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The Yeastie Girlz Interview


9 Minute Read

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. 

Fire-Starters and Shamanic Dreamers – Celebrating High Summer on the Sussex Shore  


1 Minute Read

Imagine a windy but warm night at 10pm on 1 August 2017. Three women gather outside a blue beach hut at Hove Lagoon. Fishing boat lights twinkle on the horizon, and Carl and John, the two resident homeless chaps are already bedded down for the night on their beach shelter benches.

We drag a pile of firewood and kindling onto the pebbles, along with a large bunch of beautiful wild flowers Asha has picked from Whitehawk Camp Community Orchard. I grab sheepskin rugs, cushions and blankets from my hut. No one else is around, all is quiet.

What are we doing at this time on a wild Wednesday night, trying to start a bonfire?

Well, we are here to celebrate High Summer otherwise known as Llammas in the old English Anglo Saxon pagan calendar, and Lughnasa in Gaelic. Originally held on 1 August, the celebration marked the first harvest, and was an important seasonal feast alongside the pagan festivals of Samhain, Imbolc and Beltane. Lughnasa is the mid-point between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox, it celebrates Mother Earth and the abundance of nature; plus says farewell to the Oak King as his power slowly starts to subside to make way for the Holly King. Feasting with neighbours and honouring the still powerful forces of the summer sun’s light are important elements of this community-based sabbat. The festival’s energy is one of optimism, hope and well-being and brings out the best in people. This was particularly relevant, as we had just been feasting at my flat on Hove seafront whilst sorting out outfits to wear at the Brighton Pride Summer of Love Parade – the biggest and best of UK Pride events, celebrating sexual and gender diversity and freedom. So many people across the world remain repressed in their communities, and I feel so lucky to live in a beautiful part of the world, which is abundant and relatively progressive and tolerant.

Before we got the fire going, Selina, who had just come down late from her London commute, started the proceedings by reading aloud to the sea, a poem she had brought by Mary Oliver. It summed up our mood –

The Summer Day

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Then Selina said her farewells and retired for the night, as we realised it was going to be a while before our ‘spontaneous’ fire ceremony got going. Asha, who is an incredible Polish shamanic scholar and celebrant, directed me to build the fire in a sheltered spot on the beach and lay out the flowers in a circle around the pyre. She’s an expert fire starter, and despite the wind, we got it going with the help of some additional candle wax dripped onto paper.

Wearing yellow to celebrate the high summer sun, the two of us created our own ceremony, drumming, chanting, and praying to the spirits of the East, South, West and North, to Father Sky and Mother Earth. We shook our rattle, beat our drum and sang to the sea and the stars. We fed the fire with frankincense, tobacco, wine and fruit in offering to the harvest; then cast our prayers and wishes to the waves. We drew animal totem tarot cards and I pulled the turtle whose wisdom teaches us about walking our path in peace and sticking to it with determination and serenity. Slow moving on earth, yet also incredibly fast and agile in water, the turtle also teaches us to be grounded yet fluid. An art that I am forever practicing and developing since my natural temperament is to fly high without a solid anchor, but I am learning to cultivate and nurture my root system.

Then my friendly vixen made an appearance – ever so tame, she arrives like clockwork at my hut every evening I am there. She has almost braved the inside my hut on one occasion. So we said ‘hello’ and she lay down and watched us awhile. At midnight, Asha and I decided to read aloud some of favourite poems about the moon and summer (mobile internet has its uses), inspired by Selina’s earlier contribution. One of my favourites is by e.e.cummings, and felt so appropriate for the occasion:

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in

my heart) i am never without it (anywhere

i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done

by only me is your doing, my darling)

i fear

no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want

no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)

and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant

and whatever a sun will always sing is you

 

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows

higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

 

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)

Before we knew it, the fire had burned right down and it was 1am. Still warm and windy, with the moon shining amidst the clouds, we closed our High Summer circle, gathered our instruments and cards, and left with a song of joy in our hearts for the last days of summer.

About:

Serena Constance is a dancer and wand-maker with the soul of a gypsy queen, who dresses like a peacock and has the spirit of a white tiger. By day, you can find her at the University of Sussex, weaving her networking magic for Sussex Alumni Relations.

Asha Sali is a shaman in training; a sweat lodge builder, a Biodanza facilitator and all round magical being.

Selina King is a moon sister, a fire starter and a great freelance researcher.

We all live in Brighton, UK.

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