So, how was your 2019? No matter what you’ve done, you haven’t accomplished more in the past twelve months than Dana Vaughns. No one has, really. In one calendar year, he has: portrayed Curtis “Fresh” Edwards on the new BET hit series, American Soul; danced alongside Kanye West at Coachella and with Cardi B and Offset during their BET Awards performance; and on Nov. 1, released his debut EP, Familiar Strangers. Not bad for a guy who’s about to turn 22 years old.
Dana Vaughns speaks with a self-assurance beyond his years, a confidence that comes after spending over a decade of experience in the music industry. As one of, as Dana tells HollywoodLife, one of “the pioneering kid dancers in the industry,” he was involved in entertainment at an early age – and he was good. His skills resulted in some high-profile appearances on everything from Kid Bopz 16 to the Hannah Montana movie. His stint in boy band IM5 yielded some success, but it seems that all these early-career sparks were meant to light the fire that is Familiar Strangers.
Six tracks that deftly weave together ‘90s R&B and hip hop with modern production, Familiar Strangers showcases the many levels of Dana’s songwriting. It’s a powerful way to cap off a year that established just how much Dana is a legend in the making. Dana spoke EXCLUSIVELY with HollywoodLife about dancing with Kanye and Cardi, about the story behind Familiar Strangers’ stunning cover art, and how he’s going to do even more in 2020.
HollywoodLife: Your debut EP, Familiar Stranger, has come out. You have appeared on BET’s American Soul. And you performed with Kanye West at Coachella AND with Cardi B and Offset at the BET Awards. So, the important question is: are you exhausted?
I am blessed, I’ll say that. That doesn’t mean you don’t get tired. I can definitely say this would be the first holiday season — being 21 now, almost 22 — that I’m actually looking forward to vacation and feel like I need it. When you’re younger, vacation’s just a fun thing with your family and things like that. But, yeah, I think all my accolades this year are a test to me being like, “All right, you know what? I need a week to chill.”
How did you land the gig of dancing with Cardi and Kanye? Did they call you up knowing you had all the right moves?
I mean, to a degree, yeah. I’ve been out in LA since 2008 or 2009, and I was kind of one of the pioneering kid dancers in the industry to be able to work with Jabbawockeez and Chris Brown and The Pussycat Dolls all before I was a teenager. It’s something that a lot of people can’t say that they’ve done, so just to have that rapport in the dance industry. Shout-out to Fatima Robinson, who’s a creative director who literally just kind of called me direct for both of those.
Actually, no, Tanisha Scott did BET for Cardi, excuse me. But, yeah, she just called me directly for Coachella. Called me on Wednesday at 3:00, saying I had to be at rehearsal at 3:30, and we’re going to Coachella the next day. That was one of the most surreal experiences. It was just so fast. And to see everything that Kanye done with Sunday Service since Coachella, I feel like was really the launching pad for everything that he’s done with it so far. So, to be a part of that and just being a believer myself, to be able to spread God and just music. You know what I’m saying? To millions of people in one sitting and just on one live stream was incredible.
Then Cardi and Offset, that was just a lot of fun. It was taxing on my body for sure. You don’t get to see all the angles on camera, but we were doing a lot of dancing, and it was great to see. They had their baby [Kulture] there. You see a lot of things in the media, but I mean they still put family first.
While you were working on those major productions, did you pick up on anything that could help your career? “Oh, this is what they’re doing? I’m going to do that too.’
More than that. Since I’ve been on both sides, now an artist and blessed to have fans that support me. But I’ve also been a dancer. I’ve seen that side. I just know how to act in rooms. I just try to have the same integrity and respect that I want my dancers to have for me when I’m in rehearsal. I think that’s just something that allows me to even connect with the artists sometimes different than that. I don’t have to come up to them and say, “Hey, I’m an artist too.” But the fact that they just see how I’m moving and just not to be in certain conversations to do this or no, just be on your spot. People really notice those things because that’s the type of stuff I noticed when I’m in their shoes. It’s just mutual respect more than anything.
You just dropped Familiar Stranger. It’s an interesting title, and the cover depicts you in three different stages of a relationship. There’s clearly a deep concept at work with this. Did you have a hand in the shoot?
So, yeah, the title, Familiar Strangers, I love it because it’s contradicting. If you listen to the project, it’s all first-time experiences in a new love relationship at the time of my life. There’s a girl that I’ve known since I was younger, and I didn’t even realize she was the inspiration behind a lot of these things. Even though I had known her for so long, we haven’t really experienced many things together like that. I described her as a song, “Rough Rider.”
I didn’t really know what we were going to be this intense, but since I met you, I’m like, “Okay, this is more than just a one-night fling.” This is a ‘ride or die’ type of situation. Then you hear “Cupid” on the project where I’m stuck in between two women. Trying to decide this one or this one. When you talk about that picture [on the EP artwork] where I’m sitting down on the couch, that’s really when you’ve been with somebody for a year, and you’re going through problems. It’s like, “All right, we still love each other, but I’m frustrated at you right now,” you know?
I just feel like ‘familiar’ describes the feelings that you can have with somebody that you can relate from an old experience, or just even with yourself. Then the ‘strangers’ just literally the excitement part of somebody being new. I think the six songs that I put on there really put that into perspective really well. I would say so.
To the cover, I was a part of that. We actually had a couple options for the cover art. Shout-out, my boy C. Brady, Chad Brady, he’s a great photographer. I’ve known him for three years, and we just got together like, “What describes the project? And what’s timeless?” I think that cover art just looks like an old ’70s or ’80s art that I could see in a record store.
While you were working on this, did you discover any internal conflicts or contradictions?
In finishing the project? Yes, I’ll say that. The last song added to the project was “Cupid,” and it was a trying time in my relationship status. I’m talking to this girl and not definitely where I’m at, but very much have some type of love for her. I had to really push through. I’m like, “You know what? Let me just be vulnerable. Let me just put this on there.” More than, I think, just having to a different emotional level. I executive produced this EP, which I’m very proud about, but I think that took a lot out of me too.
Because, usually, I’m just on the writing side and the recording side, but now I’m on a production side as well. So, it’s almost double the time and double the work. But it was just great. I felt like I proved a lot to myself that I could do it. The response from the fans has been proof of it. Even if they didn’t respond, I know I did a good job. Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s crazy to be here in New York and just excited about the whole thing.
Your video for “Cupid” is a drastic departure from your “DNA” video, which was this highly choreographed, one-take shoot. “Cupid” is just you and a camera.
Yeah, I didn’t want to have a full out video. Actually, we were shooting the cover art, the first version of the cover art that never came out, and we had some downtime. I was like… once again, Chad Brady and my manager, Nick DeMoura, we were there. I was like, “Let’s just film something real quick.” If you notice in the video, the framing that we chose, it’s smaller than the full thing, just to almost make it feel like a documentary because it is such a vulnerable song and really just kind of expresses where I’m truly at in my life.
I didn’t want the visuals to confuse the concept. I just wanted people to watch it and listen to the lyrics for what it was.
It felt a bit of a throwback, which ties to your Familiar Strangers. It’s been described of ‘90s R&B mixed in with a modern sound. What drew you to R&B initially?
I think it’s just what’s in my heart. I’m glad that I do write all my own stuff and that I’m able to do that, so I’m not tied down to a certain genre or a certain lane, and it’s not like I have to pick one. Then I can go to these producers and saying, “Hey, I want a hip-hop song. I want to R&B song.”
My favorite artist of all time is Jill Scott. So, if that gives anybody a sense of where my head’s at, how I grew up. I think that’s honestly why R&B connects with me so well. I think it’s connected to a lot of people in the world now.
For a while, it was not that it was shunned in any way, but it just didn’t get as much play. Now that just in the forefront of our cultures, women and different races and different things like that, I think it’s allowing R&B to come back to the surface like it did in the ’90s. I’m just glad to be a part of that new push. I’m really just trying to give people over some real music. Because there’s a lot of everything nowadays, and it’s very saturated. I have a lot of faith in myself and a couple of other up and coming R&B artists to really bring it back.
Along with American Soul, you’re on Mindy Kaling’s upcoming Netflix series. What led you in front of a camera?
Acting’s always been something that’s always been there. I can’t say that I watered my acting flower every day like I do my music, but it’s definitely something that I know that I have a talent in. I did it when I was younger. I had a couple of short films and commercials and things like that. But acting is one of the things I really learned is you get better with the experience, really with anything. But in acting, there are so many different scripts that you’re sent, and there are different roles and sad and happy. You really got to just grow and be an adult and be able to connect to certain things.
I think that’s why I flourished in acting in the last year, get American Soul, and then to get this Mindy Kaling thing and also just the roles and auditions that are being sent my way now, pretty substantial.
I’m excited to see where acting takes me. Honestly, I think this year is the first year that I can say I’ve built a rapport in the acting industry and starting to get to know certain casting directors and things like that. I think that’s a testament to the hard work beyond anything. Just as you guys know, those relationships in the buildings with the people are more important than even the jobs themselves. I have high hopes for myself in that.
A new year — and a new decade — is around the corner. What’s one thing you’re going to differently in 2020 than what you did this year?
That’s a good question. Well, I can say it’ll be more than one thing. I always try to improve myself just as a person each year. II never really ask for permission too much, but I feel like next year, I’m just going to be a little bit more bold with how I move and what I say and what I do. Because I really do believe in what I have. This EP has shown that to me, and my goal is to have a full album next year and really just tell the people what they need.
That’s not me being cocky or nothing like that, but I’m tired of stuff that’s not feeding the people. Blow up. That’s why so many just feel so unfulfilled. I’m not self-driven. I’ve been in the industry since I was 10. I’ve never had no goal, or my parents aren’t living through me, or this and that, it’s just like… I just love with my craft, I love God. And based on that, I think I’m going to be straight, really. I’m just going to really not ask for permission. Even if it’s got to be me by myself doing it, I’m going to do it. That’s really the biggest change, probably.
Dana Vaughns’ Familiar Strangers is out now.