superhero, or an anime character. I’m not really doing it on purpose, but I’m definitely on that wave. All those anime characters and mystical cartoons usually have their swords, right? I like to think of my violin bow as my sword.”
Photography: Melanie Lehmann
Styling: Rhiannon Barry
Hair: Issac Poleon
Makeup: Francesca Daniella using Uoma Beauty