Santigold and the multisensory lifeline of 'Spirituals' - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

“Brooklyn, we go hard.” I mean, yeah, it does. And yeah, she said it. But Santi White, better known as Santigold, is a Philly Girl at heart.In this seminal quote that was featured on the song from her first album and later sampled and looped by Jay Z on “Brooklyn Go Hard,” it would be easy to assume that Santigold is a born and bred Brooklynite. Thing is, she’s definitely a Philly jawn who honed her craft in the city of sisterly affection. So much so that she even still trips up when pronouncing the word for H2O. “I was recording something the other day and I said ‘wooder,'” Santigold said in a conversation on the phone last month. “And I was like, oh, hold up. Water.”Santigold grew up in Mount Airy, a relatively diverse secion of northwest Philadelphia, she attended school in the affluent outskirts of Chestnut Hill. In her neighborhood, Santigold was surrounded by other Black kids, but while attending Springside Chestnut Hill Academy she was found herself in a waspy homogenous environment. Even the nearby cricket club was a de facto whites-only space. “I mean, they didn’t say that outright, but that was the rule, you know? No Blacks, no Jews, no Indians,” says Santigold. “All my friends went there, they were members there and so that was my other world, you know?”

“Those were also very formative years, formative experiences that were challenging in so many ways,” she continues. “But I was also exposed to music that I wasn’t exposed to at home.”Back at the crib, Santigold’s parents had the sounds of Fela Kuti, Pharoah Sanders, and Nina Simone in heavy rotation. “My dad took me to see Fela Kuti when I was like seven at the TLA,” says Santigold. “We went to Third Street Jazz every Saturday and he would let me buy records. And that was the love of music that was passed down to me at home.”Through her older sister and friends, she was exposed to the likes of The Cure, Talking Heads, Bauhaus, and Joni Mitchell. Clearly, the young music aficionado had a wide pool to pull from. And if there’s one thing about Santigold and how she presents her music to the world, her stylings know no boundaries. Over the years and under her current moniker and as part of the early aughts punk outfit Stiffed, Santigold has experimented with dancehall, Afrobeat, punk, gospel, and hip-hop genres just to name a few. If you bring up Santigold to almost any Philadelphian old enough to know, they will almost without fail reference her songwriting work on fellow Philadelphian musician, Res’ 2001 debut  album, How Do I. Santigold’s work on this project garnered her a lot of attention, despite her wanting to keep her head down and focus solely on writing — at this point, she was lacking the confidence to begin singing and performing. Shortly after finishing the Res project, Santigold moved back to Philly after living in Brooklyn for a spell. “I just wanted to make a record and I moved back to Philly because I could disappear and do it without any eyes on me,” says Santigold.It was at 412 Girard Avenue, at a small venue called The Fire, that Santigold honed her singing and performing chops at a weekly event called The Clap. The event was run by Rich Nichols, the long-time manager of The Roots. “I learned how to sing and I learned how to perform without any judgment with friends in just super mellow environment,” says Santigold.  “And that’s what I love about Philly – It’s a great place to formulate an idea.”If you’ve seen any Santigold performance from the last 15 years, you’d know that it’s a far cry from her shy beginnings. The level of presence and intentionality is exceptional, to say the least. Each album and each corresponding tour has a specific theme. We saw stoic militarism in the self-titled debut album. With the 2016 release 99 Cents, Santigold focused on images of consumerism.

Santigold - High Priestess

Since May, Santigold has been blessing fans with a steady flow of new music and visuals, leading up to the release of her latest project, Spirituals. The first to kick off the bunch was “High Priestess”  – a high-energy boastful dance track. The corresponding music video shows the artist clad in a robe, headdress, and neon lights, some of which reference the tarot card of the same name. On the card, you see a woman taking up posts between two pillars as if she’s the keeper of the unknown that exists behind her. Similarly in the hook of the song Santigold chants “Ah, you really want my thunder / I guard the gates here / Guard the secrets while you wonder”The overall theme of the songs exudes power and magic. “There’s something about an image that can really get us to feel something in a way that just knowing something in our brains doesn’t do,” says Santigold in reference to the single “Shake.”The uptempo track alludes to Black church music – one could even say that it’s uplifting. But that all changes with the music video for the song. We see Santigold clad in white pants and a white blouse. She looks happy as she’s dancing and playing the tambourine in front of a concrete wall. Halfway through the video, she’s pelted with a high-power water hose. Through all the pain and grimaces, she still tries to push through, smile, dance, and perform. She showed up despite every attempt to beat her down. The visuals juxtaposed with the happy-sounding music is a clear reference to the civil rights movement of the 60s. If it’s one thing about Santigold’s art, she is going to evoke a familiar and/or visceral reaction from consumers.

Santigold - Shake

“For me, it was intense for sure – it hurt,” says Santigold. “We are a very small film crew and a couple of people were crying by the end of it.”The world isn’t even a full three years removed from the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, so when talking about art, and specifically new music, listeners are still introduced to works that were made during a time of fear, uncertainty, and isolation. For Santigold, Spirituals was a lifeline during the tumultuous times of quarantine and civil unrest. She found herself home, with three small children and felt that she was losing herself as an artist. “I just felt like I wasn’t gonna, I wasn’t gonna make it, you know, just even my sanity,” says Santigold. “It’s not just music, it’s just the act of creation for me – creating art in general.”To find her way back Santigold made it a priority to work on her craft, even if that only meant squirreling away three hours a week in the back of her house to work on Spirituals. But she didn’t stop there. In an effort to make Spirituals a multisensory experience Santigold has developed a suite of products, including small-batch body care items and tea blends. “I thought it would be cool to release some products or some things that could allow me to let the album be experienced on a multisensory level, so that there was an element of Spirituals that you could listen to it, you could watch it, you could taste it, you could touch it,” she says.The top of October would have been the start of the Holifield tour. But as she referenced in an open letter to fans that was published on her website and Instagram, the financial and mental demands of going on tour in a post-COVID world made the tour impossible to kick off. And akin to the mental wellness aspects of Spirituals, Santigold choosing not to go on tour, in a way is her honoring herself, her fans, and the raw humanity that can be found in her latest release.

Santigold’s Spirituals is out now, and can be streamed or purchased here.

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