SERENA CONSTANCE interviews with Cammie Toloui, co-founder of 80s feminist rap band, the Yeastie Girlz.
It’s a muggy Friday night in August, and on the spur of the moment, I’ve made it to the last Haiku Hands UK tour gig in the intimate venue above the Hope and Ruin bar in Brighton. I’m not disappointed by the energy these three Australian female rappers (sisters Claire and Mie Nakazawa, with Beatrice Lewis) unleashed into a mixed audience of all ages. I can still bump, grind and squat at the front with great energy. Just the tonic I needed after a stressful week, though my thighs are groaning the next day.
Coming out of the Peaches mould of electro hip hop and dance-pop, Haiku Hands are a feisty act with lyrics full of attitude and girl power. They get the whole crowd dancing. Together with their local Brighton support act, rapper Boudicca, the show contains a sense of energetic empowerment in these uncertain times, when modern pressures on young women are affecting their mental health more than ever. We need girl bands like this.
On the walk home, I’m thinking about the history of female singers in hip-hop, rap, and other genres. Before Haiku Hands, Peaches and Pussy Riot, when I was a teenager in the early to mid-80s, I was riding the wave of post-punk and new wave bands fronted by women with attitude, who were blazing a trail through a sexist, male-dominated industry. On the UK music scene, The Slits and the Au Pairs made me feel strong. They were singing about the reality of sex and female bodies from a women’s perspective, not through the male gaze. Hell yeah! Their music is still as powerful today with Peaches and Pussy Riot taking the genre further.
In 1987, the year I started university, hip hop was big but so male. I remember going to see the Beastie Boys and Run DMC at the Brixton Academy, on their infamous tour featuring a giant inflatable penis and caged female strippers. (Peaches does it so much better with her feminist twist.) On the other side of the Atlantic, three young women at Berkeley were performing their response to the white male hip hop explosion. Although I hadn’t heard of the Yeastie Girlz at the time (too busy raving in fields), I met one of the founding members, Cammie Toloui, when she stood up to rap at a monthly Sunday gathering of Guerrilla Poets in Lewes, performing an acapella Yeast Power. As she had the whole pub crowd cheering, I realised just how relevant her music and lyrics are for women now as they were thirty years ago.
Cammie is a professional photographer, as well as a rapper, and also runs a massage treatment centre in Lewes. I wanted to know more of Cammie’s story, so caught up with her for an interview in her studio, on how the DIY band ethos of the Yeastie Girlz emerged.
“I was a teenager growing up in the San Francisco bay area. In the town of Berkeley, there was a magazine called MAXIMUMROCKNROLL and the editors had found a great venue on Gilman Street for young bands to play. We would all volunteer to help run the nights, and it was an incredible community. Not long after it opened, there was a big 4th July music festival; the trouble was all the bands were boys. My friend Jane came up to me and Joyce and said we have to do something about this. There are just too many boys on stage. Usually female bands were lumped all together in one line up, instead of integrating and mixing us up. Jane sat down and quickly wrote this rap Yeast Power. In between bands, we just jumped on stage, grabbed the mic, shouting “we’ve just written this song and want you to listen”:
We’re the Yeastie Girlz and we’ve got yeast power, we don’t shave our armpits and we don’t shower…
“We were terrified, but we sang it and jumped off the stage. It was so scary but kind of exciting too. We were 18, fresh out of high school. We’d sing as a bit of a joke, standing around the club, from time to time. Then the editor of MAXIMUMROCKNROLL was going to put out a 7 inch EP of all the bands that performed at Gilman Street and included us. We recorded as an acapella rap, it was about the lyrics and the attitude. Then the name came up; the Beastie Boys had just burst onto the scene but their songs were kind of rapey, so we said we’re the Yeastie Girlz. We started to write more songs and add to the performance. We’d get speculums and explain to the women in the audience how to use them.”
This made me think of Annie Sprinkle’s sex-positive feminist performances where she’d use a speculum on herself and invite the audience to look at her cervix. I asked Cammie more about this part of their act:
“ I wanted to educate. I’d worked out you could play the cardboard tube of a tampon applicator as an instrument, so I figured out how to play songs such as Iron Man on it. I’d get on stage and play this thing, sometimes throwing a whole bunch out into the mostly male audience. It was very feminist; we’d be teaching women how to defend themselves too. Most of the guys would be totally embarrassed, as we’d be singing about our periods, cunnilingus, yeast infections and so on. We were throwing it back into the faces of these punk guys who thought they were so tough; we’d freak them out! Most were great, but some just couldn’t handle it. However, the club was very open-minded; we wanted to talk to women but also shock the guys!
“In 1988 we went on tour as a joke; Joyce had moved to a squat in Amsterdam and Jayne moved to New York. I asked my friend Kate to join the band. We went over to Amsterdam separately and did European tours with Joyce; we’d just show up, no music, just our voices. Most people didn’t know what we were singing about but occasionally they would because of the international reach of MAXIMUMROCKNROLL. We were trying to sell our demo tape too, so we dipped tampons into fake blood and put them in with the tapes so people would have to pull them out. We were really challenging guys’ attitudes to women and our bodily functions.
I kept a scrapbook with all the comments and material we created. All our memorabilia is now in a feminist archive at Harvard.
“By the late 80s, we’d split, as everybody had moved and were focused on different things. Then in 1991 we were contacted by a band called Consolidated. They were an indy dance band and wanted us to feature on their album. They sent us their music and we thought yeah, we could do ‘You Suck’ to this one. We recorded in the studio – me, Kate and Wendy O. It became a dance hit, even to this day people tell me they’ve heard it or we get some royalties from radio airplay. “
I ask Cammie where she saw Yeastie Girlz within the feminist history of rap and dance music.
“We were pre-Riot Grrl and there were lots of female punk bands before us that set the stage; we weren’t breaking totally new ground, but every movement since has pushed it forward. To talk about your pussy, your periods and yeast infections was new. I look at other bands now like Pussy Riot and think wow, it’s really evolved. At the time, with what we were doing, we’d really taken the subject to a new level.”
As women, we have come a long way in terms of openly discussing periods and our power over our own bodies. with movements such as the campaign to end period poverty and group performances by artists within the Menstranauts collective founded by Dr Marisa Carnesky. I asked Cammie if she’d be performing more Yeastie Girlz:
“We’ve occasionally performed over the years, sometimes sitting down to write new songs. Now that all of us are going through perimenopause or are in menopause, we’ve got lots more to sing about. I feel there are people who are writing and performing about this now. For instance, whenever I see Pussy Riot – not that they are menopausal, but they are even more forceful and radical – I have so much respect for them; they are incredible. I look at them and think the world doesn’t really need the Yeastie Girlz anymore! I’d like to think the three of us would get together to write a couple of menopause songs – that would be hilarious.”
I wonder what Cammie’s now older wiser menopausal self would now say to her 18-year-old self. She laughs:
“Go girl! I don’t have any regrets. I’ve lived a full life as I could. We started the Yeastie Girlz when I was 18, but then in 1991, I became a peep show dancer at the feminist strip club The Lusty Lady in San Francisco. I was studying photojournalism at Uni and really needed more money to fund all the costs involved. I didn’t expect to stay as long as I did there – three years – but the work turned into a photojournalism project. I was documenting clients who agreed to be photographed. In fact, more people know me for the photos that came out of the Lusty Lady, as I’ve exhibited in galleries and museums all over the world.”
Having danced briefly at the Raymond Revue Bar in Soho back in 1998 – the now-defunct club had just celebrated its 40th anniversary – I became interested in sex-positive, feminist performers such as Annie Sprinkle. Co-incidentally I also have a copy of The Lusty Lady by Erika Langley on my bookshelf. I ask Cammie how receptive Lewes is to this aspect of her creative career:
“I did a presentation with photos from the Lusty Lady era at the Westgate Chapel in Lewes. The audience was really surprised and enthusiastic, and I’ve had lots of positive feedback. I think people here see me as a mild-mannered massage therapist; they don’t tend to see me as a Yeastie Girl or a Lusty Lady!”
I’m glad that Cammie has stepped out of her Yeastie Girlz closet, and am looking forward to her latest creative project. You can view her photos at www.cammiet.com and find more about her current photography service.