REVISITING JOSEPHINE B: AN INTERVIEW WITH DEMI NOIRE
Josephine Baker’s dance technique is mesmerising: almost boneless it’s so supple. She must have been in amazingly good physical shape to make it appear so effortless. Your dance act, Homage to Josephine Baker (see our video section here), looks no less physically demanding. Can you tell us about it and do you find it exhausting to perform?
To pay homage to an inspirational woman such as Josephine Baker was a daunting prospect, and something I put off for a while. Not only because of who she was in terms of the history of dance, show biz, and her relevance in black culture but also the political statement of the piece.
Firstly I needed to bring together all the elements of the act. The right music, the correct moves and, of course, the persona. I enlisted the help of a dear friend and the head of the Bees Knees, Aliya Floyd. Her expertise in Charleston and the popular dance moves of the time were perfect in what was needed to make a true salute to Josephine. Naturally, I studied her range of facial expressions as well, which I feel is her signature – and a whole piece of choreography within itself.
If you take on a piece like the Banana Dance you need to be ready to take on the politics that comes with it.
Then I had to try and understand the statement of piece when she performed it. It sounds odd, I know, to create work that way round; but originally this started out as a homage, and in the cold light of day you realise just how poignant a women of colour dancing in bananas would have been. She first performed this piece, originally named Danse Sauvage, in 1926 at the Folies Bergère Paris in a show called La Revue Negre. This was at a time when Parisians found fascination in all things jazz and all things exotic. I struggled for a while with the rationale of this piece but came to a conclusion. The dance pulled all the stereotypes of how POC (people of colour) were referred to, and deemed as, at the time: exotic, savage, jungle people. By creating a rather sexual dance and adding a clowning, jovial element through facial expressions I like to think this act was poking fun at the white audiences for their fetishisation of POC. It was a tremendous and very intelligent protest, and one that I feel is relevant even today. As a performer, I believe you need have an understanding of the piece’s politics, so that ultimately you perform it confidently, with the necessary knowledge and awareness. I realise that from an audience perspective this dance can be quite uncomfortable to watch – especially if you don’t know the history behind it; surprisingly not everyone knows Josephine Baker. Burlesque should have a statement, no matter how small, and this act certainly does. If you take on a piece like the Banana Dance you need to be ready to take on the politics that comes with it.
Is it exhausting to perform? As a trained dancer I feel just a tired after performing it as any dancer would. The technical accuracy needed to create its authenticity is also tiring. It takes a lot out of you but my love for the piece and for the woman herself make it a fun and fulfilling act to perform.
We really like the story of Chiquita, Josephine’s diamond-collared pet cheetah, which apparently escaped into the orchestra pit from time to time, to the terror and confusion of the wretched musicians, ‘adding another element of excitement’ during her show. She was an eccentric, with a highly original style and an adorable comic eroticism, but why do you think Paris took her into their hearts with such enthusiasm?
I like to think Paris’ love for Josephine Baker was a two-way street: she loved Paris as much as Paris loved her.
I like to think Paris’ love for Josephine Baker was a two-way street: she loved Paris as much as Paris loved her. Paris was where she found freedom and place where she was welcome. She once said in an interview, “Josephine Baker was a girl who left St Louis and came to Europe to find freedom.” For Parisians, the timing was right: her arrival came when the city’s interest in black culture was high – here was this fabulous woman who embodied their ideal, a woman who pushed boundaries and danced like no other. It was said that “every man wanted Josephine and every woman want to be Josephine”. I like to think it was her style and sheer bravery that made her such a star.
You’ll be performing another act called The Fire Goddess, described as ‘An exploration of the body and sensuality without being afraid to burn brightly’. Can you tell us about this?
The Fire Goddess started out as an act that celebrated the female form – namely my own body. My body is my experience and what better place to start when looking into beauty and body ownership. I chose to use fire within this act as a way of illuminating different parts of my body when and if I want the audience to see them, from an elbow to an ankle to my breasts. It’s an invitation to enjoy the female form – but only when this female lets you.
If Josephine Baker’s dancing is an inspiration for you, then so is her activism. Could you tell me how she was involved? Do you also actively campaign against racism and if so, how?
Josephine Baker’s activism for civil rights became a constant in her life for all her life. Her mere existence and popularity was a protest in itself. In terms of her contribution, she is known for efforts such as refusing to perform for segregated audiences in the USA at a time where this would be daring – and potentially damaging to her career. Her bravery resulted in the NACCP naming her it Most Outstanding Woman of the Year in 1951. Not to mention her help with the French Resistance during World War II. Her belief and strength is something any woman could feel inspired by and fall in love with. It took a lot of guts to be Ms Baker.
In terms of my role in activism against racism I would say my form of protest is the mere fact I step on stage, unapologetic for who I am or what I represent. My half black heritage is something I am incredibly proud of: it’s announced as I come on stage by the use of my stage name – Demi Noire. I am very much inspired by my cultural background when creating new acts. However I prefer to think I don’t use it as a crutch so much as a base upon which to build work – so I know that my art comes from a place of truth.
If you watched Miriam Margolyes’s brilliant Miriam’s Big American Adventure, you might have been tempted to think that from a racial equality perspective everything the Trump administration does is regressive. Do you hope the pendulum will swing back and that the next president will be black and female? And possibly queer?
This question is difficult for me to answer; I have not been able to watch Miriam’s Big American Adventure so I can’t comment on it. In terms of regression, I am certainly not a Trump supporter: I feel his presence has only brought out an ugly truth that has always been there. Racial inequality and homophobia aren’t new, and they’re not just limited to the USA. The Trump administration has enabled people who share his views to come to the fore, in turn dismaying those who thought such issues were a thing of the past – which sadly they just ain’t.
In terms of the next president being black, female and possibly identifying as queer? Again this is something I can’t predict. I am from the UK, and though I would welcome a (US) president who is black, female and part of the LGBTQ collective – this would be a sign in the shifting sands – I wouldn’t want to trivialise a position which must be judged on the content of character rather than any genetic make-up.
Tell us a bit about the wonderfully named Cocoa Butter Club.
I have witnessed such amazing raw talent being showcased there alongside legends in the cabaret world. It’s a real melting pot, a show not to be missed.
I have been happily performing for the Cocoa Butter Club since it launched in September 2016. It was founded and is run by the delightful Sadie Sinner; it’s a cabaret collective that centres round POC and is for POC. I recognise it as a safe space where you can be unapologetically you. It has an essence of everything that makes being a POC wonderful – along with its challenges, too. I have witnessed such amazing raw talent being showcased there alongside legends in the cabaret world. It’s a real melting pot, a show not to be missed. To be part of such a movement gives me a sense of ownership of my art and pride in my heritage.
And how about Duckie Family Legacy? Where do you fit into that?
This will be the first time I work for the Duckie Family, curated by Kayza Rose and Campbell X. To say I am excited to work in such a show is an understatement. This particular one is concerned with Roots/ Legacy, a theme that is incredibly important to celebrate and remember, especially in today’s climate. The cast list holds a vast array of talent. It’s sure to be an event, something I’m honoured to be a part of. In terms of my role within the evening, I hope my act will bring some excitement to whoever gets to see it, and gives me the chance to celebrate what makes POC so powerful. And I hope, too, that this won’t be the only time I get to work for such a company
The tradition of queer entertainers of colour stretches all the way back to Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith: what does this aspect of jazz history mean to you professionally and personally?
I can’t say I am a Jazz Age expert, so I won’t pretend to be. However, I am certainly aware of both Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith’s impact on blues, jazz and rock and roll; alongside their bravery and defiant attitude towards sexuality. The mere fact that it was illegal to be gay, lesbian or bisexual back then didn’t stop them, and this courage is something we often see repeated within POC community. Ma Rainey regularly teased her audience and those who opposed her alike, with songs like Prove It On Me alluding to her sexuality (if you think I have committed a crime, then prove it). Often some of the strongest genres within our community came from a period of protests and injustices. Its underground resonance is what makes it attractive, but its message of strength is what makes it important.
Professionally I am grateful that songs such as Prove It On Me, Hear Me Talkin’ To You (Ma Rainey), Reckless Blues and Jail House Blues (Bessie Smith) are still accessible today. It gives me a feel for that time, a groove and inspiration when it comes to producing my own work. I like to use music by black artists when creating new work. This is for many reasons, but predominantly because it was the music that I grew up with. Having a dad who is a strong lover of genres such as Soul, RnB, Funk, Hip Hop and Blues meant I was surrounded by it. This music is home to me and I find it easier to express myself when using music that resonates with me. Being born in the 80s means I was more aware of artists like Soul II Soul, Sade, Bobby Cadwell, and Patrice Rushen, but I’m also very conscious of the of the Jazz era’s relevance and the influence that Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith had on that scene’s music, both at the time and beyond.
It sounds like it’s going to be an exciting night: we certainly hope to be there.
DUCKIE FAMILY LEGACY: RICH MIX
35-47 Bethnal Green Rd, London E1 6LA.
8pm – 3am Saturday 17th February
£4 before 11pm / £8 after
(pay on door only, no advance sales)
Photo credits: Article Featured Image: Purple pants and bra: Lova Photography
In-text Images: Top: Leroy Noel; Middle: shot at Proud Cabaret – photographer unknown; Bottom: shot at Proud Cabaret by Manca K Dienstmann