Zoom, October 2020
Yami 'Rowdy' Löfvenberg is a movement director, director, choreographer and assistant director working across theatre and dance. Some of her credits include: Movement Director Breakin’ Convention (Sadler’s Wells), Talawa TYPT 2017 (Hackney Showrooms), Boat (BAC) and Rare Earth Mettle (Royal Court). Director Kind of Woman (Camden People’s Theatre) and Afroabelhas (Roundhouse/British Council Brazil/Tempo Festival, Brazil). Assistant Director/Choreographer includes Hive City Legacy 2018 & 2019 (Roundhouse/Quiet Riot). She is a British Council and Arts Council England funding recipient, One Dance UK DAD Trailblazer Fellow, Marion North Recipient and Talawa Make Artist. She was on the creative choreographic team for the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony and is a member of the Australian collective Hot Brown Honey.
IA: First question. Can you introduce yourself and explain what it is that you do?
YL: My name is Yami, A.K.A. ‘Rowdy’ Löfvenberg. That’s my name, but people don’t really pronounce it properly. [laughs] I am a creative movement director, Hip Hop theatre maker, performer, lecturer, mentor, and overall trailblazer.
IA: Can you talk first about the idea of crews and companies as an alternate kinship, and a family that you choose. You’ve created and been part of many crews, and I want you to look back a little at Chutzpah, Flowzaic and Funkamental.
YL: OK, OK, so let’s take it real back. I grew up in Sweden, and grew up in an era when there wasn’t many women on the scene… they weren’t highlighted as much as they are today; it was still hard to find that respect, hard to find that place within this male-dominated world. I remember I was very young, I was very loud, very rowdy at an early stage and I just wanted to…I wanted to compete, I wanted to battle, I wanted to perform, but I felt it was such a stifling scene. I started dancing with Damon Frost - also known as Mr Rubberband Man - who is originally from California…he still dances today, still an amazing dancer and my first teacher. In the beginning I saw a lot men around me and I remember going…I have loads of female friends who were dancing, that’s really good. And I remember wanting to enter competitions and crew competitions, but obviously I was just by myself. I didn’t want to join a boy crew, and I thought to myself ‘I have all of these women next to me, what if we create a crew together and enter competitions?’ At that time, there was no female crews, like I’ve had never seen a female crew, especially not in Sweden. I thought, ‘I mean, it’s literally just me and my friends, and we are together as a crew,’ so I didn’t think it was a big deal, like I didn’t think I was making anything revolutionary. I asked them, I said ‘Hey, I’m making a crew, do you want to be in it?’ First they was like, ‘Ooh, what all girls?,’ and I was like ‘Yeah, like why not?’ And they were like ‘Oh, OK. I mean, we’re just gonna train together,’ and they were like ‘Yeah, cool.’ So I created this group and called it ‘Chutzpah Crew’. Chutzpah is…I think it’s Hebrew, and it basically means you are really confident, to the point where, it’s almost rude…which kinda suited me, cause that’s how I was at the time. It was two B-Girls, two poppers and then it was me that did all the styles. We were all different, had different ethnicities and at the time I guess that was super diverse. We entered a competition against a crew called “Bounce”, and in Sweden they were the most known crew, and the most revered. Everyone loved them, everyone wanted to be in Bounce and we entered this competition and we actually beat them. It was like…no one’s ever seen us, no one’s ever heard of us, and no one had ever beaten Bounce but we beat them fair and square and all of sudden we got noticed. We performed at carnivals and small events and started to get really, really known, because we were the only female crew, because we beat Bounce…and we was cool with everyone. It was really, really nice. Then, I think I just had enough of the male dominated scene and limited opportunities in Sweden. There wasn’t many women that was entering competitions and I did feel a resistance because we wasn’t a mixed crew. I felt like, well at the time, I wasn’t gonna get anywhere unless I aspired to join a more known crew like Bounce and as much as I loved my crew, as much as we were doing well, I wanted more and I think that’s why I decided to move country, to really pursue my career as a dancer…and I wanted to dance behind Missy Elliott. [laughs] So I took the leap of moving to England in 2002, and left the crew behind. It was a big decision because we were doing really well and I think that we would have done even better if I’d stayed and we probably would have made a bigger mark on history. I mean people still remember Chutzpah today and some of the girls are still dance, and I know for a fact that, after us came other female crews, but we were definitely the first. So, then I came to England and after a few years being here and building my career, doing a bit of breaking, people called me a B-Girl but I never called myself a B-Girl because I loved locking, popping and Hip Hop because at that time I was more an all-round dancer. I used to go to clubs, I was in breaking circles, I knew a lot of B-Boys from America being in the scene in Sweden so I kinda naturally got drawn to that circle in the UK and got to know some of the old school B-Boy crews. Within that scene I met Sunanda Biswas…she was a breaker, and she knew everyone. Sunanda is cool with everyone. She taught a lot of people…and I got drawn to her fierceness and her energy and we started hanging out. She really helped me when I first came to England. She gave me loads of her dance classes to cover, and in that way I could start working as a dancer and be in the scene in the UK. A few years down the line, we started working a lot together on different female empowerment projects like BSupreme ‘Dare 2 Dance’, and because we worked so well together she was like ‘You know, we should do a crew.’ And I was like ‘Yeah, totally, we should do a crew.’ Once again, at that time, there wasn’t a known female crew in the UK, absolutely not. There was that one time female crew that joined for one off competition, but it wasn’t an actual crew crew. And once again there wasn’t any role models for us so we thought ‘We should bring girls together, show that we can work together, and show that we can battle as hard as the boys.’ And because I’d already done a female crew, I knew that this was possible. It wasn’t an alien thing to me. We started a training session for girls, saying ‘We can bring them here, train together and it won’t be a thing, we’ll just train.’ And loads of girls would come and we would just train together and have a lot of fun. Then there was an opportunity…Jonzi asked us if we wanted to perform at Breakin’ Convention. He just said, ‘Do you guys wanna perform?’ Both me and Sunanda, are into making theatre and making shows, so we thought we have all of these girls here…yeah, it totally makes sense to make a show. Then it was like who, how and what are we was gonna call ourselves? All of that stuff. I came up with the name ‘Flowzaic’ because it’s saying that together we flow but we also are like a mosaic because we are all from different backgrounds, you know, diversity…and once again it was something that we knew was lacking but didn’t think about it at the time as something revolutionary. We just thought ‘Women, put us together, make it happen.’ Sunanda had a lot of contacts, one of those contacts was Kevin, DJ Renegade, and at the time he was DJ for UK B-Boy Championships and through him we got an invitation to perform at the UK B-Boy Championships.’ With the show we made for Breakin’ Convention we thought ‘OK, well you know what, now we have to up our games because there’s gonna be lots of B-Boys there and they’re gonna actually judge our moves, like properly!’ Some of the girls started dropping off and we started to become a smaller group but what was left, was some of the best B-Girls at the time. We had B-Girl Angel that was spinning on her head and there wasn’t a lot of girls spinning on their head at the time. We had Firefly who did a 1990 on her hand - there wasn’t a lot of women doing that at the time and Danielle who did loads of power moves and intricate footwork, so we had really excellent B-Girls in that group. And then me who, wasn’t a B-Girl at all! I did not know what I was doing in that group! [laughs] but I did choreography, kept the group together and made artistic decisions together with Sunanda, because we were co-directors. We performed at the UK B-Boy Championships which was once again one of the first - they had never had a female B-Girl crew performing at the UK B-Boy Championships. We knew Crazy Legs from before so he was really happy to see us together, and we formed a nice bond with all the B-Boys there. We performed, had massive support and the audience was amazing. Every year they used to do a DVD of the UK B-Boy Championships, and that year they decided not to put our showcase on the DVD. We were really, really upset about that because this was the first time they had a B-Girl crew on stage, the first time they had a showcase like this, and they decided to film the audience getting t-shirts instead of putting us on the DVD?? They said ‘Oh, there’s not enough room on the DVD for you.’ but there was enough tape for the audience getting t-shirts? So…very disappointing. I thought it was a big thing in history to document and they decided not to do it. From there, “Battle of the Year Germany” got hold of us and they asked us to perform on the main stage. [laughs] We were just like ‘What?’ We hadn’t actually battled anyone big, and at that time we were doing small battles, throw-downs and whatnot but we were presented as this massive B-Girl crew. But of course, we all said yes and we went off to Germany and were treated as superstars because…once again, there had never been a female crew ever performing at Battle of the Year. Knowing all the B-Boys from around the world was going watch us and we would get on the DVD…we was training like no business! A week before we left, Sunanda did a flip and snapped her Achilles tendon, and basically could not walk. We had made all of these routines and she was like ‘Well, I can’t come.’ And I said to her ‘Well, you are coming. I don’t care if you’ve got to go on crutches, I don’t care - you’re coming. This will be the biggest opportunity of your life.’ I managed to persuade her to come, and she did come, and actually came out on crutches on stage in the end of the show and did hand hops for like…five minutes! At the end of our showcase, we got interviewed on stage and asked where we was from and we shouted ENGLAND! And the crowd screamed.. it was like ten thousand people there! They’d never seen a whole female crew and looking back at it today - this was 2005 - looking at the video, I mean, it’s nothing fantastic. I’m cringing every single time I watch that show. But at the time, the attitude of us girls, the feeling of being united, not seeing a lot of girls doing that beforehand, coming well prepared, clean, having a show, having costumes…being actually good. Me, on the other hand, I have no idea how I got up there! But it was something different for the breaking scene and the history of UK B-Boying, because after that, after us doing that seeing that success with us girls, I think Kevin saw that and thought, ‘Well, if I can make these girls known out there, maybe I can make a male crew successful.’ That’s sort of how Soul Mavericks came about, on the back of us women. Now they are one of the best crews out there because of their own hard work and success. It was interesting because I felt that Flowzaic really put UK back on the map. Obviously, Second to None, and other crews had their own success back in the day. But I felt we kind of revived a new era of breaking in the UK. After that, lots of B-Girls came. It was really remarkable and I felt that it was just…it was something so beautiful to have as a memory, even though I don’t really do breaking now. A few years later when I moved into locking and popping more, into my preferred styles, I was back once again, ‘I don’t see any female crews. I see a lot of male crews, but once again, where’s all the females?’ They were some in other countries, but not in the UK. I was like ‘So, once again I’m here. I have all of these amazing girls around me and there’s performance opportunities. Why don’t I just put these girls together. However, I clearly didn’t learn from the last two (Flowzaic lasting a little bit longer than the other two), but working with women is hard. It’s very hard. [laughs] I decided again to form an all-female locking and popping crew called ‘Funkamental’. Again it was like ‘you guys are good, I can make choreography, I can put us on stages.’ People still was not used to seeing girls doing locking and popping especially not as a group, but we had a good time on the scene for a few years and made another notch on the history belt for myself and women. Now, you’ve got A.I.M Collective which is a female popping crew and several others female crews, but at the time there was none like us. I feel like I’ve been there a lot a the beginning of these historical moments …and I might not be there at the end or might get forgotten, but I feel glad knowing that I’ve been able to start something, start an idea or plant a seed for women in Hip Hop dance. Women together are hard work, but when we work, we work great together, and I think it’s really inspiring for other young women to see that there are these role models and possibilities out there.
IA: Within your networks, who are the three people that you go to, who nourish and support you? It’s about giving props to three people.
YL: Even though I don’t spend loads of time talking to him these days, I definitely have to shout out my first teacher, Damon Frost. Before I met Damon, I had other dance teachers, and I actually had one teacher say ‘Dancing is not for you, I don’t even know why you’re doing it, you might as well quit. You’re just not on beat.’ This teacher literally said this to me in a dance class, in front of other people. And that would have made anyone cry, go and never get on the dance floor again but I think, I’m a born warrior so, you know, that didn’t really deter me. But with Damon he was the first one to see that there was something within me, he really believed – that I have the kind of ‘it’ factor. He said to me, ‘Once you find ‘it’, there will be no stopping you. You will be such an inspiration to other women, and people out there, once you find your ‘it’ however I used to be super shy, I was always at the back of the class, with two left feet. He used to do this thing in the end of the class where he would make us all battle. There was no conversation, everyone had to go into the circle, throw down - whatever they learned from class, or if they had some moves - and then go back out again. Everyone had to do it, no matter if you came into class that day. Because I was super shy, and Damon pushing me into the circle, out of sheer panic, I would put on this face that looked like I wanted to kill you. I’d be right in everyone’s face, girls and boys, and I’d be doing whatever…I had no idea what I was doing, but I was doing something! Then I would go out and completely blank out, not knowing what I’ve done and everyone would be like really impressed!’ Damon called me ‘Queen of Battles’, so that was actually my first street name before Rowdy and actually the reason I got that was because people in the UK used to tell me I was too Rowdy…too much, too loud and it wasn’t nice…so I used to be embarrassed over that, but then I was like…nah I’ve come this far…you know what I AM Rowdy so what! And that’s why I’m called that. But yes Damon was so supportive, and he still dances today. You know, he won Juste Debout, when he was like…I can’t remember, early forties? Winning Juste Debout! He’s just such an incredible person that gives me the inspiration to never stop. After a few years in England I met a guy called Fred Folkes, and he’s like my brother now, we’re really close. We met dancing together with Suga Pop, Popin’ Pete and Wiggles. We were just taking classes with them and he had his own class called ‘the realness’ and he basically asked me to come and teach with him, after we learnt from the pioneers. Once again, it was just someone that was so supportive of me, ‘You can keep going, you know, you got so much knowledge’, It wasn’t a support of forcing me to compete, cause I think a lot of men, when they support you they want you to compete, they want to put you out there as some sort of trophy. With him and Damon it was more like ‘You are your own person, you shine by yourself, you push yourself and take what you deserve’ It was a good, supportive environment. The weird thing is that they both look the same. [laughs] Tall, black guys with glasses and no hair. [laughs] And both do boogaloo and locking, which is hilarious. Literally I found another version of my first teacher in Fred. I still work with Fred today and teach with him, and he’s a person that for me, feels that he can always teach me something, and he can always help push me in whatever I do. I think when you come to a certain place with your dance, it’s hard to get that inspiration from people, because you get stagnant…he’s a really inspirational guy. [Pause] I have to think about my third person..
IA: I’d like you to talk a bit about your Hip Hop theatre work. From the outside, a lot of them look like autobiographical works. Stupid and Other…could you talk about how you are putting yourself in those works and what that’s like?
YL: Great. Such a good question! You’ve done your research. [laughs] I started making…once again, we have to go back. I stopped competing because I felt the scene was very corrupt. Finding out the scene was corrupt and not fair I left. I decided, ‘OK well that’s it, I’m not competing any more but I’ll do a little bit of performance.’ I felt really, sick and tired of the dance scene and I was on my way out ready to hang up my dancing shoes. Then someone said to me, ‘You’re not done. You’re definitely not done. You’ve got so many stories to tell.’ I was asked ‘Is there anything that you would want to do that will still make you dance, and express yourself?’ At the time I hadn’t spoken onstage before, I hadn’t done anything onstage like theatre. I mean, I’d done theatre but not on my own in my own way. So, I was thinking ‘Oh well, I have things about me that I would love people to know,’ because I think a lot of people didn’t know me, they knew the performer, they knew the Rowdy that would be fierce in a battle, but I felt people didn’t know the story of me. I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll write something about myself, that I would like people to know about.’ That’s how Other came about, talking about being mixed raced – cause that was something that has followed me through my whole life. How I look, because I look half this, I look half that, I speak like this. So I started writing, and then the opportunity of doing Open Art Surgery for Breakin’ Convention came about, and I said ‘Well, I’ve written this thing and maybe I wanna try perform this new way.’ We had one week to make it and I made the piece and people’s feedback was, ‘this is really good.’ And me, having never done anything like that was really shocked because I was talking about something that was personal to me, but that I thought was quite funny, because I made it in a funny storytelling way. They said ‘You might have the abilities to make this show go further, and to continue this type of work.’ And it really sparked this new excitement in my dance career that I hadn’t had for many years, basically still being able to dance, still being able to perform, but also say the things I want to say. Because I had always done dance mixed with theatre before from as early as 2003 without thinking too deeply into it…and I was always theatrical so, for me, it just made complete sense. That was 2013, so for the next couple of years, all I did was just immerse myself in how to make theatre, how to make better work, what does this type theatre look like? Because Hip Hop theatre was relatively…not new, but it was still trying to find its feet, surging and brewing. And still now, people are trying find ways of making their own version of Hip Hop theatre…and defining what it is for them, what it is that they want to say. I asked, what work should I make? and was told ‘Well, what do you know about the most?’ [laughs] I answered “I know about myself the most.” So, for me, making autobiographical work makes sense, and knowing that I have a long story to tell, travelling from another country via another country etc. I also like making work about something that people can relate to, something they can recognise and reflects in their own stories, and I like educating so that sometimes they can think ‘OK, I didn’t know that.’ I like making work…that is inspiring, educational and expressive. The work I make, sometimes it’s quite dark, sometimes it’s quite sad, but I try to make it light, I try to put humour in there because if you can laugh about something that’s tragic, then you can really, truly embrace it…and heal from it. Currently I’m making a new autobiographical piece, about being adopted and meeting my biological mother for the first time. It’s a very sensitive topic and it’s going be hard to talk about it but, once again, I think a lot of people can relate. A lot of people can embrace it and share my experience…Hip Hop is always put into a box of what it is and what it should be and what we should be talking about. I actually believe Hip Hop, because it’s so diverse with people from all different backgrounds going through all of these different things life, Hip Hop is just on top like a through-line like a mindset and the music, clothes, dance is the expression, but underneath that, there’s still real problems, there’s still real-life scenarios that needs to be hear in raw format, and I feel sometimes in Hip Hop dance we don’t go beyond that surface, we just stay on the top and show the glamourous side. I think we need to go beyond that surface and relate to those real-life situations and bring them into Hip Hop ethos and Hip Hop culture. This way we can really own our own storytelling and be heard in our own way and not told through a stereotypical lens. I like to express deeper broader subjects that can relate to everyone…no matter if you’re from a Hip Hop background or not.
IA: Can you talk about craft and construction within Hip Hop theatre…the new work for example, how are you crafting and constructing it? Are you writing first? Are you testing things on the body?
YL: I’ve never worked the way I’ve worked now…I’m trying something new. I’m trying to push myself because I think as an artist you have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations to get better at something. I work as a movement director and I’ve realised that it’s so much about the small details and backstory which, as a choreographer, you don’t really look into as much. What a choreographer does and what a movement director does are completely different. Now as a movement director, I’ve started to go ‘OK, well that’s a feeling, how does that feeling sit in the body and how does that feeling move…move an arm?’ Whereas, before as a choreographer, I used to go ‘5, 6, 7, 8, put some sad music on and off we go…a show!’ [laughs] Whereas now, I have a several different way of seeing things. This is also the first time I have a longer time to make a show, normally it’s like ‘You’ve got two weeks to make a show’ and in our industry they expect you to make a whole Hollywood production with no resources and money. So time is super important and I’ve actually got a year to make this show and I deffo need a year! Before, I’ve always gone…I like a song, this is the theme, I put a little bit of spoken word over and bob’s your uncle but this time, I’m writing first. I’m writing a lot of scenarios, a lot of thoughts, a lot of…not so much spoken word, just text. Then I will pull out subjects or topics that I find important, and that can relate to an audience as well as the process of making autobiographical work is not to completely about yourself, it’s actually not about you as weird as it sounds. Sometimes you are just a vessel for the message that you’re trying say, so that the audience can understand what you went through, or are going through so that they can understand themselves or people in the world. I write loads of material, look at a lot of imagery, I have a Pinterest board with different schemes and ideas. Then I might make a movement or spoken word piece about one word from all of that material. I’m just putting all of these pieces together like a puzzle, and then eventually when I do get into the studio with a director, we will string them together to make a cohesive story. Then make the movement, then the soundscape – which I’ve never done before – so this will be like big, big process of a show. I’m also thinking about where we are today in 2020 and looking at different alternatives if I cannot perform it live, how am I going get this story out? So, I’m thinking about doing a video documentary alongside, so that people can watch this documentary in case I can’t show the live version.
IA. Your role as movement director/creative director; you’ve got an interesting set of experiences from ‘Company Three’ to ‘Talawa’ to independent artists. Can you talk about what you do in those places? How do you exercise those skills?
YL: I’m a massive advocate for equity and intersectional feminism, and Hip Hop culture. Those are my main values and mission that runs through all my work. Everything I do and whoever I work with, I always try to intersect these values and mission. The problem is our industry is not very diverse. Becoming a movement director was very difficult because I realised quite quickly that the norm for movement directors was to come from a traditional theatrical pathway. They are mostly White and mostly male, and it was really hard being in those spaces as a female, a Black female with a Hip Hop background, not trained in any school and not speaking the same language. So, my mission a few years ago was to change that. I didn’t like it, and I think it’s a through-line for my life and my work, if I see something I don’t like, I have to change it. I said to myself ‘Why is it that everyone has to come from the same place? Surely then we are creating the same thing?’ I didn’t see Hip Hop people in the room, I didn’t have five Hip Hop people and five contemporary people in the room. I wanted to change it and I started to work really hard on infiltrating these spaces, these theatres and being loud, seen and heard…and I realised, as soon as I was working with someone, I didn’t just tell them how to move, I told them how to act and how to tell the story. That’s when I realised, actually I’m not just a movement person, I’m actually directing. It was something that was natural to me, it’s always been natural to me to tell people what to do. [laughs] That’s when I started calling myself a ‘creative movement director’ because I also create with the person I work with. I’m very keen to create a safe space for anyone I work with. Because I work with a lot of cross disciplinary artists…people that worked in circus, people that worked in burlesque, striptease, live music…they don’t come naturally from a dance perspective, so I have to make them feel comfortable within their art, and comfortable with me who might be from a different mindset. When I work with people I ask them a lot of questions – ‘Why? Why? Why? and that brings out another perspective of their work, which seems to work really good. I think it comes naturally from my Hip Hop background. We are always in battle mode. We always call out people, ‘OK, you got that? Check what I got.’ It’s always this back and forward, battle, battle, whatever we do, we always try to one up each other. Always tryna look cooler and badder and nicer and fresher. Coming in with that attitude with someone and then collaborating is a natural instinct ‘OK, you got that? OK, cool. This what I got. Let’s bring it together and make it doper.’ I don’t think a lot of people with a contemporary background comes with the same attitude, and therefore I bring a different component and a different sort of energy on stage for that performer, or for myself when I perform. I think if we are allowing more people with different backgrounds to work in the theatre industry, I think we’re gonna have loads of different type of work. 2020 has brought a lot of information to a lot of people, it’s opened their eyes full 2020 vision! With the Black Lives Matter movement, I think we’re going to a better place, where we’re going to have more diversity and we’re going to have people that might not have gone through institutions to be working on Shakespeare, because they (institutions) are going to realise ‘In order for us to have new ideas, I have to employ new types of people.’ Hopefully I will be one of these people until then I will continue to implement how that change can work and show that working with young writers and new writing is the way forward, because it brings new stories to the stage that people can look at, someone like Arinze Kenze’s work Misty and be like ‘Let’s study his work in school, rather than just Shakespeare.’ I’m not saying you can’t do both but let’s have two stories, not just one story. That’s how I bring my Hip Hop ethos into my theatre world and how I collaborate to make change.
IA: ‘Hot Brown Honey’. Let’s talk about that and ‘Hive City Legacy’.
IA: I read somewhere that you Photoshopped your face into the ‘Hot Brown Honey’ crew. Can you talk about that and your work with ‘Hot Brown Honey’?
YL: Yeah. [laughs] Long story short, I got a grant to go to Australia from the British Council. I was going there to see how First Nation and Black artists worked and what they were doing, and my host told me her sister was in a group called Hot Brown Honey (HBH) a collective of Black and Brown artists, indigenous artists, First Nations, Pacific Islanders and Torres Strait Islanders and said, ‘Well, you should go and see my sister’s show, I think you’ll like it.’ I went, ‘OK, yeah, you know, I got time. I’ll go and see the show.’ I saw the show and…you know when you have one of those lightbulb moments? I’d never had it in my life, I’d never had this angel like coming down like ‘Ahhhh!’ Until that day..that is how it felt watching that show. I was struck down by this knowing…’I will be in this show one day. However, I was in Sydney across the world, I’d never met these women and I turned to my manager, ‘I don’t know how, where or when but I will be in this show.’ I knew it because I could see myself in their outfits, I can see myself in the show alongside with them because the show reflected exactly everything I am.’ I got to go backstage to meet the girls and got introduced, we got along really well and I realised they are amazing. They have this really colourful tracksuits in the show and I looked at the tracksuit and said ‘You can order me one in size medium now, because I will be having this tracksuit one day.’ They were all laughing and thought I was very cheeky and they said ‘Yeah, yeah, sure.’ And then I said, ‘Actually, order me a medium in all the costumes because I will wear them all.’ They thought it was funny and laughed and then off we went back to England. A year later, after stalking them on Instagram, liking their pictures and commenting I saw a picture of them in that tracksuit. I basically cut out the logo and copied my face into it I sent it to them and said, ‘Just so you are aware, this will happen.’ They were all cracking up, and where like ‘I can’t believe that you just did that!’ I said ‘Well, just letting you know like, be prepared.’ That year my manager was like, ‘You know, we should go and see them because they’re gonna be in Manchester.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know. I don’t really wanna go all the way there.’ She was like, ‘No, let’s go Manchester and say hi.’ So we went and saw the show, texted them saying ‘I’m outside,’ like a crazy stalker. [laughs] And they said ‘Come inside and say hi.’ So my manager and the bosses (Lisa and Busty) went and had a secret conversation and after they said ‘Can we speak? I said ‘Oh, yeah, let’s have a meeting.’ They said ‘We were just wondering…we’re coming back in July and we’re doing a project and we’re looking for an artist to work with here in the UK that knows the UK, knows how things work. And we were just wondering if you going be available at all?’ I shouted ‘I’m available!’ [laughs] My manager was like, ‘Woah stop, stop.’ I was like, ‘No, no, I’m available! Whatever it is, I’m available!’ anyway long story short, I started working with them on the project called ‘Hive City Legacy’ and during the rehearsal for that, we found out that one of the ladies in HBH had broken their leg, and couldn’t do their upcoming tour. So Lisa from HBH came into the room one day and said ‘Hey, you know that tracksuit that you like?’ I said ‘Yeah.’ And she said ‘Yeah, and you know the other costumes?’ I said ‘Yeah, what about them?’ She were like, ‘would you like to have the tracksuit and also go straight into costume?’ I was shocked and said, ‘What do you mean?!’ She was like ‘Well, we need someone to cover in our show, and we was just wondering if you want to be in it.’ [laughs] I literally fell of the chair, I said ‘What?!’ She were like ‘Yeah, we’re gonna give you THE tracksuit and you will be in the show for the tour as well.’ I said ‘A tour? Where?’ And they were like ‘Well, we’re doing London, Edinburgh…and, we’re doing a Sweden tour.’ [pause] I was like ‘Are you freaking kidding me?! Not only are you doing a tour in London, where I live, but you’re doing a tour in Sweden, where I’m from?!.’ In the tracksuit, in the show that I love! I couldn’t believe it and they said ‘Yeah, you will officially be a Hot Brown Honey member.’ For me it was full circle, to perform in Sweden to my family and friends, after I’ve left Sweden to become a successful dancer, to go home and perform again was just an incredible moment. To seeing HBH on stage and then to be in the show, it really means a lot to me. These women are such an inspiration - in Australia they don’t get to perform on a regular, they are not represented by media and there is very little work there for them and it makes me think again it’s a representation and a through-line of my own life and experience, ‘You know what, if no one wants us, we’re going make it happen ourselves.’ They created HBH to be able be heard, seen and perform. To speak about injustices, inequality, patriarchal systems and racism as this is very controversial in Australia, but through their persistence they have grown massively successful around the world, a massive following, and made a whole culture, we have slogans, cultural awareness merch you know, all of that stuff… Seeing something and manifesting it, it can happen, it really, really can happen. It hasn’t happened since but… [laughs] it happened to me once in my life.‘ Then we created ‘Hive City Legacy’ (HCL) which is like a little sister version of HBH. With ‘Hive’, we wanted the same energy, but we wanted a UK version of it. HCL is about nine femmes of colour, and speaks about how it is to be a femme of colour in the UK. We had a massive call out that didn’t have any specifics except if you have a skill, if you’re Black and if you’re femme, you’re welcome! We had 250 women apply and we had to take it down to nine! They came in and had no idea what they were auditioning for, they had to do a lip sync, show their skills for one minute and do a dance routine. We had cross form artists, rappers, beatboxers, burlesque, circus, live music, we picked the last nine and they were all completely different. Being in that process, in a theatre setting with those women …I guess, going back to that question of who inspires me –Busty Beatz and Lisa, knowing their stories, knowing what they’ve gone through, to basically doing community halls to world stages, world tours, all of their own backs - they’re not funded. They do everything on their own. They sewed some of the costumes and make their own props. For me they are the top, top women that I am inspired by. Sitting in the studio with them, working with them, and everyone that worked on the team being a femme of colour - the lighting designer, the prop maker, the costume maker, the tech woman…for me a first and life changing. There had never been a whole team of POC working on a team, on a production, Roundhouse had never done a production like that, they had never toured with a production like that. It was completely new, and I realised, sitting in rehearsal ‘I’m the happiest I’ve ever been because these are all people I like to work with, in the setting that I like to work with.’ That for me, was a ground-breaking moment in my career, because I realised this can be the standard, this is how it should feel when you love your job. After a successful run for two weeks at the Round house we did a tour the following year, a national tour and the HCL still exist today. After HCL Roundhouse asked if I wanted to be part of an international exchange between artist in Brazil, and I went as the Director for the project and brought with me two artists from HCL. We worked with 8 Brazilian Black female artists for 11 days creating a similar show like HCL. These women came from all over Brazil with different skills, one heavy metal guitarist, one a voguer and circus artist and they were such a pleasure working with and we really formed a bond. And even though half could not speak English and I do not speak Portuguese I really connected with them through art we made beautiful art together and had a really successful project. Taking the inspiration of us from the UK and the sisters in AUS they named themselves ‘AfroAbelhas.’ In Portuguese it means Afro Bees, and they now are of course part of our hive family. These women really inspired me, seeing their backgrounds and hearing their life stories, being worlds apart but finding that connection was another life changing moment for me. I needed that inspirational person to guide me in the beginning, and then this helped me inspire the next generation, who inspires the next. That’s the main goal, make connections, art, inspire women and change the world.
IA: What do you want to dismantle?
YL: Oooh. A lot of things. [laughs]
IA: In Hip Hop first, and then wider intersections out from there.
YL: OK. Dismantle…OK. In Hip Hop, I would like to dismantle…[pause] bullying culture. I think it’s a huge problem. Bullying and sexual misconduct is something that I have worked with a lot with lately. It’s something that in Hip Hop culture we don’t talk a lot about, partly because it’s a patriarchal system and there is a lack of education and interest. We don’t really highlight it and I find it so sad, that in 2020 we still find it hard to talk about it, we still find it hard to unite, and to improve this environment because it’s essentially…this environment is not just for us, but it’s for the next generation to thrive and to create art in, and it’s not safe for them. Considering how social media is so damaging that now people can upload their videos, dance videos, they can see battles online, and can be so horrible to each other is troubling. Back in the day…in a battle, if someone is bad, we just come up to your face and be like ‘Er, you’re wack!’ And then you battle each other and you laugh it off, go home and then you’re friends another day. But now it becomes so insidious because now you can say something really bad online and you might not even be a battler/dancer, and you’re being horrible for no reason. As a community we must come together to improve that mindset and stop bullying and being nasty for no reason. Looking at my own story, where I come from…if I didn’t have dance, I don’t know if I’d even be alive today. If I didn’t have Damon to believe in me in that first time, and these people to push me along the way, I don’t think I would be here. Do you know what I mean? I think that is so damaging. I think we need to improve so much…we need to be better and more outspoken role models. We need to see better representation in the scene and need to see male role models be better in how they speak to women, how they talk about women, how they act around women. Which leads me to sexual misconduct. It’s a huge problem. Once again, there’s people out there that are working for the betterment of this like ASWH, but we need to work together, it can’t just be women saving women. I want dismantle that macho culture because it has no place any more and it’s over for you. [laughs] Done with! I want to dismantle the stigma around Hip Hop artists, and Hip Hop culture and this belief that still exists today that we cannot speak properly and we cannot act properly and when we come into a building and the whole building is gonna be damaged and we’re gonna bring loads of bad people with us…it’s so boring to hear these conversations again and again and again. I sit in a lot of meetings, I always have to come in and have these conversations like ‘No, we’re not stupid, you are used to your own language, but you’re not used to our language, and you’re not learning our language, so therefore we can’t meet.’ I find that a lot of Hip Hop artists are not getting the credit and not getting the elevation of success because of this stigma, because of how we dress, because some of us look younger than we actually are. It needs to end, like really…it’s an art form like contemporary, like ballet, all of that stuff, it’s an art form that needs to be respected. There’s parts of the culture that obviously I don’t agree with, but at the same time it’s not the culture that I’m in, not the culture I’m promoting. Equity and making space for everyone that’s what I stand for. Often it’s like ‘We have one Hip Hop artist, and we can only have one Hip Hop artist in our theatre space or commission plan…no more…oh god forbid, we can’t promote more than one.’ It’s like…stop. How many times do you see contemporary shows, ten of them in one theatre? They don’t say ‘Oh, we can only have one contemporary company/show.’ We need to stop being pitted against each other, you know. I don’t make the same work as Botis, Botis doesn’t make the same work as Ivan, Ivan doesn’t make the same work as Kenrick. We are completely different, we talk about completely different things and we make it in different ways. That doesn’t mean we should be in the same pool and we should be fighting for the same amount of grants, money, space and platforms. We should all be allowed to show our things, and not compare us like ‘Oh, Rowdy doesn’t make as sophisticated art as Botis she is clearly not ready for the big stages.’ I make a different type of art, for a different type of audience and that should be celebrated equally…it just needs to stop. Those are the things that I am working on at the moment and hoping to be heard.
IA: You mentioned corruption in the battle scene. Can you talk a bit more about that? What triggered that step away from that scene into your world?
YL: I was at the height of my battling career back in 2010, entering UK B-Boy Championships at that time, they had never had a British duo ever gone through to the battling stage of UK B-Boy Championships locking category. I knew that me and my dance partner were good and were solid, we had a good chance to get through, there was no question of it. And we didn’t go through, but all the international guests went through even though some of them went over the time, didn’t have a performance showcase, all the rules that was stated and we followed and we was shocked. A lot of people came to us and said, ‘I was shocked the fact that you two didn’t go through.’ At that time, I knew a lot of the more known dancers as I don’t see them as “famous” dancers, I see them as people I’ve known throughout a long time, so I knew the judges like Storm, LockAdelic and Gemini. I knew them all and they knew me, so I could talk to them. I literally asked them ‘Why didn’t we go through?’ One of them squirmed and didn’t want answer. Another one was like, ‘Hmm, I don’t remember you,’ even though I had bright red hair, and I was the only Black girl and it was only eight pairs and we knew each other!. And another said we didn’t battle, even though it was supposed to be a showcase round. I started to understand something wasn’t right like ‘Hold on.’ And then, on another occasion I spoke to Wiggles, and he told me that yes it is fixed a lot of the times. ‘They want to pay me sometimes… pay me to vote certain people through, because they paid a lot of money for them to travel across the world, and so they have to go through to the next stage’. I obviously refuse, but we get paid or asked to do these things, and it happens every single time I’m in an event.’ And then I spoke to Popin’ Pete, and he said ‘Yeah, they always ask me to vote a certain way.’ Later I won the UK Hip Hop Championships locking category and flew over to Las Vegas to compete. I worked hard and got to the last twelve out of sixty three people from around the world, but a week before I was hanging out with Suga Pop and he were kinda saying, “FireLock ( another locker) is probably gonna win”. I said, ‘How are you gonna tell me that, when I’m about to enter a competition next week?’ He was like ‘Oh, well you know, this is just how it is.’ I realised I’ve just flown all the way there, spent about a thousand pounds just for him to tell me that. Toni Basil, Flo Master and Don Campbellock was judging and I was very honoured to be able to dance in front of my them, but knowing that, being shocked and angered what I just found out from a lot of famous dancers and judges…that this is the way it happens my hopes wasn’t too high. All of a sudden when I got to the last twelve, they just decided to cut the competition, and was like ‘we’re just gonna battle for the semis and finals.’ And 8 people was just like ‘What? We came here to battle, and now you just cut the whole competition?’ It was the only competition on the day they cut! Furious I went up to Flo Master and I asked ‘Why?’ And he was like, ‘You know, Toni and Don, they cut it…they love FireLock and want him to win.’ That was it for me, this and the UK Championships, I just knew…I just knew the scene was corrupt. I knew that no matter what we would of done, we wasn’t gonna get through. And it saddens me, because I’ve been in battles and I’ve judged hundreds of battles and I always judge fairly with no bias. I don’t care if you’re my crew member, I will vote against you if you’re rubbish that day, I don’t care. Because judging, for me, is the ultimate thing to do as a dancer. You know, you’ve gotten to a level where you can judge other people. You should be able to tell them why you judged the way you did and what techniques you saw. If you can’t do that as a judge, you don’t deserve to be a judge. If you’re corrupt as a judge, you don’t deserve to be a judge. If you won a competition last week and you are fifteen, you shouldn’t be judging other people. It’s as simple as that. In karate, if you win one battle and get a belt, you don’t judge the next week, you not a master, it’s not gonna happen like that. Back in the day you had to earn your way up to being a judge, and now anyone can be a judge of other people and crush people’s dreams. I think it’s horrible. Knowing that that was the way, and seeing that it was going keep going like this, being all about the money and who is friends with so-and-so to be able to win…for me, it was no longer a battle of skill, a battle of who trained hardest, who heard the music the best. At that time I thought, ‘Until there’s a level playing field, I’m not entering no competitions any more. It’s not fair, it’s not fun.’ People spend time and money to enter things, and now when you have to pay to enter things, it is not fair to have those kinds of situations when people are corrupt and not judging fairly. It’s breathing a really nasty, nasty vibe around battles. Cause people come to battles and go ‘I just know who’s going win anyway, so pfft.’ You know what I mean? What’s the point of it all? The love, the excitement of battles is to not know who is going win that it can be anyone’s moment…that’s when I clocked out. [laughs]
IA: Thank you. Talking about locking and funk styles, can you talk about how they manifest in your body? How would you describe what does locking do to your body?
YL: I’m a lover of ‘Soul Train’, I honestly feel that there was so much in ‘Soul Train’ that people miss. I love the social dances. I love the feeling of raw funk. I was never acrobatic and I don’t know how to do backflips, but I was always very smooth and supple with the way I move, and I think that’s why I naturally took to the funkiness of locking…not the fast paced locking, not the fast, rigid style of locking, but more the sort of ‘Soul Train’ funk. Whenever I teach locking, I’m honest to my students, you can be acrobatic, you can be fast, but you can also be really slow and smooth with it you must find what suits your body and not fight against it. I wasn’t born in the 70s and I was not in the clubs, so I could not tell you the true essence…but from what the pioneers have told me is that you can’t physically be making acrobatic moves and being fast paced locking in a club for six hours! It’s not physically possible…you’ll be dead! So, you have to be slow as well. You have to dance, you have to do the social dances, you have to sit down and relax and be cool with it. That aspect has to be within your locking as well, it’s all part of it. You have to keep that funk and flow in your body, otherwise you’re not really embodying the full dance. You can embody part of it, but not the full part. That is something that I love and take into my way of moving that soulful, down-to-earth kind of feeling. With popping once again, I’m not the hardest hitter, but I love the boogaloo style, the waving and the funk that Boogaloo Sam embodies, you know, the smooth, funky style, because it’s something that goes with the music, rather than fighting against it. It flows within the music. That’s always been how I move naturally.
IA: I’ve got a few more questions, but is there anything that you’ve not talked about that you want on record? Is there something that you want to say?
YL: I think it’s important to note that throughout Hip Hop history in the UK, there’s been a lot of prominent women and I feel like sometimes they’re not really getting the same recognition and love as men. I think the more we are aware that there are inspirational women out there, that are still working, trying improve and get places and that more help is needed the more we can get equity in our community…we need to highlight and understand that. In a way this is great, I feel like a woman has to come to a certain age and a certain place for her to be recognised by others which shows a long respected practice but if we could show support for women more often, I think it will be a more continuous inspiration for others rather than in the end of someone career. I just wanna shout out all the massive amount of women that I know have worked so long on the scene…gosh, the list is long! Just loads of amazing women out there and I wish there was a little bit more highlights on all of us…not just for one moment but forever.
IA: Part of the reason why I set this up is because I don’t think Hip Hop archives and documents itself very well. Could you talk about your relationship to your archive and your body of work? How do you document? How do you ensure that the Rowdy legacy continues?
YL: Hopefully, there’s a few people that I’ve inspired along the way. A long time ago I used to teach a group with Sunanda that called themselves Stylelinquents. This was all young girls, and some of them went into dancing professionally, some of them went into other artistic things, I’m still in touch with some of them today and some of them said to me that ‘If you didn’t come into my life, I wouldn’t be who I am today.’ I think that with all my students I’ve taught through my 21 year career, the people I’ve met around the world, HCL, AfroAbelhas in Brazil and all the artist I work with. I’m hoping they remember that I taught them, remember that I didn’t just teach them choreography, I taught them life lessons because of where I came from, what I went through, how I got inspired to keep going even at the worst of times. I don’t have a student that’s winning competitions or anything like that, but I have students that know these lessons, values and strives to keep inspiring others…and I guess that will be my legacy. I hope that my work will one day be recognised…from first female groups to standing up for the underdog, being consistent with my work and always being here. Because it is hard. A lot of us stopped dancing, a lot of us stop making, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not important it just means that they’re still working really hard on other stuff. That will be my legacy, that I’ve always been here and I’ll always will be here in some sort of shape or form.
IA: What does success and happiness look like for you?
YL: Hmm. I think if you feel happy that you are doing something that inspires you, that’s success. If you’re a dancer and you can express yourself, if you are in a group and you have ideas for routines that you’re going make together, if you’re a choreographer and you have something to say with your moves, if you are an artist and you can safely make art and you can confidently say ‘You know what, I’m making this, this makes me happy,’ then that’s success. I don’t believe that success is how many things you win, or how many things you have or do, if you can look back and go, ‘You know what, I’m proud of that.’ Battle of the Year…I’m fricking proud of it. I hate it, cause it’s cringe worthy watching it, but I’m super proud that it’s on the DVD forever, I did that in front of thousands of people and that happy memory will last forever. It took a long time for me to realise what success is, but if you wake up and realise that you’re doing something that makes you happy then you’re successful.
IA: Can you talk about self-care and mental health in Hip Hop? It’s one of the things that isn’t really spoken about. What are your practices? How are you good to yourself?
YL: Find a tribe. You need to find a tribe of people that is your people. Your tribe could be one person, or five people. Find a tribe that you can contact when you feel down or that you can rely on to build you up, to inspire you and keep you going. To send you inspiring messages, cat videos and stuff like that. When you find that tribe, don’t lose them, keep engaging with them because these are the people that’s push you in the darkest times, and lift you up. If you don’t know who your tribe is or where to find them, keep reaching out to people and you’ll find it, you’ll find people that you can trust. I think that’s the ultimate self-care. All the other stuff like having a bath etc., you can of course do, but if you have people that on a dark day you can say ‘I feel shit today,’ and they send you loads of messages back going ‘You’re amazing!’ and who you can speak the truth with…that’s the ultimate self-care.
IA: What is your strongest memory of dance?
YL: Strongest memory of dance…it’s my first ever international battle. It was at IBE Rotterdam 2004…and I’m on the DVD somewhere! I was shitting myself. I’d never battled internationally before, and it was a big room filled with people. It was a small circle in the middle and nowhere to hide it was like being back in Damon’s class again! It was mostly guys that had entered…it was the first round and I had to pick a track from the hat, and I was super nervous as some people got classical music and all that stuff, I picked and it was Ludacris ‘Stand Up.’ I was like ‘Waaaah’ I knew this song and went off! Literally the whole room went nuts, the whole crowd shouting in encouragement. There where so many that had entered that I thought I hadn’t gone through as I didn’t hear my name so I was literally with my backpack in the door waiting to go out and I heard my name over and over and they were like where are you ‘You’re going through!’ I was like ‘What?’ I threw down the backpack and I ran back in again. And after that round I put my backpack on again, thinking I’d lost and again they were like ‘Rowdy is through!’ I was stunned like ‘What?’ I just kept going through?! I got to the last three in my first international battle! I made so many new friends and got a little on the dance map. On that day a known photographer called Martha Cooper was there and I am in a picture in her book called ‘We B*Girlz’, it’s a dope book and there is another picture of me somewhere else in that book but yeah it’s me in the middle spread of that book, in that circle surrounded by the crowd, in that moment at the beginning of my professional career. It’s such a cool picture.