Grab a drink. Come in, enjoy the music. The lights are low but the energy is high. The DJ is playing ‘Hot in Herre’ by Nelly. You haven’t heard it in years. People are dancing and the air is getting heavy. Colored strobes make patterns across the walls and illuminate pockets of moving bodies. Just a little bit of, uh uh, and a little bit of, uh uh. The throwback hit strikes a chord and soon your knees are bending deeper and your stance is getting lower. I feel like busting loose, and I feel like touching you, uh uh. The world outside the Black Box Theater of the Contemporary Arts Center becomes a memory as you lose yourself in the infectious rhythm. And can’t nobody stop the juice, So baby tell me what’s the use? And before you’ve even hit the chorus you find yourself grinding, dirty style, on the dance floor like it’s prom 2008.
You have entered the club of Shasta Geaux Pop, the most fabulous, most adored, most over the top celebrity the world has ever seen. This daughter of hip hop straddles time, existing somewhere between 1990 and now. She has the grace of Beyonce, the dynamic sexuality of Nikki Monage, Rhianna’s regal demeanor and the style of TLC, Salt N Pepa, and Lil Kim combined. She owns the club and everyone in it when she emerges, 15 minutes into this dance party with microphone in hand. She is larger than life, teetering above the audience in 5 inch heels, willing the entire room’s eyes to her like a magnet. She is a force to be reckoned with and an idol to be revered.
Shasta Geaux Pop breaks performance conventions and expanded my conceptions of what a piece of performance art could be. The experience is something between an interactive concert, a party, and performance art. The brain child of Ayesha Jordan & Charlotte Brathwaite, ‘Shasta’, who is played by Jordan, is a presences on the dance floor. She weaves through the audience finding raised platforms where she performs her “hit” songs. She is unpredictable and confident when she erupts into original numbers like Nekkid 4 U and Exponential Thrust. Her dance routines are part choreographed and part improvised. They entail hanging off rafters, climbing scaffolding, eating old pizza and riding a hydraulic lift into the middle of the room.
Shasta is the personification of fame. She is made larger than life with her constant costume changes, skin tight jumpsuits, colorful wigs and unwavering confidence. Her hype men and fans buzz around her like flies. They relentlessly follow her, recording her every movement at every angle on their glowing smart phones. She travels with an aura of authority which is only strengthened by the constant attention she receives. I quickly came to accept her as both important and intimidating. I was nervous to make eye contact with her but was unable to take my eyes off her. When she walked through the audience, we parted like the Red Sea around her, as if the force of her movements pushed us out of her way. I found myself trying to anticipate her movements, wanting to be close but not too close. Fame became tangible to me then as a construct. With the right tools it can be built by anyone.
As the performance progresses Shasta cultivates a relationship with the audience. Despite her grandeur, she is both charismatic and sweet. She immediately wins over the crowd with her pseudo humility and outpouring of love for her ‘fans’. She scans the audience and locks eyes, zeroing in on individuals. It is both exhilarating and terrifying as you wait to see if you will be next. During Exponential Thrust, she sings directly to the men in the audience, cherry picking them one by one. She locks eyes and moves towards them, slowly, singing her sexually graphic lyrics. Each audience member’s reaction is like a character study. Some refuse to acknowledge her, others play along while their wives laugh and egg them on; others are frozen in a half smile slowly backing away. It was a fascinating power dynamic to watch unfold as she continues towards them, transfixed. For me, much of the performance shined a light back on the audience, examining the way we act in the presence of perceived fame and what we are willing to do to accommodate it.
In an era of Instagram models and YouTube celebrities, anyone can be famous. The new frontier of social media can bring anyone to prominence if they commit to and cultivate the persona they portray online. Shasta’s character comments on this with her constant selfie taking and her ever live streaming fans. She balances this new type of fame with her old school sensibility embodied in her fashion, cadence and musical style. Her entourage of fans and her team of DJs and hype men complete the vision of an artist with a crew of devotees.
The performance continues to break down barriers between audience and performer. After a couple drinks the audience is settling into the party atmosphere. I have to imagine that the shows differ wildly from city to city depending on the personality of the crowd. For instance, an unplanned conga line broke out here at one point, spirited by an audience member. The entire audience joined in, trailing behind a very pleased Shasta Geaux Pop. Kegel to the Beat takes the audience a step further into Shasta’s unique brand of audience participation. During this song the audience is asked to pair off with a stranger. While staring into each other’s eyes and holding shoulders they are told to ‘kegel to the beat’. Needless to say, this was a boundary pushing and unique experience for all.
One of my favorite things about this performance was its self- awareness. It is big and colorful and over the top. Shasta is a persona. She is a character born from the 90s, 00s and now. The performance was fun, accessible and invited the viewer into an altered reality. A reality based in old school hip hop which celebrates black culture and black expression. Within this reality Shasta is able to touch on issues pertaining to identity, race, police brutality and social justice. She can move from the ridiculous to the severe in her world which exists in a space outside of time.
Shasta Geaux Pop was a wholly enjoyable performance. From start to finish Shasta commands the room and leads her audience through her greatest hits. We are here to witness her energy and bask in the light of her beauty and talent. Once on board, the audience delighted in playing along with her over the top persona. In addition to being an interesting commentary on fame and identity it was simply a fun way to spend an evening. Between the irreverent lyrics, the skillful DJing, and visually interesting costumes, it played more as an elaborate concert than a piece of traditional “performance art”. This would be a wonderful entry into performance art for any skeptical first timers.
Further, Shasta Geaux Pop is yet another example of great performances happening at the Contemporary Art Center Black Box Theater. Performance after performance I am challenged, intrigued and impressed by the work being brought to Cincinnati by Curator Drew Klein. Driven by strong personal and cultural narratives, the Black Box Theater series has continued to bring in outside talent to Cincinnati. Do yourself a favor and step outside of your comfort zone and attend an upcoming performance. If it is anything like Shasta Geaux Pop you will not be disappointed.