het Theater Festival

Cherish Menzo: ‘I wanted to find my freedom’

do 10 sep 2020

Scantily dressed, black female models, the so-called video vixens, were omnipresent in hip hop and rap videos of the 90s and early 2000s. They danced suggestively in the background or swarmed around the male performer, leading them to be seen as degraded to sexual objects. Still, they were role models for dancer and choreographer Cherish Menzo. Now, about 20 years later, her dance performance Jezebel challenges the image of women in hip hop.  

Sophie Vondung & Nina Cools

© Bas De Brouwer

You’ve come a long way from idolising the video vixens of the 90s to critically addressing their portrayal as sexual objects now. Can you take us through this process from idolizing to criticizing? 

Cherish Menzo: ‘I watched a lot of MTV during my youth and in these years you really start to form yourself. Who you are, who you want to be and how to identify yourself. For me, the video clips had a big influence, especially in relation to the representation of women of color in mass media and black women in particular. The video vixens were one of the dominant references I had. Gradually, also because a lot of things changed in the hiphop and rap scene, the video vixens seemed to disappear. Now in the process of making Jezebel, I started to wonder: where did they go? In certain images online or on television, I recognized the video vixens, in a Cardi B or a Nicki Minaj. Yet they were no longer the model but the rapper. It was interesting to see them using the words of the rapper and still applying the same style and aesthetics from the video vixens. Only last year this became critical. Questions arose about how much these women were keeping certain negative representations intact. Because it is so accessible in pop culture, how come this is still the dominant representation that we see?’

After going through this process of developing the performance and performing it many times, how has your perspective on the videos from the 90s and 2000s changed?

‘So I jumped into the creation of Jezebel quite critically, wanting to say something about it. My perspective of the video vixens changed a lot, I realized that it is a complex issue. There is a lot of emancipation in the video vixens: these were women that were earning a lot of money with what they did. They were not just props, even though at first they look like that. Besides, the rapper needed the video vixens there. The process of Jezebel really changed the video vixens for me: the representation of the black woman in the mass media became less critical and became something more fluent. Especially the role of the audience became essential, and the responsibility we have as an audience. If I portray myself like that for such a broad audience, it is easy to ask “how come Cherish does this to me” because now the audience will think the same of every black woman. There is still a huge friction about how the black female body is portrayed, and we should keep questioning it, but it is not just one thing. It is about how to reclaim or even redefine it. It is very important for me to allow people to be so that they can find or define themselves in their own way. This is the biggest present I got from this process.’

© Bas De Brouwer

Why did you feel the need to make a performance out of it? 

‘A lot of it has to do with the representation of the black body in mass media and theatre. But also because of my own dualities with my body, the pride of it, and how I “utilize” it. The complexity of my own body that I am confronted with, especially my performative body, shows a big link with the video vixens. Reclaiming certain things in the performative landscape that I work in, actually created a liberation in the sense that I didn’t feel that I had to stick to modern or contemporary dance. The friction between classical dance versus hip hop had to do with what technical dance was for me and the weird measures around it – that are still there. This desire I had to become a modern or contemporary dancer, didn’t seem to fit too much with hip hop. While actually, in my department at dance school, we did have a lot of house, hiphop, pop and lock classes. So there was a great mixture of different things, but the dance field proposed something else. Now due to some development and growth, I do not see those boundaries there anymore. But I still feel that the dance field itself does separate the disciplines from each other. We still have a long way to go, to a place where boundaries become blurry, where it doesn’t have to be either hip hop or urban, or modern or contemporary.’

As a starting point of your research, you mentioned three archetypes of the black woman: the mammy (a warm, motherly woman), the sapphire (the angry, mad black woman), and the jezebel (the stereotype of a hypersexual black woman). How did you incorporate these types into the story? 

‘It was a process of error and trial. At first I wanted to use these three archetypes as landscapes almost, and not go into the figure of it, but rather think about the connections between these types and the video vixens and how they can nourish the piece. The mammy eventually went into this distorted rap, blown up suit, as a sort of futuristic image. The sapphire ended up in the gibberish, infinite rap at the end. The jezebel is the most dominant. It is about the exploration of the hypersexuality of the video vixens. Of my body, of a feminine body, of a black female body and how to give that form in this performance and in theatre in general.’

© Annelies Verhelst

How can dance become a means to liberate the body from dominant stereotypes?

‘For this piece, I researched the sexual connotation towards my body. My parents are from Suriname where dance is a dominant thing in culture. We dance a lot with our hips, which could be seen as sexual. First of all, I wanted to break down these connotations but also to find my freedom in that and not be stuck in some weird ideas of taboo. The field I work in, often labels these moving bodies, like this is “African” or “Hiphop”, but it can be both. The body that exercises these movements can be free of labels and does not need the associations. Or if they would like to have them, that’s also fine, there is also the space for that.’ 

Moved from background to foreground, the video vixens are transformed into the Beyonce and Nicki Minaj of today. Do you think the video vixens will keep adapting?

‘The times that we live in have a big influence on the hip hop scene and on us in the performative scene. It is a constant dialogue, a constant transformation, and in that I also think we allow more nowadays. We really go into the explicitness of what it means to own our own sexuality. It is something that keeps on morphing and changing.’

How did you develop the choreography of Jezebel

‘I started the process when I went to Senegal for two weeks. One of the main desires for creating my own work is to reach a different audience than what I am used to. So in the first week I realized that I was not trying to use hip hop moves in the performance but then the question arose of what to use instead. What constitutes these sexual movements that we see in video clips? I looked at these clichés and how I could use them, how to make them more abstract and more fitting to me. I wanted to disrupt the clichés but still retain a reference for the audience. I was trying to understand what my own movement quality was. I am still searching. At the same time music was a big element. Looking for new forms in movement, I was inspired by the chop and screw method, which is a sort of remix technique in hip hop. It basically slows down and stretches the song, adding stops to it, making our experience completely different. There are recognizable sounds and then you try to remix it, so you get a new form, a new landscape. I wanted to see how I could incorporate this into movement. The performance also has a slow feel to it, with stops and this created a lot of the distortion in the movement and in the overall feel of the performance.’

© Bas De Brouwer

Why did you name your performance Jezebel?

‘Jezebel does not only refer to one of the archetypes of the black woman, but also refers to a biblical character.’ (Because of a story in the Hebrew Bible, Jezebel has come to be known as the archetype of the wicked woman.) I really liked the fact that it was a name for someone, almost like it was made for this performance. At first I thought about naming it Video vixen but bumping into this archetype of the jezebel and reading more about it, it felt very fitting. Again, it is also about reclaiming something, it is about strength and empowerment.’

You use generic masculine accessories such as a lowrider, gold chains and grills. Why did you decide to use these props? 

‘In a way I used them as clichés. People who see the performance will find them very recognizable. The lowrider came about because I could not have a car on stage, so I decided to use a bike. Yeah, I really love the bike. (laughs) All the elements emphasise  wealth, they want you to look at the bling. For me the complexity is there again: a man showing off what he has, showing off money and his women. During the creation, the grill becomes something else as well. Because it is so overdone, it becomes a symbol for both sexuality and wealth, making the rapper almost like a cyborg. In choosing these elements I also play with the expectations of the audience.’

© Bas De Brouwer

Your performance raises the question ‘What does my body communicate and how do I want to be seen?’ How do you answer that question for yourself as an artist? 

‘I love to stay ambiguous, so that it can be either or. Being on stage also brings out something about being human and there is this love towards physical exhaustion, to challenge my body to the point where it brings out honest performativity. It sort of became clearer for me how to perform on stage, even though it is still a development, still a research.’

How have the audience’s reactions been so far? 

‘The most memorable feedback I got was during the performance. I start timid and small, not really showing a lot of my body. There is a moment when I really start to whine (rhythmic movement of the waistline, red.) and start to dance more with my hips. I really go for it. During the performance, someone vocalized a whoosh, and this gave me a lot of energy. I understood the expression. By and large, I got different feedback from people which is quite confronting in a way. Some really enjoy this abstraction of the video honey. She is a departing point but it is not per se that I am trying to criticize her in this piece. Somehow people really feel that there is a range around this jezebel character. Others also question feminism in this sense: is it acceptable to use my body like this on stage and how does it question sexuality? I get a lot of different responses and readings.’

What would you like for the public to take home from your performance? 

‘It is difficult to say what to read into it. I hope that it is a complex thing, not just one or the other. As a spectator, me as well, we have our judgment formed so quickly, often very critical. The video vixens are not only problematic or only emancipation. A lot of questions get raised, even now with Nicki Minaj for example, both negative and positive. As an audience, we cannot just assume that the hypersexualised female body equals victimhood. We have to relook at how we define feminism, at anything in a sense and there is a big responsibility for the audience here.’

Jezebel is performing at 10 and 11 september in BRONKS.

© Bas De Brouwer

 

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