If you’re looking for the future of music, you might want to check first in Sudan Archives’ L.A. basement. “I don’t really see myself being in anyone’s studio,” the singer says over Zoom while smoking on her living room couch. “You got to come to my house, you got to pet my dog — if she doesn’t like you, then you need to get out.” Her dog, Juko, sits intently next to her. “You need to be around weed and be around my sister [or] whoever’s around at the time. If you can’t live in my element, then you don’t need to be here.”
The album that’s become her breakthrough, last year’s Natural Brown Prom Queen, draws on pop, R&B, hip-hop, and electronic sounds in ways that evoke the comfortable, carefree environment she’s talking about. But first she had to make her debut album, 2019’s Athena, that she describes now in terms of growing pains. “Athena was me in the studio, feeling awkward, like, ‘Why am I here?’” says Sudan, 29. “Natural Brown Prom Queen was me in my basement studio, smoking blunts with my titties out, feeling like a natural African woman in control of my art.”
Born Brittney Parks in Cincinnati, she loved the violin since she was 10 and rented one from a place called Baroque Violin Shop. “It looks like a little grandma’s house, but when you walk in, the floors are creaking and stuff,” she recalls. She learned how to play in her school orchestra in the fourth grade, but lost her access to formal training when she moved to a new school that didn’t have an orchestra two years later. At that point, she learned to replicate songs by ear.
She also began playing in her church choir. “They knew I played violin, so they were just like, ‘Yeah, you can come sound like shit for a couple of years,’” she says. “It was a 50-, 100-person church. Very small.” Few churches have violin players in their choirs; it was the first moment Sudan played in an unconventional setting, but not the last.
In time, she began learning more about the instrument’s Black roots. “When I googled ‘Sudan,’ I just saw hella niggas playing violins,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not weird,’ because I always would get made fun of for it. There’s so much history of Black people playing violins, from Sudan to different areas of Africa to African-Americans. When I saw the representation, it excited me to keep playing, but also to keep breaking boundaries and doing weird stuff that I could think of in my experimental approach.”
Her late stepfather, a former executive with LaFace Records, recognized her music talent but had other plans than Sudan being a genre-bending violin dynamo. He paired her with her sister, Cat, in a teen-pop duo called N2 and had them work with producers in hopes of creating a hit. (“He didn’t want me to be involved in the production, but I wanted to be a producer more than anything,” she has said.) Eventually, the two clashed over Parks’ musical ambitions, as well as the curfew her parents imposed on her. She fled at 19 to L.A., where she started studying ethnomusicology in community college.
“I was obsessed with dying instruments, specifically string instruments that are in Africa,” she says. “I realized that there were African violins and that their style was more of a natural style. It’s very wild, and uncontained, and just free and improvisational. That influenced my sound and gave me more confidence to be more creative in that way.” She honed that creativity as a regular in what she calls L.A.’s “experimental underground producer scene,” frequenting the well-known club night Low End Theory and other electronic and hip-hop events, and getting to know people like producer Matthewdavid.
Eventually, those connections helped her get a deal with Stones Throw Records in 2017. Once on the label, she crafted her bold debut EP, Sudan Archives, on an iPad, which she enjoyed compared to her past experiences trying to make music on a computer. “I remember thinking, ‘This is a little more fun,’ because everything is so tiny and limited, so you can’t get overwhelmed,” she says. “That’s probably the most fun time in my life musically, making music on the [tablet] and not overthinking things too much.”
She quit her day job on a whim during this period. “I remember waking up at 6:00 a.m. thinking, ‘I do not want to go to this donut shop,’” she says. “It was literally right before I started making money off music.” She went to live in San Diego for a while with an ex, “because I was broke,” she adds. “But I already made a decision in my head: ’I’m going to figure something out. I’ll live in my car. I don’t even care. I just don’t want to work at these jobs anymore.’”
Her leap of faith was rewarded with critical success and tour money after Sudan Archives. Success and growth continued in 2018 and 2019 with her Sink EP and Athena, which won praise for her crooning over a varied sonic palette. When the world got put in quarantine in 2020, she and her boyfriend, battle rap legend Nocando, decided to build a basement studio so they could make music at home. She says her confined creative quarters inspired a more refined, deliberate song-making process.
“My first two EPs are literally me pressing record and not writing, just saying what I got to say on my mind,” she says. “I do that still, but I’ll go back and be like, ‘How can I tell the story a little more clearer?’” She credits Nocando with helping workshop her lyrics and saving a Natural Brown Prom Queen favorite from the recycle bin: “With ‘Freakalizer,’ I remember I started making the song, and I [told him] making the song has been so annoying and I’m about to delete it. And he was like, ‘No, go upstairs.’ I went upstairs and he did some arrangements and then it sounded better to me.”
Overall, she was more hands-on with the album’s production, finding ways to assert her vision as she worked with collaborators. “I was working with a lot of people remotely. I liked doing it like that because I had all of the stems,” she says. “Everybody had to give me everything, and I was the person overseeing all of the ideas. So I’d pick and choose what I like, and I get to manipulate it in any way that I want without anybody being there, being confused. I love making worlds, and I feel like, in order for me to feel like this is my art, I have to be in control of it.”
Natural Brown Prom Queen bristles with confidence from album intro “Home Maker,” which begins with more than a minute of instrumentation before she starts singing. From track to track, you don’t know if she’ll be rhyming like on “Selfish Soul” or crooning on “ChevyS10.” “The sound is classic and futuristic at the same time,” says Bad Bunny, who’s become a fan. “I always like that combination.”
Ask Sudan and she’ll tell you she’s not especially bothered about genre categories: “I just feel like stuff like that is Western rule shit that I don’t even give a fuck about.”
She says the constant movement in her tracks is instinctual: “I’ll listen to a song, and then something will hit me and be like, ‘Take out the drums. You need to let the track breathe,’” she says. “Even if it’s a big, huge, productive track, you need to learn how to take away and put back. And I feel like there’s an art to that. I just be knowing.”
And touring. She’ll be doing concerts and festivals all over the world this summer, but she admits that she’d ideally be spending her time nestled in her basement, making music and sound programming for other producers. “I feel like I tour too much right now,” she says. “I want to be more so a studio rat than a tour person. But I’m down and grateful that I have so many shows, ’cause that’s how I pay my rent.”
Her future goals include having a label of her own, and a legacy “as someone who got really popular in music and used that money to put on more Black people. There’s a imbalance of Black people in power. I want to be known for, ‘Man, she put on this person, this person, and this person.’”
As for a follow-up to Natural Brown Prom Queen, she’s still making up her mind. “I don’t know,” she says when asked what she plans to do on her next project. “At first I wanted to make a really, really happy, super-dance album, but I always feel like I say that, and then I just end up making all types of stuff.”
One influence on her mind lately is Björk, who she got to see perform when they both played Coachella on the same day this spring. “I really was inspired by her set,” she adds. “It was just violin and vocals. I got to do that one day.”