afro punk classic: stiffed featuring santi white

August 26, 2010

Before she was Santigold (nee Santo-) she was Santi White, front woman of the Philly punk band Stiffed. Watching the band rock out on a frigid New York night some six years ago, trying to summon enough foresight to guess at White’s legacy would have been as fruitless as scrutinizing an embryo ultrasound and trying to guess whether or not the baby would be cute. As Stiffed’s el capitan, Santi White had become the subject of a highly un-likely reality that would have made for great TV: record exec turns song writer turns performer. Thin, makeup-less and in too deep to contest the charge of musical extraterrestrial, just like that non-descript little knot of cells and tissue, Santi White in Stiffed showed little evidence of the depth of talent and innovation that was to come once she emerged chrysalis-like into the unique writer/performer we know today as Santigold.

Afro Punk Classic: Stiffed featuring Santi White

Words Camille Collins
The spirit of punk is fearlessness, DIY, and not standing still long enough to give anyone the impression you were even thinking of saying ‘may I?.’ In which case, on that cold New York night, Santi White embodied punk at its core—fearlessly and creatively defining her own sound and style. Looking back, there was quite a lot that was bad ass about Santi White just showing up, standing stiffly behind the mike without an iota of stage presence, and crooning away in her own, idiosyncratic, space oddity style, because even if it hadn’t been a precursor to the many grand things to come, it was a bold declaration that resonated and served an important purpose right then and there. It was the war cry of a young black woman who shamelessly prefers electric guitars and new wave scatting to Beyoncé-esque R&B. A girl who majored in music and African-American studies at Wesleyan University, and yet would just as soon not spend every waking moment in trite discussion and defense of herself as authentically black enough―for any and everything. Because maybe the girl just wanted to sing what was in her soul and if that happened to be some crazy amalgamation of Blondie, Bad Brains, and Devo mixed with a little of her own DNA, then so be it.

The degree to which Santi White has transformed as an artist since that small set six years ago is exponential. The first two Stiffed albums, Sex Sells and Burned Again, released in 2003, 2005 respectively, were produced by Bad Brains Bassist Daryl Jenifer, so from the very beginning it’s clear the girl was onto something. While working steadily as a song writer for other artists such as GZA and Ashley Simpson, White was offered a solo contract and emerged as the artist Santogold in 2008 with a debut album of the same name. 2008 marks the year the former Ms. White proverbially “blew up”. The singles L.E.S Artistes and Creator were everywhere, and Santogold the album was listed number six on Rolling Stone’s list of the fifty best albums of 2008. In 2009 a legal issue forced her to change her name to Santigold.

By remaining true to herself and refusing to compromise, Santigold has emerged as an innovative, inspiring and truly one of a kind artist. Her style fuses the sounds of dub, punk, reggae, eigthties pop, and electronica to create unique riffs and rhythms which have been described by the artist herself as “unexpected,” and “genreless.” Santigold’s vocal style has been compared to Gwen Stefani, Missing Persons, Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs and M.I.A. Her influences sweep the spectrum from Grace Jones and Siouxsie Sioux, to Fela Kuti, James Brown and Aretha Franklin.

While still in the incarnation of the performer Santi White, I witnessed a performance from this artist that left me a little bit perplexed, a little dissatisfied, and yet somehow grateful that the thin, wide eyed girl behind the mike was fronting a punk band, if for none other reason than it gave me another precious chance to affirm that in my passions, interests, and artistic world view, I was not alone.

It’s as if, first as Santi White, later as Santigold, one rad singer heard the silent clamoring of a million music aficionados locked in their bed rooms listening to everything good, and decided, like some tricked out, technicolor, post-punk-dub-fairy, to anoint us with a sound, that, for its crazy, riotous color composition and synthesis of styles and textures, has become not only an awesome sonic boom, but a mirror we can all see ourselves in―our diversity and differing tastes. Santigold’s sound is the music equivalent of an all ages party, and the beat there is good.