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Sudan Archives Is Smashing Through the Predictable

On her new album ‘Natural Brown Prom Queen,’ the L.A. by way of Cincinnati musician continues to redefine her destiny

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What’s the best way to smash a violin?

That was the question at hand as Sudan Archives spoke with director Zach Sulak. For hours they’d been filming the music video for her song “OMG BRITT’’ inside a stiflingly hot Los Angeles studio. The artist born Brittney Parks was wearing a barely concealing white bikini, white knee-high boots, a billowing piece of white fabric around her right forearm, silver talons on her left hand and devil red contact lenses, among a conglomeration of other accessories. She’d spent the afternoon performing the song in front of a collection of vintage tube TVs and sets that evoked the interior of Michael and Janet Jackson’s spaceship in “Scream.”

Now it was time for the last setup of the day and the shot that would open the video. Parks, 28, would walk down a white corridor and smash a violin, the instrument that’s at the center of her experimental and unpredictable pop music. But first, she and Sulak needed to decide the most effective way to do it. There would be only one chance, since she brought only one violin with her. What would create the most carnage: smacking it flat against the floor, or bringing it down on its side? They settled on the latter option, and after a couple practice swings where she pulled back at the last moment, Sulak called action. Parks strode down the hall before, let out a scream and slammed the violin with the full force of her body. It came apart perfectly.

Forty-five minutes later, Parks was on the rooftop of the Ace Hotel, waiting on a tequila and aperol cocktail, plus an order of shrimp tacos. The red contact lenses were out and her eyes felt much better for it. She was now dressed in a relatively more normal outfit: a Sudan Archives t-shirt up top, another identical t-shirt she’d just reformatted into a skirt, dirty pink Crocs and a denim baseball cap bejeweled with a weed leaf. “I felt so good smashing [the violin],” she said. “Then I felt like I killed someone, to be honest. I started panicky laughing.”

Parks said she got the idea to do it in a video after a recent set in Omaha. “The sound was horrible, my laptop overheated, the sound people were frustrated—they weren’t doing anything right,” she said. “It was a shit show.” She pushed through, remaking her electronic loops from scratch. The crowd was appreciative, seeing how much of a struggle it had been, but when it was over she still pretended to destroy her instrument on stage.

The particular violin she used in the video for “OMG BRITT” was one of about 10 she has, but it was also her first. Her uncle Ted gave it to her when she was a child growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio. When Parks was 18, she left it in the trunk of a friend’s car, but when she asked for it back, the friend couldn’t find it. Then it randomly reappeared five years later. Though this particular violin was a beginner’s instrument and Parks never planned to play it again, she did have sentimental thoughts about giving it to her hypothetical future daughter. Instead, she decided it should be sacrificed. “Something just told me it needed to be smashed,” she said.

This week, Stones Throw Records will release Natural Brown Prom Queen, the second Sudan Archives full-length. It’s an impressive, expansive 18-track collection that traverses sonic dimensions with ease. Genres swirl together and get blasted through Parks’s prismatic outlook, often multiple times within the same song. Yet it all holds together. Her musical ambitions are equalled by the pull of her compelling, conflicted presence. As a singer and a rapper, she delves into her attempts to reconcile the difference between the expectations of who she should be and who she actually is.

Starting work on the album in the midst of the isolation stage of the pandemic, Parks developed an approach to making Natural Brown Prom Queen that allowed her to avoid being in the studio with other people, an element of the recording process she’s never really enjoyed. “I was just in my basement naked, smoking weed,” she said. “Nobody around, just me.”

She felt like she was in her natural state. “Up till 6 a.m. doing weird shit, staring at my snake,” she continued. “Take the dog for a walk, come back down. Maybe go get some groceries, make some food. Go upstairs and watch a movie and come back down.”

She’d send her demos to her manager, Ben Dickey. He’d then record his own illustrative versions of how he thought those parts could develop creatively. That’s why he, like Parks, has a producer credit on nearly every song on the album. Dickey would then pass Parks’s material to multiple producers he thought would be a good match, including Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, Nosaj Thing, Simon on the Moon, and Jim-E Stack. Dickey would then return their interpretations back to Parks, usually with the names removed to make it a blind taste test. From there she’d add to them, subtract from them, and stitch them into a new, singular version of a song. She’d also bring other musician friends down to her basement to help create any specific parts she thought were needed.

Even though it was a painstaking process to put the final versions of the songs together, there remains a chaotic, collaged element to many of them. The abrupt shifts in tone and beats per minute make it a thrilling listen. And each track remains uniquely Parks. “She’s the boss,” Dickey said. “These are her songs. She’s going to have final cut on everything.”

Natural Brown Prom Queen is consciously more uptempo than her previous work. Parks’s mother is from Detroit and her father is from Chicago, so she wanted to flavor the album with her alternative versions of house and footwork, two genres born from those cities’ Black communities. “I’m tired of motherfuckers staring at me on stage in awe, mesmerized,” she explained. “Oh my god, they’ve got their phones out. Fuck that shit. Dance! But I can’t just tell people to dance. I got to make them want to dance.”

The cover of 2019’s Athena, the first Sudan Archives album, is a nude black and white portrait of Parks standing on a pedestal, striking a statuesque pose. But even in this tableau, she holds her violin above herself, almost reverentially. Throughout that album, the instrument cuts through, giving the songs their definitive shape. On Natural Brown Prom Queen it remained her creative starting point, but its presence is often less obvious. Parks used plug-ins and effects to make it sound like a guitar, or to create a bassline. She’d beat on it to make drum sounds. Her goal this time was to approach the violin unconventionally.

Parks became interested in the violin after seeing a performance by Irish fiddler Gerry O’Connor when she was a child. She learned to play by ear, and as she got older, she explored how the instrument has been incorporated into various West African music traditions. Growing up in Cincinnati, she attended church with her family three times a week—for Sunday service, bible study, and choir practice. Parks’s mother would encourage her to play her violin along with the choir, even though she’d never been part of an orchestra or any other formal ensemble. For Natural Brown Prom Queen’s new age-y interlude “Do Your Thing (Refreshing Springs),” Parks’s mom recreates one of those motivational speeches, telling her, “You know how you just play for everybody else? Just play for the glory of god.” The track is immediately followed by the breezy electro sex jam, “Freakalizer.”

When Parks was a teenager, her stepfather Derrick Ladd, who’d played a part in the creation of legendary Atlanta label LaFace Records, tried to turn her and her twin sister, Cat, into a pop duo. On Natural Brown Prom Queen’s title track, Parks double-times through the arc of this story “about this girl Sudan” from a third-person perspective, explaining the group’s demise with the lyrics, “Got kicked out because she laid on her back / Well, that’s how it seemed to her mommy and daddy / Crying on her boyfriend, ‘They will never understand me’ / When all she wanna do is watch Sailor Moon, smoke weed, and stare up at the moon.”

Reflecting on the situation now, Parks said there were other reasons why the group didn’t work out. The expectation was that they weren’t old enough to be actively involved in artistic decisions. “I was so young, so I didn’t really know how to say what I wanted,” she explained. “I was probably better off alone, hitting my head on the floor a thousand times rather than trying to communicate with somebody, because I ain’t know how to do that.”

(Cat now also lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches yoga. She co-wrote the self-hyping Natural Brown Prom Queen track “Copycat” with Parks.)

In Cincinnati, as Parks pulled away from traditional pop and the church, she began going to underground electronic music shows. Though she wasn’t particularly social within the scene, she did use it as a way to research the gear. “I don’t think I’m really a talker, I’m kind of just a creep,” she said. “I’ll just study what you’re doing and I’ll go buy it myself and figure it out all on my own.”

She fell in with a group of musicians who were inspired by the Los Angeles beat scene that was centered around the long-running Low End Theory party. They created similar-minded local events, which Parks sometimes played. In 2013, at the age of 19, she moved out to L.A. and began studying ethnomusicology at Pasadena City College, but did not finish her degree. As far as a career in the music industry, at first the goal was just to throw shows with her friends, but soon her own performing and recording career took precedence.

Through the actual Low End Theory, which she now frequented, she became friends with Matthewdavid, a producer and the cofounder of adventurous music label Leaving Records. “I was interested in working with her because I could just feel a vibe,” Matthewdavid said. “She sent me ‘Come Meh Way.’ First impressions are everything and that one totally blew me away. I just felt all the potential wrapped up in that one cut. It was pretty undeniable.”

Originally, Parks was going to put out Sudan Archives music through Leaving, but Matthewdavid is also an A&R scout for the storied indie Stones Throw. After that label’s founder, Peanut Butter Wolf, heard the pair working after hours at Stones Throw’s in-house studio, he took an interest and the decision was made to go through his label instead.

Before she left Cincinnati, Parks started experimenting prodigiously with psychedelic mushrooms. When she was in her late teens and still living at home, she’d regularly tell her mom she was going to work the late shift at McDonald’s, but instead she’d be at a friend’s house, high as hell. She remembers one formative time taking shrooms at “this weird-ass hippie festival in Ohio” whose name she can’t remember. “I was looking up at the stars crying and all these white people were rubbing me,” she said. “They were all hugging me. They were like, ‘Do you want a massage?’ And I was like, ‘Actually, I do.’”

Parks points to hallucinogens as an essential element in her attempt to rewire her brain. “When I started doing shrooms, that’s when I started having ideas creatively that took me out here,” she said. After she settled in Los Angeles, she substantially decreased her intake. Now she only microdoses or drinks mushroom tea occasionally as a mental tuneup, before taking months-long breaks.

Besides, given the realities of her job as a working musician, she can’t overindulge in much of anything. There are too many practical responsibilities. “I ain’t got no money, I’m not no Beyoncé,” she said. “I can’t walk on stage like, poof! I have to plug in, like, 50 wires. I have to communicate to the sound people, and they act like I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about. It’s getting to the point where I can get a dedicated sound person with me [on tour], but sometimes I’ve got to just roll solo. I can’t really be under any influence because I have to do a lot of stuff like that and then perform. It’s a lot.”

When Parks was in high school, she didn’t go to her prom. She didn’t stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance. Like many aspects of her life in Ohio, she was over it. But even in her continuous evolution, her relationship with her past and her present isn’t as clear-cut as it may seem. Natural Brown Prom Queen’s last song is titled “#513,” her hometown’s three-digit area code. In it, she acknowledges that she’s still living a life in L.A. where not everything is settled, where if you’ve got a Scion that breaks down on the highway, it might be time to manifest a Mustang. She remains unfazed by the developing shape of her destiny. In the track’s final moment, she flips the Biggie by way of LL Cool J line, softly singing, “I’ll never blame my bad luck on nasty ’Nati / I’m going, going, back, back to Cincinnati.”

Asked if there was anything she missed about the city, all she could offer was the restaurant Cincy Steak & Lemonade. Then she paused and added that she missed her family. “If my family lived out here, my life would be perfect,” she said. “I feel like I had to sacrifice the community of family in order to establish an artistic career.”

In Los Angeles she’s found the freedom to sit naked and stoned in her basement, transforming herself into the person she wants to be. And who’s to say what will come next.

Eric Ducker is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.