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For Santigold, 'Spirituals' represents salvation and freedom


SANTIGOLD: (Singing) Hey, you. Think I got a, a hole in my head. I think all the numbness...


In the darkest days of 2020, we faced COVID without vaccines, saw massive racial justice protests, and horrific wildfires swept over the U.S. And we all took strength and comfort anywhere we could find it. Singer-songwriter Santigold turned to music. Her battle for survival and sanity in that time produced a powerful, subversive and, yes, uplifting album titled "Spiritual." Ayesha Rascoe spoke to her in September about her process of creating the album. And she started by asking the singer about her choices to open the album with a track called "My Horror."


SANTIGOLD: (Singing) Here I come, there I go. I can't feel. It's like I'm paralyzed. Roll right over out of bed. I don't even know what day it was. Move so fast, I have to ask, did it happen? Did I make it up?


AYESHA RASCOE: This feels like a really raw, exposed way to introduce us to the project. What are you talking about? What are you bringing us into?

SANTIGOLD: What I meant when I wrote it was that I was suffocating. You know, I was stuck in the house with my kids. And I didn't have any help coming in. And I was - I had just-turned-2-year-old twins at the time and a 6-year-old. And so I was cooking. I was the only one deep cleaning. I was changing...

RASCOE: And they eat all the time.

SANTIGOLD: ...Diapers.

RASCOE: They eat all the time.

SANTIGOLD: They eat all the time.

RASCOE: Oh, my gosh.

SANTIGOLD: They eat all the time.

RASCOE: That's all they do.

SANTIGOLD: And then, you know, dishes and then...


SANTIGOLD: It was just like - I didn't have time to think. I didn't have time to shower. I didn't have time to do anything, obviously, creative. Like, I was just drowning. And like, I love motherhood.

RASCOE: Of - yeah.

SANTIGOLD: And I love being a mom. But I need to have balance. And I had none. But then, also, outside, there were wildfires. And we couldn't go outside. And then there was, like, Black people getting murdered and riots and protests. And it was just like, this is too much, you know?

RASCOE: Yeah, absolutely.

SANTIGOLD: Then with all that going on, people have just been deciding to disconnect. And so this song is about what it was like in my world when I was just stuck, but then also what it's like when you're living in a world of people who are just going through the motions while they're turned off.


SANTIGOLD: (Singing) Me and my horror, a day in my horror. Me and my horror, just a day in my horror.

RASCOE: What made you want to, like, make this album? The name of it is "Spirituals," which evokes, you know, enslaved Americans singing songs about their heartache and, you know, calling out to something higher than them.

SANTIGOLD: I call this "Spirituals" because, for me, making this record was my own salvation, really. It was an opportunity to step out of survival mode. And the idea of using art and music in particular to transcend my circumstances and experience freedom, and joy and beauty in the absence of it in my environment to me was the same thing that Negro spirituals did for slaves in the time where they were able to experience freedom and joy through this music when their - in their environments, they were not free, and there wasn't - it wasn't joyous.


SANTIGOLD: (Singing) Won't be waiting all my life for no paradise, for no paradise.

RASCOE: Let's turn to your song "No Paradise."


SANTIGOLD: (Singing) Everybody is not afraid. Everybody don't know the way - where the one just sink to the floor, where the other open the door up.

RASCOE: And then you go on to say, don't know where but going. And there's power in struggle. Like, it seems like there's a tension between optimism and realism in this song.

SANTIGOLD: I wouldn't say there's a tension. I would say there's room for both of them to exist simultaneously, because I think that's what is real. In reality, we can be fearful, optimistic, hopeful all at the same time. I was just listening to "A Change Is Gonna Come." You know that song? And it...

RASCOE: By Sam Cooke?


RASCOE: Yeah. Oh, yeah.


SAM COOKE: (Singing) I was born by the river...

SANTIGOLD: And I was listening to it. And I was just like, man, this song is so powerful. But it's really like - he doesn't talk about the positive changes coming.


SANTIGOLD: He just talks about the struggle. So basically, it's about his faith. But in that - even in the expression of that very real pain and real struggle, that song is uplifting...


SANTIGOLD: ...Because it's an opportunity to give name to that pain and that experience. And that's uplifting in itself.


COOKE: (Singing) Oh, yes, it will.

RASCOE: That song, "A Change Is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke - I mean, it sounds very spiritual, right? Like...

SANTIGOLD: Yeah, it does.

RASCOE: ...It could easily be, like, a gospel song. And when you listen to gospel and listen to spirituals, they're not always positive.

SANTIGOLD: Because sometimes you just need a release.

RASCOE: Yes. Yeah.

SANTIGOLD: I think - in Black women in particular, I think, often, we live in survival mode. And I think part of it is generational trauma, and part of it is the reality of our everyday. But I think that one of the wonderful benefits of song is that it helps give name to those emotions and acknowledge them and then hold space for you to let them flow. And in that way, it's evolutionary, helps you to evolve.


SANTIGOLD: (Singing) Come on - za, za, za, za, za. Are you ready?

RASCOE: You know, you talked about being a Black woman, being in this industry. In the past, you've talked about how record labels would see you and basically say they just want you to do R&B and not much else. Do you feel like you've been given more freedom now, or is the industry kind of the same way that it's been?

SANTIGOLD: Yeah. I mean, nobody ever said to me, I want you to do R&B. They just said no to what I was doing, you know? And nobody's ever given me anything in this industry (laughter), you know? And I think that it's like - what was great about my career was that it started happening at the time of Myspace and of the internet. So in the absence of me - anybody opening any doors or giving me any breaks, I just got to go straight out and show that there was an audience for what I was doing because they showed up online.

But at the same time - at the same time, if you look at the Black women who are - who have really made it, you know, high, high up on the pop charts, they're still oversexualized. And if you look at people now, it's rare that you see somebody without, like, their butt right in the screen or - and, you know, to everybody, their own choices. But it just sucks that that's the only option.

RASCOE: That it's not...

SANTIGOLD: You know what I'm saying?

RASCOE: Yeah, that is not a variety.

SANTIGOLD: It's, like, if you want to make it, this is what you have to do.

RASCOE: That you have to do, yeah.

SANTIGOLD: And that hasn't really changed.

RASCOE: Well, I mean, it sounds like they're - you know, that they ain't ready. And I mean, I'm trying to do a segue...


RASCOE: That was a great segue (laughter).

SANTIGOLD: That was a good one. That was a really good one. I like that. I got where you were going - see where you're going with this.

RASCOE: You have a track called "Ain't Ready." And we want to - I wanted to play a little bit of that.



SANTIGOLD: (Singing) Ooh. It come in hard, kick in one side of your heart. What a blow. No, it won’t stop, so I take my time now getting back up, taking the reins - third eye. Everything I see coming to me - y’all sure not ready. Was letting it play, high and mighty - not today, no more. Ya ain't ready.

That was a really emotional song for me. You know, the lyrics is about like getting knocked down on the floor and picking yourself up...


SANTIGOLD: ...And just kind of like, telling yourself, like, they don't know what I possess. They don't know what I can do, you know? But it's really about telling yourself that. For some reason, I see this song in my head like a battle - you know? - and almost like I am in the corner of the rink, you know, where they rinse your face off from the blood, and they talking to you. And this is almost like the talk to myself. Like, they ain't ready. Like, you know who you are - third eye. Everything I see coming to me. You not ready.


SANTIGOLD: (Singing) Yeah. We want what we had. Hey, it won't never come back. Ooh, it come in hard, kicking on side of your heart.

FENG: That was Santigold speaking to Ayesha earlier this year.


SANTIGOLD: (Singing) So I take my time now getting back up, taking the reins - third eye. Everything I see coming to me. Y'all sure not ready. Was letting it play, high and mighty... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.