Make way for the matriarchy: an interview with Busty Beatz and Lisa Fa’alafi of Hot Brown Honey

Our dream is to have a hundred women on stage, on Broadway, the West End. You know those old movies where they used to have 100s of women? That’s what we want. People are like, that seems ambitious: no it’s not actually. We want to be able to use the platform as much as possible.

I first met the Australian collective Hot Brown Honey, very briefly, at the end of their show at the Edinburgh Festival in 2016; they have a practice of congregating at the exit to meet audiences and sell their own (excellent) merchandise, and I bounced around garbling at them over-excitedly because their feminist hip-hop cabaret is my idea of bring the revolution. (I loved it so much, in fact, that I put all other work I was doing in Edinburgh that year to make a zine with their show as the centrepiece.) In February 2017 I got to meet their musical director Kim “Busty Beatz” Bowers properly: she was working at the Wellcome Collection, commissioned by The Sick of the Fringe to “decolonise” its displays, and I interviewed her for Exeunt, a conversation that questioned the positioning of authority and the enduring nature of the male colonial gaze, argued the necessity of hearing different voices in history, and ended with a brief sketch of her Busby Berkeley visions for Hot Brown Honey’s future.

In the conversation that follows, Busty and I — joined by her Hot Brown Honey co-founder Lisa Fa-alafi — picked up exactly where we left off. We met at the Roundhouse in mid-July 2018, following a performance of Hive City Legacy: a collaboration between the duo and a group of London-based “femmes of colour” that felt like the first exhilarating step towards that dream, potentially expanding Hot Brown Honey country-by-country into a globe-spanning army of singers, dancers, circus artists, comedians, performers of every discipline, leading the march for intersectional feminist social transformation.

LF: When we were thinking about creating more platforms, this is the perfect kind of way to do it, because not only are the performers femmes of colour but so are the whole creative team.

MC: In the span of time that you’ve been working with other women the language around gender and how people identify has shifted so much.

LF: It’s shifting a lot more at home, I think, than here. We thought that choosing the word femme, femmes of colour, would mean that the call-out would feel open to as many people as possible, but from feedback maybe it wasn’t, because people were like: “Femme? Lesbian?” A lot of people, a lot of the girls [in the show] said, “We didn’t know what that means.” It’s good to know the word is shifting.

BB: And having that in the context of this work, seeing all the different versions of femme: for us that’s what it means as well, there are so many different people in there and ways of being, ways of doing things.

Like the main Hot Brown Honey show, Hive City Legacy was a blast — but with an undertow of sadness, seriousness, at the currents of power that bring shocks of prejudice and inequality to the lives of the people on stage. Where Hot Brown Honey are explicit in how they talk, Hive City Legacy was more allusive; where HBH quote directly, from feminists including Audre Lorde, Lilla Watson and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, HCL began with a book being taken from a box, and finished with that book glowing, a light for uneasy times. Hot Brown Honey’s feminism is erudite, but never difficult or elitist: the guiding principle always is to share.

BB: It’s interesting reading words like angry in some of the [reviews for] this show: this show is really joyous when I watch it, there’s joy going on all over the place, because that’s who they are, it’s really inspiring.

MC: But there’s a militancy to it as well — that regimented dance sequence at the beginning — that could feel quite aggressive. It’s interesting how you play with that, with Hive City Legacy, and yourselves as well.

LF: Even though they’re marching there’s a joy in it — there can be a joy in assembling.

BB: We like to call it fierce. When me and Lisa started dreaming about what the opening number could be, the idea was very Afrofuturistic: it was like, what happens if the femmes have taken over the world? They’ve shut it down, they’ve taken over, everything is organised, mobilised.

LF: It’s funny for me doing a show here and getting different sorts of feedback on form, people saying there’s no proper story, it’s not linear, I don’t know how to interpret this. But we have always made work like this, using this mix between cabaret and theatre and political hip-hop or whatever. I think people without a theatre background probably enjoy this sort of work more: we were talking about if you put this in a tent the reviews or the response would be different, but we want high production values — I like the fancy lights, that’s where my brain goes. Why do we always have to have the minimal?

Integral to the joy of both Hot Brown Honey and Hive City Legacy is the size of the group: “We’re not even a big musical,” agrees Busty, “I’ve seen those massive casts, with the orchestra, and this isn’t even that big — but it still is for me.” And although they’re not unique — two of my favourite shows in the past year were Queens of Sheba, performed by four Black Women from the company Nouveau Riche, and The 80s Show by drag king collective Pecs — work at this scale led by women of colour is rare. Knowing that Hive City Legacy was made under the auspices of the Roundhouse, as part of its manifold opportunities for young and emergent artists, there’s an obvious question: can this new Hive collective remain cohesive and continue to make work together? “We will facilitate keeping them together at some level, even if it’s us all talking together on the internet,” says Lisa. “And the Roundhouse is recognising that there’s potentially more support to be had after this process. I was like: offer these guys a space or chunks of space to make their own stuff! Already these guys, after just six weeks of working together, have bonded in a way that there are not often spaces for them to do that, so they’re asking, what do we do now?”

The relationship with the Roundhouse raises critical questions about the extent to which independent artists are able to access the money and space held by institutions. Lisa and Busty had a positive experience working there, but never take that for granted. “We’ve done other processes in buildings like this one that were tougher,” says Lisa, “where you have to squeeze into their way of working, which doesn’t work if you’re an independent artist. We don’t have money to make a set box, just simple things like that can be tricky.” The duo have a sharp eye for waste — as Busty say, “When you’re working independently all the time, you can go into institutions and go, why are you spending that money there? That money could be better spent over here” — and a gathering fury at expectations laid at the foot of people working in precarious freelance situations by people on salaries. “Just that asking to do more all the time,” says Lisa. “Most venues have full-time marketing staff, have full-time admin people, and when you’re doing their job as well — I’m not even on enough money to do my normal job, let alone the 12 others I have — I always find that very difficult to swallow. I won’t lie, there have been many times where I’ve been like, I don’t think I can do this any more, because it does feel too big sometimes. And then you have moments like these where you get to work with people, really great talented people, where I feel energised to keep going with what I need to do.”

MC: I’m assuming all of this group are solo artists in their own right, and feel like it’s a sign of the economic times that we’re in that it’s on your own and in duos that it’s possible to make work.

LF: Definitely. We know how expensive touring us is, so to have nine cast members here and another ten creatives is a next level process. These guys would love to work with other people but the space is hard to find or, I’ve noticed coming here the amount of things they do, they run from this to that, there’s a different level of operating in this city that’s new to us from sleepy Brisbane. If we could get more of these types of things where we give younger performers — or mid-career artists, actually, are the ones who there aren’t a lot of opportunities for — we would love to be able to create what we consider to be pieces of the hive. In Australia they’re not going to give us this opportunity, let’s just be honest, so having it here, and if it’s a success — which even for a first draft it’s getting lots of wonderful reviews — possibly this is a template for that.

BB: Imagine an ongoing relationship with the Roundhouse — oh my god, that is what we would love, because we all know it’s bigger than us, it’s about more than just us as individuals.

LF: To some people it might seem small but to us, in the scheme of our career making work, this is actually a huge thing — for us, and for these guys, even if we just get to watch their careers over the next however many years. We’re serious about the legacy stuff, and there was a bit of pressure on ourselves for that. It’s not about just building our brand, it’s actually we genuinely want to work like this.

Far from being unfamiliar territory, the Hive City Legacy project has returned Lisa and Busty to their roots, and to where they first met: making work with young people in community settings. “We did years of that,” says Lisa, “with the same communities — because we saw so many drop-in drop-out organisations, churches, whatever, so the thing I really loved about that time was that we kept going back, seeing kids from primary school through to high school. We would have six communities from all over Australia, 75 to 100 kids on stage, and you would have only four days with them to bring it all together, so managing the energy of that was… You’re making work at all different times, kids would be running around the street, and you’d go: all right then, let’s just make a song now. Being really flexible with how people operate and what they do.”

That ethic has continued with how Hot Brown Honey operate, and how Hive City Legacy was built on the individual strengths of everyone involved. The Hot Brown Honey show playing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall this week is essentially the same one they’ve previously toured (across the world! but also) to the Edinburgh festival, Manchester and Hull, a cabaret in which the individual skills of each performer have their own space in the spotlight, but are held together by a collective feminist politics that uses comedy as a tool for winning affection and so support. An advantage of the building-blocks construction of the show (echoed in the set design, a hive built from domestic lampshades) is that new performers can be slotted in when one of the team isn’t available for a particular tour. In London and the upcoming run at the Edinburgh festival, for instance, there will be two new performers: “Ghenoa Gela has some amazing other opportunities — but she’s like, I want to come! It will always be like that I think — so we’ve got Elena Wangurra filling the indigenous role,” says Lisa. “And we’ve got our first international Honey, Rowdy, doing Edinburgh and Sweden — which is funny because she’s Swedish, so she’s going to spin people out when she helps me do the intros.” Even more delightfully, Yami “Rowdy” Lofvenberg, who also co-created Hive City Legacy, working with Lisa as assistant director, is a long-standing fan of Hot Brown Honey getting to live a dream come true. “She saw our show in Sydney when she was visiting and she said to herself that she wants to be in that show,” says Lisa. “A few times she messaged us that she’d managed to photoshop her face into our logo, just all those little things that add up.”

MC: It’s really interesting how different the texture of this conversation is to the interviews you do on email, because there –

BB: — we just drop in those hashtags! It’s because every single hashtag we have is what we believe in: we believe in Radical Fierce Love, we believe in Decolonise and Moisturise. We’ve got great ones for this show: Make Way for the Matriarchy, Activate Pollinate Liberate. It’s like, look at those words, all put together in one hashtag.

MC: But also, I find it really interesting when people play the branding game as fiercely as you do, but don’t have the politics associated with branding.

LF: I don’t know, I like to play into that world too. These other big places can use it to their advantage, well they are tools for us too.

BB: When Angela Davis came to Australia she talked about this very idea: actually how do you make the revolution seductive? Fall into that whole world of marketing, you fall into capitalism basically. And I was like, we certainly don’t because we don’t make money! You know? It’s interesting with our merch and whatnot, going into the whole T-shirt slogan thing: if you’re wearing it, it is you, even if you have no idea what that is, if you’re wearing it it’s part of you. That’s what this world is now that we’re living, which is very different from when we started making work. Even the idea of using quotes, I know a lot of academics who aren’t into that, just using a quote doesn’t give the whole context, but it’s like soundbites: you need to give people soundbites so they go away and think about it and find out for themselves. I suppose it’s just like verbatim theatre, that’s what we’re doing, people have done it for aeons, just being able to play with that is really fun.

For all the energy and fun on stage, there is an undercurrent of exhaustion when Lisa and Busty speak, a steadying of nerve between the intensity of making Hive City Legacy from scratch in six weeks and the grind of the European tour dates for Hot Brown Honey. Part of that — and the other reason for shifts in the line-up for this tour — is down to injury: Busty’s left leg is encased in a cast, because she broke her ankle a few weeks ago, the culmination of months of illness that began with a cough that Lisa describes as a “death rattle”. It was while coughing that Busty blacked out and fell; X-rays on the ankle revealed that her bones were brittle, and that this was related to a collection of nodules in her thyroid and parathyroid, most of which were benign, one of which had to be removed immediately. “As soon as I had the surgery I felt so much better, which is crazy,” she says. It also brought home to both Busty and Lisa — who are the driving force of Hot Brown Honey — the extent to which they push themselves, overworking to keep the group thriving. The experience has brought care to the forefront not only of their own relationship, but the ones they forge with younger artists.

MC: It’s the difference between self-care as a buzzword and self-care –

LF: — as a true thing –

MC: — as a human necessity

BB: Totally. It’s not just about having spa days, even though that’s awesome, it’s getting your finance in check, actually the boring shit to be able to be functional. Making sure you’re eating properly –

LF: — we’re pretty big on that as a team now –

BB: — we’ve really pushed that –

LF: — and that’s a bit of knowledge we’ve shared with these guys. I said I know you only have a two week run but I bet you someone will get sick, these things work really well, and I wish I knew it at 20.

MC: I want to ask you about time: the time it takes to make work, the time it takes to build up to having 100 women on stage, the time beyond yourselves — the word legacy is very deliberate with this — and with that I also want to ask about frustration, about how much time these things take.

LF: I do feel a sense of time because we are early 40s now and I look at these guys and think oh my god I wish I had this opportunity at 20! It’s taken quite a long time to build our show from an independents’ perspective, no Roundhouse supported our first one, the struggle is real as far as continuing at all, every day, can we afford this, can we keep going, and we do have a bit of facade that we are much bigger than we are –

BB: — or richer –

LF: — we have nothing! But I feel like we have to keep pushing forward and trying to stay optimistic, even though it’s a real struggle: we want to show to these guys you can keep going. It’s tough, I won’t lie, and our show is bigger than we could have anticipated emotionally, we’ve made work lots over the years and not had the same feeling that we carry with Hot Brown Honey when we are on tour. It comes with so much extra responsibility that we weren’t ready for — you’re always trying to represent, you know? It’s not like censor yourself but everyone has got their eyes on us now, we have to stay strong, we have to show that we self-care, and every time audience talk to us, which is both wonderful and heavy, we want to be there, we deliberately made a work where there’s interaction after with the crowd, to give people a moment to have those conversations.

I remember having this conversation when we were in Vancouver, about the trudge — because sometimes I think we feel like we have to battle all the things, and we just said to each other: you know what, the show is enough. We can’t change all of the institutional things that are wrong, we can’t correct everyone’s marketing plan, we can’t go to every single march that we’re invited to. So we just went, whatever bit of activism you can do in your life — and that’s where our best work is done, is that show. It can have ripple effects and we don’t know how wide that could go one day, so to focus on doing that well and being happy with that, I think is good.

BB: The stage is our battlefield we decolonise on stage, one stage at a time. That’s what we’re doing in the show for ourselves as well, that’s why it feels bigger than it looks. And it’s quite funny that we’re going to the Queen Elizabeth Hall, I mean it’s the ultimate right?

LF: A message from the colonies.

BB: I’m gonna say it right on that stage. That’s our thing and this is how we have to view it, for our own health and well-being.

that zine review from 2016