Sudan Archives wants you to know that she is wild and crazy. The Los Angeles-based, Cincinnati-born R&B and soul singer, songwriter, violinist, and producer, whose actual name is Brittney Parks, pushes the envelope of her genre in a direction that is totally autonomous.
It’s half-past eleven in the morning and Brittney Parks asks me for a glass of wine to get her into the right frame of mind. Would she like anything to eat, I ask? “Currywurst!” she exclaims. “Isn’t that a thing here [in Berlin]?” The smell of incense permeates the room; behind us she has neatly organized her outfits and accessories for our shoot—she currently carries about six show outfits around Europe with her, most of them made by up-and-coming designers in London or L.A. Be it the silver chain or a leather cut-out dress, they complement her fiery spirit that she lives out on stage. Off stage, she is surprisingly shy and reserved.
Parks lucidly executes her artistic vision without mitigation. In fact, she repels any kind of categorization. “[Some people] expect how I looked and how I sounded to stay the same forever. But what they don’t know is that I’m really wild. I have a lot of energy and a lot of personalities. One day I might dress up like a boy, and one day I want to wear a dress with my titties all out. I feel like people at first thought I was this little fairy alien girl or something. But I’m really just, like, fucking crazy. And I’m an artist, and every release that I do is going to be a totally different genre and sound, and will have a different theme.” Parks’ current concept, to accompany her first solo European tour, is rather supernaturalistic.
“On stage, I want to be a superhero or an anime character. My violin is my sword,” she says. To Parks, anime characters, dressed in tight bodysuits, just kick ass. “They’re magically powerful; just as powerful as men. I mean, that’s how it should be in real life,” she sighs. “In America, women’s bodies are so overly sexualized that it’s impossible to just be sexy because you’re a woman; being sexy is just for men. You should be sexy because you just are, because you can’t help it!” She refers to her anger over a recent comment on her Youtube channel, being shamed by a viewer for wearing a one-piece with inbuilt corset strings. “This person said that there is no need to dress like a hoe. It’s funny to think that’s just because I show some skin. Why can’t I show a little bit of my butt, when men on stage rap with no shirts on? I should be able to just be free!” I’m not surprised to learn that she always records naked. She feels equally constrained on stage, with her violin and microphone plugged in. “I just like to feel free!”
“I just like to feel free!”
The cover of Parks’ debut album, Athena, allows her to be just that. It depicts Parks as the Ancient Greek goddess Athena, posing naked, holding the violin like a weapon; there is no writing to distract the viewer. “I wanted to put a new face on Athena. Because when you Google her, she doesn’t really look like me. Now [she does].” To her, the cover work also encapsulates her idea of archives—“It’s like a statue that can’t really be destroyed; it’s preserved forever.”—and stresses her notion of beauty as a universal phenomenon. She is frustrated with the way black bodies are perceived and that she has to highlight colorism as an issue at all. “I literally had someone say to me, like, ‘Oh, you’re really pretty for a dark-skinned girl,’” she says with a sigh. “You shouldn’t be judged by the shade, it should just be everybody is just as beautiful, you know?” she says while carefully removing the bright green inserts from her waist-long micro-braids. “I usually make trinkets out of them,” she says, putting one down next to her on the sofa.
Athena is Sudan’s musical memoir, a collection of conversations between her younger and her more mature, grown-up self. “On Pelican in the Summer, the verses are the young me, and the hook is the older me. Limitless is the good me and the Stuck and Honey interludes are the evil me. Black Vivaldi Sonata is the evil me; Confessions is the pure me,” she explains. Is any episode particularly close to her heart? Probably Limitless, she notes, as it’s about a girl that was so unique in her own right. “It seemed like she had it together until she fell into this relationship and it kind of ruined her.” The album opens with a similar narrative: I realized I lost my mind, she writes, When I was a little girl I thought I could rule the world. Did you know: Life is not perfect. How much does it resonate with young Parks? “Maybe I was a little too mature for my age,” she says with a laugh. She names the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, which she watched at a young age, as a major inspiration. “The reason she became a Geisha was due to her craftsmanship and being really musical and conversing with men and all that. She devoted her life to becoming one, and it’s actually a beautiful love story. It’s about her whole life, just as the album is memoirs of an Athena.”
On Confessions, a striking ode to doomed relationships that she produced in only one day, she sings about feeling alienated from the place she calls home. In the music video, a vibrant piece of cinematography that she directed, Parks finds herself in a home that is not hers. So where is home for her? “In Cincinnati at my mom’s house,” she answers. “But I feel more rooted today. Before I always thought, how do I get out of here? This place isn’t for me! Which is why I left for L.A. when I was 19.” Athena hybridizes her memoir with a clear message: “I want people to know that I’m just a girl from Ohio who loves string music and ethnomusicology.” Of course, she understands that her name and early music videos, some of which were produced in Ghana, have people assume she is an African artist. Her mother gave her the nickname Sudan when Parks was a teenager. Her trip to Ghana, her first out-of-country experience, was inspired by her vast interest in ethnomusicology and the way African fiddlers employ the instrument, not so much by a quest to explore her ancestral roots.
Musically, Parks grew up in church, though most of her violin skills are self-taught. She decided that she wanted to learn the violin in fourth grade after she saw a fiddle-centered ensemble play at her elementary school, and afterward learned chords by ear. She recorded her first song on an iPad—“something about a jellyfish”—at the age of 16, when she started going to electronic music nights in her hometown, realizing that “you can be eccentric with music. Everything I saw on TV, like these pop sensations, they just seemed untouchable. Seeing groups of people just huddle up in a bedroom or a house or a dingy bar making beats, I felt like I could do that, you know.” I recall to Parks that I had read that her stepfather had the aforementioned in mind, that he attempted to turn Parks and her twin sister into a pop duo named N2. Parks sighs: “Yeah, I needed to do something different, and going out was good for me, especially coming from such a tight-knit family that would go to church three times a week,” she says about hanging out with groups of male rappers instead, mostly being the only woman among them. “I’m a tomboy at heart, I get along with anybody, but also I don’t see gender or color.”
In L.A., she entirely broke free from her family’s musical interests. “I like to stumble upon beauty and I like to just live in silence rather than live what other people are on. That’s the way I get creative.” Working three jobs to make ends meet—waitressing, making donuts, and selling coffee—she recorded music on the side. Come Meh Way, her first foray into fusing folk sounds and electronic beats, was born during that period. Her break came after a chance encounter with music producer Matthew David—“I’m not into scenes or clubs, I just wander alone”—who signed her to Stones Throw Records about a year later. Being able to support herself, “to be able to say, yes, I’m a musician,” made her feel more secure and more “civilized. If the music thing didn’t happen my plan was just to get a van and live in the van. I just was tired of working and like it all going to rent.”
“On stage, I want to be a superhero or an anime character. My violin is my sword.”
Since then, Parks has constantly reinvented herself, both personally and professionally. In the context of her previous releases, her 2017 EP Sudan Archives and its 2018 successor, Sink, Athena is the emotional, fully-fledged culmination of her evolving oeuvre that so heavily relies on her admirable discipline and painstaking research. She has grown, and she has let people in. For a long time, Parks neglected the idea of collaboration, producing and writing in solitude, while performing solo. People like Rodaidh McDonald, Paul White, and Ernest Greene have enhanced her sound, supporting her efforts to deepen her lyrics. Parks has learned to communicate, she notes. “Also, I can keep friendships. Before I just ran away when something happened. I’m probably just overall happier because I don’t isolate myself with my work anymore.” Being on her first solo tour is a big deal for her, though, in the future she’d rather travel less—“I’d love to just have one crazy, circus-like show a year”—and start her own label. She is easily bored. “If I do the same thing every day I’ll be like, ‘Fuck music, I don’t want to be a musician.’”
Again, she stresses that, at the end of the day, she’s her true self when she’s not being too meticulous; when she’s just naked and free. She understands why people may label her work Afrofuturist, or feminist, but she isn’t bothered about making political statements. “I don’t feel a certain way about any of that, because I just feel like my life is that, as in my life in itself is political, you know?” she notes, sipping on her glass of white wine, now dressed in a grey tracksuit. “I feel like we’re all just screaming at each other. I don’t understand [politics], but I understand music. I know that every type of music that I’m into, fiddle and all the types of violin music, [whether] they play it in Ghana, Sudan, Ohio, or Eastern Europe, they all have this traditional violin approach. And it’s just fun to know that and just mix it together. People might say, ‘Oh, this is a crazy fusion,’ but really, I mean, we’re all the same, it’s just, like, same shit.”
Sudan Archives is an American singer, songwriter, violinist, and producer based in Los Angeles. Following two EPs, she released her debut album, Athena that has seen the artist deepen her sound and storytelling. To check out more of our music pieces, read our profiles of American singers Sasami and Weyes Blood.
Text: Ann-Christin Schubert
Photography: Gene Glover