Boundary-breaking multi-hyphenate, Santigold (known personally as Santi White) has been revered as a musician and creative visionary for over 15 years. During that time, it has been impossible to pin down the Philadelphia native sonically. Throughout her work and collaborations with the likes of The Beastie Boys, Brian Eno, and Tyler The Creator, she has cemented herself as a genre-spanning artist — one that, crucially, has had a significant impact on culture writ large, and her contemporaries. Beyoncé, of all people, recently namechecked White on ‘Break My Soul (The Queens Remix)’.
Now, as she transitions into a new era with the release of Spirituals, HUNGER’s Digital Editor, Nessa Humayun, catches up with White about the record, and her pursuit of higher consciousness in every realm.
Congrats on the new album! I know that the majority of Spirituals was recorded during the pandemic, which was a time of massive change and upheaval. There were the California wildfires, social justice movements... Was this a fertile time for you creatively?
Santi: Art and creativity have always been a way for me to go inward, upward, and then onwards. There’s so much I can say, but I think that art is a way to help culture itself move forward. It was really important to have the opportunity to make music during that time because I don’t think I would have made it through otherwise. It was like making my own lifeline… I was in absolute survival mode.
First, there was the pandemic, and at that point, nobody knew what it was and what could happen. I, personally, was stuck in a place where there was nobody coming into the house to help, and I had these little kids… I was so overwhelmed by the experience of motherhood, which is wonderful but can feel suffocating. And then outside, with the whole climate crisis, the air was so toxic. All of the air purifiers in my house were turning red. It felt like absolute panic. Then, there were Black people being killed by the police right and left. There were protests and riots, and it was so much from every angle. It was overwhelming and I feel like if I didn’t have the opportunity to create I would have lost it. So it’s not that it was a fertile time, it is a necessity to create during such times. Artists can also serve as a lifeline for others too — to express feelings that they can’t express themselves… to grab onto and hold as a way through. It ends up really serving culture to be able to create in times like these.
Making an album can be a long process when you’re creating from a place of survival mode, and often what comes out at the end isn’t necessarily the outcome you expected at the beginning. How did the album develop from the early stages?
Santi: What was so cool about this process is that it was really easy for me to tap in. The lyrics just poured out. Some of the melodies came out exactly as they were meant to be, like ‘Shake’. I literally wrote some tracks in 10 minutes. I tried writing some songs for the album before the pandemic, and I was having writer’s block. Then as soon as everything happened, I didn’t have to think, the lyrics were just there. When that happens, I feel like the universe is involved. If you just let the process flow, you don’t really need to edit what comes out too much. It really is very raw.
It’s great when things come together like that. You’ve been so prolific for such a long time, and you’ve touched on how the universe can aid creatives. It really reminded me of a quote from Elizabeth Gilbert when she says that ideas are there to be chosen, and if you don’t grab them, they’ll go to another person who has the capacity to take them on.
Santi: I 100 per cent agree with that. I’ve talked to quite a few artists and a lot of them feel that the best thing to do is to take yourself out of the way, and just be more of a vessel. Whether it’s coming from your higher self, or from higher forces, you need to get yourself out of the way and let it flow. That’s what’s especially awesome about music — there are so many levels that it’s happening on. There are the lyrics, the melody and the rhythm. These are things that have been used throughout history – like, in indigenous cultures, rhythm is used to induce trance and change your brainwaves so that your consciousness is altered. Music can touch you, move you and permeate your being in so many different ways. That’s how it’s different from creating anything else.
What do you do when you go through a period when you can’t find any inspiration at all?
Santi: That’s a good question… The thing is, anyone who’s been an artist for a long time knows that these periods come intermittently. There’s always going to be a time when you try to create and nothing comes. As a very seasoned artist, I now know that you should just go do something else. But when I was going through block before the pandemic, I found myself crying and thinking that I was never going to be able to write anything ever again [laughs]. I do it every time.
It can get very dramatic, can’t it?
Santi: Every time. I’ll call a friend, they’re just like ‘Oh my god! Do something else!’ And that’s the truth, you should go do something else. I recently heard a recording of Joni Mitchell where she was talking about songwriting and fallow periods. People leave fields fallow for a season so they can become rich with nutrients, and she was talking about her art process in the same way. [Mitchell] will do something different, like painting until one day she feels she has something to say. That’s how I am too, I’m not the type of songwriter that just comes in and writes stuff every day when I don’t feel like it, because I’m not gonna get the best stuff. I have to wait for it to come.
The album is called Spirituals. I read somewhere that you were inspired by Black spiritualism when you were writing it — is this something that you’ve become more interested in recent years?
Santi: Well, let me just clarify why I called it Spirituals. I called it that, because of the effect of the Black spirituals — which were the songs that the slaves sang. The songs would help them transcend their environment and circumstances so they could experience freedom and joy when they weren’t free. These are songs that are transcendental, they helped them rise above and create something for themselves within the music. That’s what the songs in Spirituals were doing for me at a time that I found challenging on so many levels. Making this music was a way of ascending and moving beyond my environment. It was basically creating beauty and light for myself to move towards because I couldn’t find it anywhere around me. It’s not right to blanket it just as Black spirituality. Each song talks about different things. I didn’t call it Spirituals because of what the songs were talking about or sounded like, it was more about what they did for me.
Were there any specific references or influences you were drawing from?
Santi: I think I have a problem with the term Black spiritualism actually… I think spirituality is colourless. If we’re talking about some of the ways that Black people throughout the diaspora have spiritual practices, then there are elements in some of the visuals. Based on my experience, my spiritual practices are broad. I wasn’t a kid that was going to church very much — my mom did, but I really didn’t like it. I’m not a religious person in the traditional sense of picking a religion and following what it says. I map out my own relationship with spirituality. If I was going to describe a visual for the entire album, I did see these ushers dressed in white, wearing white gloves, white hats, and holding white fans. They were holding up a person that was in the process of ascension. They seemed to be experiencing the multidimensionality of their being and they were just enraptured… speaking in tongues. The person that was enraptured was me; that’s how I envisioned the whole record.
Wow. Does that reflect any personal experiences you’ve had?
Santi: I got that from one of my experiences in a Black church. As a child, my dad’s family was really involved in the church in Baltimore. We went to a Baptist church where my grandma was a pastor and my great aunt was an organist. Going there blew my mind and it was one of the few times that I experienced that type of thing in a Black church. The music was booming and people were fainting and screaming. It was so exciting for me. That image informed my visuals more than anything.
I love that. I’m not religious, but I also grew up in a religious household. I ascribe to the spiritual school of thought more than anything.
Santi: Exactly, exactly. The “proper” religions to me are just bogged down by human flaws. For me, spirituality is beyond religion. It’s at the root of all religions and a universal aspect of them.
Me too. Who needs more rules, more institutions, more human flaws…
Santi: Patriarchy. Do you know what I mean?!
There seems to be a pervasive feeling of optimism, resilience and survival throughout the album to me — was that your personal experience?
Santi: There is a sense of optimism. I had to create for survival in a sense, but it’s a different kind of needing to survive. It’s the kind where you let your emotions flow, you embrace everything, and you create beauty and light because you know that if you create it, it will come into your life. I think that’s optimistic, but it’s also real, it’s how energy works.
Spirituals is also a multi-sensory experience. You’ve created a skincare line, tea products and a podcast that will be launching soon. What was the process behind releasing the album with this extra merch?
Santi: I wanted to experiment with all the ways that we take in information. I love creating and I had time to learn so much during the pandemic. Black spruce, for example, is an oil that can aid with letting go of generational and past trauma. I became interested in that because I was exploring questions about why I was carrying stuff that wasn’t mine to carry. There’s a pattern of Black women taking on everyone else’s stuff. It’s a very real part of why we, in particular, are always in survival mode.
This is the first album you’ve released on your own label, Little Jerk Records. How did having more autonomy and control impact the creative process for you?
Santi: It was cool. I could do things my way, and not how they’re traditionally done. It’s important to me to not have that pressure, and own my own masters finally… I know that Web3 is a term that has been tossed around a lot but I love the idea of being able to turn music into something that is direct to consumer and remove the middlemen and the corporations. It’s great to have the ability to have a direct community with fans, and be able to do creative things within that. It’s something that I want to work towards as I move forward.
That’s really cool. I think there’s been more of a push for transparency and authenticity following the pandemic too.
Santi: Being in communication creates more intimacy. You can understand better what excites your fans, and then it doesn’t take long to put things out. You can just be like, ‘Hey, I made this!’ It’s a different way of interacting with your audience, and it’s something that artists should strive toward because the music industry has become really unsustainable. I think we need to rewrite it, a hundred per cent.