Charlene Kaye learned how to vogue from the pros for her new video
If you’re not familiar with the name Charlene Kaye, that’s about to about to change. Last year the frontwoman and guitarist of critically acclaimed New York-based group San Fermin jumped into the solo artist world as KAYE and released her solo debut EP, “Honey.” It was short, powerful, and the perfect introduction to those unaware of what this artist has to offer.
Since then, KAYE took inspiration from the environments that surrounded her to create something even more exciting, her newest single “Cheshire Kitten.” The track acts as an anthem about embracing your unique qualities, whether they be masculine, feminine, or a mixture of the two. While in New York, she was enamored by the dancers she saw on the subway, in musicals, and a part of street performances which led to her new-found interest in voguing. “Vogue was born out of the Harlem underground drag scene in the 1960s and evolved as a safe space for the LGBT community, and the attitude and inclusivity of the classes resonated strongly within me,” she tells us.
Kaye began taking classes from Leiomy Maldonado, the first openly trans woman to be on MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew, and the woman who arguably trademarked the signature hair whip seen in pop culture from artists like Beyoncé and Willow Smith. Considered by Kaye to be the “OG Cheshire Kitten,” Maldonado truly inspired the track and its music video.
“Having had the experience of being both male and female, [Maldonado] embodies so much of what the song is about — being other, being unclassifiable, wriggling out of any boxes you might try to put her in by just being defiantly herself,” she said. “I feel like the current political and cultural climate has really catalyzed queer people and minorities to speak up and claim their space now more than ever before, so taking ownership of my body and my sexuality through vogue feels like my own small act of rebellion.”
Kaye went on to spend two months practicing choreography with Jadeé Nikita (Beyoncé, the Get Down) for the track’s music video which she filmed in an iridescent cellophane outfit and in a singular shot. She shares with us how the video concept came to fruition.
“I usually start my writing process by programming drums, and Cheshire’s was a groove I wanted to explore for a while, that I found myself moving involuntarily to even as I was producing it. It’s angular, stuttering, has fills in unexpected places…but it’s SLOW,” she explained. “I hadn’t heard many songs like that, and I hadn’t seen many dances to music like that either, so I decided to create one.”
Kaye expands, “We wanted the choreography for the verses to be very sharp and masculine, and the choruses very fluid, soft and feminine. The lighting reflects that duality as well—the verses are brighter with these big pops of color, and the choruses are darker and more obscure.”
So why the cellophane outfit? Kaye was inspired by Missy Elliot’s music video for “The Rain” and her giant shiny trash bag outfit. “I’ve always been in awe of [Missy Elliot’s] aesthetic and I wanted to find a material like that, something unconventional and memorable. So I had the idea to make an outfit of iridescent cellophane, which you can see my body through and which takes on chameleonic characteristics of whatever light is hitting it.” The outfit was created by Lara de Bruijn and showcases Kaye’s movements from start to finish.
There’s something beautiful in the evolution of KAYE and it’s what we see in “Cheshire Kitten” that she is unapologetically herself. Through her experiences, she’s owned her sexuality and has found a newfound strength in not letting the fear of judgment devalue the work she has and will continue to create. Kaye shares with us how dance, and voguing, has played a role in the way she creates music today. “When I was a young performer, I would hide behind my guitar, often using it as a crutch during my live shows and videos. I wanted to prove I was just as good as the guys I hung out with; I desperately wanted to prove my technical worth. Now that I’m older, I don’t feel like I have to prove that anymore,” she explains. “I can shred if I want, I can just sing if I want, or I can dance if I want. And because of dance, I feel free to express myself with my body in ways I was terrified to do in the past. Dancing is such a cathartic way of expressing oneself non-verbally — it evokes emotions that words just don’t do justice to.”
While “Cheshire Kitten” touches on embracing both masculine and feminine qualities, it’s obvious that designers in today’s fashion such as Elizabeth & James, Wildfang, and Agender are continuing to incorporate this vision as they go a more androgynous approach as well. It’s one that is appealing to Kaye and her “glam tomboy” style.
“When the masculine and feminine collide, that’s when fashion is most interesting to me. I love cross dressing in fashion — men wearing heels and makeup á la David Bowie and Prince, women wearing suits and vests,” she shares. “I think Solange’s use of suits and Rihanna rocking men’s JNCO jeans with stilettos is so sexy. I do love comfort, though — I keep my day to day wardrobe classic and comfortable, but on stage, the wilder the better!”
To incorporate visual elements, Kaye shot with New York photographer Cortney Armitage to do a stunning Victor Victoria inspired photoshoot. As we wrapped our interview with the songstress, we asked Kaye what she wants readers to take away from the track and this piece. “I’m an artist, and I’m always trying to get better at my craft, both sonically and visually. My message with this song, video, and piece is that I want people to see themselves and each other as individuals rather than through this preemptive lens of binary gender ideals. I want people to feel free.”
Although “Cheshire Kitten” is a feminist track, Kaye wants fans to know that it’s not just for women, men are Cheshire Kittens too! “I see it both in my male friends who exhibit profound vulnerability, and my male dancer friends who are some of the most fluid voguers I’ve ever seen. I want women to feel comfortable being strong and assertive, just as I want men to feel comfortable feeling in touch with their emotions without feeling like they’re any less powerful,” she explains. “We can be many contradictory things all at once, and that is the essence of what makes us human.”
Photography: Cortney Armitage