N.E.R.D dancer Mette Towley: 'I physically show up and protest via performance - I tear apart symbols of injustice'

Dancer from Pharrell's troupe 'The Baes' on starring in the N.E.R.D videos for 'Lemon' and '1000', her responsibility as an artist, and smashing white supremacy in America

Roisin O'Connor
Music Correspondent
@Roisin_OConnor
Wednesday 03 January 2018 14:55
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Mette Towley: 'If I go a couple of days without dancing I start to feel a little outside of myself'
Mette Towley: 'If I go a couple of days without dancing I start to feel a little outside of myself'

The video for N.E.R.D’s comeback track “Lemon” ft. Rihanna was one of the best of 2017. It will be likely be ranked among the best of this decade.

It’s the best because it features a performance by dancer Mette Towley [pronounced ‘Meta’], one of Pharrell’s frequent collaborators, who also appears in the visuals for their track “1000”, off new album No_One Ever Really Dies.

Choreographed by JaQuel Knight – who has worked on many of Beyonce’s dance routines including “Single Ladies” and her Formation world tour – Towley is shown performing strikingly powerful, fluid moves that leave you breathless just watching her. Dressed alternatively in loose-fit jeans, sneakers and a crop top, and covered in glitter and sweat – taking the jeans off to reveal camo pants – she owns her body: each moment is exacted with such precision there can be no question to the contrary.

The 26-year-old has been in Pharrell’s dance troupe The Baes since 2014, but the “Lemon” video’s impact brought her to international attention and saw her join N.E.R.D for performances on shows like The Voice and Jimmy Kimmel Live!.

Even on live TV, N.E.R.D’s team worked closely with the shows’ production crews to ensure the camera work still suited the dance; following Towley around from various angles and overhead shots, then suddenly remaining stationary for seconds at a time so the focus is entirely on her. Pushing the boundaries of what a music video can do.

Mette Towley (far left) during a performance (Mette Towley/Instagram)

“JacQuel is really specific about camera direction, he really sees the dance and the camera almost as if they’re doing a duet,” Towley explains. ”So we camera block, and we work with DPs [directors of photography] who really want to highlight the dance.

“For this one [”Lemon”] the camera’s actually more stationary than a lot of ones we’ve done. In the video [American cinematographer] Malik Sayeed stays with me, and that’s so intentional. When the camera’s stationary I have to do a lot more. Even on Kimmel last week, what they were doing was so beautiful. They’re really pushing for there to be new modes of performance, working in collaboration with the people on these shows so their vision comes to life.”

A recent piece by contributing editor Ayana Byrd in ColorLines, an online news and comment publication for communities of colour, pointed out how one of the most striking things about Towley’s performance is that her moves seem to convey this message that says: “You can look at me all you want, but none of this is yours.”

“When I read her article, I really got the impact of all the work that I’ve been doing,” Towley says. ”I really appreciate people saying I look strong and my gaze is really connected. Her language was exactly how I would want to convey what the message of “Lemon” is. It was perfect to me.

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“When I’m dancing a lot, at times language doesn’t escape me necessarily, but when I’m so embodied in my physical self, it really takes me a moment to describe to the world how I’m performing. She [Byrd] really got that and it was a beautiful moment for me, everything I ever wanted when I moved up from Minnesota to LA. I really hope I get to shake her hand. My grandmother thanks her too, she called me up after reading it and said ‘I really get it now!’”

The article also nailed how Towley succeeds in being sexy, but not an object: ”She never preens, pouts—hell, she doesn’t even smile,” Byrd writes.

It’s true, Towley and Rihanna – who is seen shaving the dancer’s head at the beginning of “Lemon” – barely twitch their lips upwards for the entire video. The control is entirely theirs, and it’s incredibly cathartic to watch; particularly as a female viewer. In “1000” the opening is different – there’s a new kind of energy that comes from the clips of riots and protests in the US – before it cuts to Towley in a bloody red light; fighting; in the sea; then in a red camo outfit backed by a troupe of dancers stood in ordered rows.

“This is why I love and appreciate N.E.R.D so much,” she says, also praising directors Todd Tourso and Scott Cudmore. ”I really get to show up in a culturally significant way as a performer. Beyond beauty, beyond physicality... we’re deeply rooted in what’s culturally at stake here.”

Mette Towley in the video for “1000” 

She notes how interesting it is that, as a viewer, you notice that she doesn’t smile, unsure if the same observation would be made were she of a different gender: “It’s indicative of how we’re expected to perform. And the fact that even my wardrobe is at times scantily clad, so there’s an expectation I should turn up that flirtatiousness because of the way I’m dressed in the video. We had a lot of conversations about what ‘Lemon’ meant, and to me it was almost like a revenge video.

“Her [Rihanna] cutting my hair was almost like a reset, stepping into new ways of being. And my new way for ‘Lemon’ is like a mirror of what I was going through at the time. It was like saying: ‘Mette, you gotta own it. You gotta own your presence.’ I think all of us do. It was definitely personal.”

Towley is incredibly conscious of her experience as a performer and the culture of representation, deliberately selecting projects which allow her to explore those ideas. She writes about upcoming performances she’s taken on, and how she feels a need to shift her performance to “convey something greater”. Choreographing Difference by Ann Cooper Albright had a profound influence on her and what is at stake in her work.

“There’s a responsibility to share stories of who I am through my body, beyond language, and to risk not being pretty,” she says. ”To risk not being perfect.”

Pharrell has called Towley “wise beyond her years”. In a video series introducing The Baes you see her explaining something relating to the theory of a “meta-narrative”; the attention and interest he pays to the conversation shows a mutual, intellectual and creative respect between the two artists.

“Meta-narrative’, the title she also adopts on her Instagram page and a theory she is keen to explore in her work, was brought to wider attention by French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard in 1979, who also wrote extensively on the idea of the “sublime” in postmodern art: a feeling of simultaneous fear and ecstasy at an incomprehensible image. It’s an experience that the audience for “Lemon” and “1000” goes through, emerging on the other side feeling overwhelmed by what they’ve just seen.

Towley points out how in the ”1000” video there’s actually a protester holding a banner which reads ‘smash racism’: ”That idea of ‘breaking through’ is something a particular teacher of mine pushed us to do,” she says. ”Her idea was the universalising of a narrative, and she didn’t believe that was possible. As a performer, I want to be a reflection of my community and of my world. And in different ways have people feel when they watch my work... experience something that transcends labels and really pushes to make us better connected.”

Mette Towley

There’s a tongue-in-cheek message at the beginning of the “1000” video which reads: “N*E*R*D and Columbia Records do not support or condone violence in any shape or form. We only have internet access,” apparently referring to the debate that has rolled on as tensions between anti-fascist protestors and neo-Nazis has escalated, about whether violence is acceptable in the fight against white supremacy.

“‘1000’ is centered around smashing white supremacy and racism,” Towley says. “It doesn’t condone violence, it picks the found footage and demonstrations, which are really a tool to convey the physical presence of protests and rallies... people showing up to fight for what they believe in, and to really stake claim to the idea that white supremacy and racism in America needs to end. Around the world, it needs to end. It’s been in power for far too long.

“We’re trying to say that no matter where you’re from or who you are, the narrative or standing up for what you believe in is power. How we choose to execute our presence is really important. I physically show up and protest via performance – I tear apart symbols of injustice, and I believe it’s through art that I can create and engage in resistance.”

In some of the pieces profiling Towley she has been referred to as “Pharrell’s muse”, which seems strange. To call someone a muse is rather outdated, as it’s almost ever only applied to women, and places the person titled as such in the position of ‘subject’, as opposed to someone who clearly has a profound influence on a fellow artist – as Towley does with Pharrell.

“I’m really honoured by the fact that people see the sense of mutual respect between Pharrell and myself, and to be able to work closely with someone who really identifies your character and potential is inspiring,” she says. “I’m not just a canvas, or a dancer in that space – I have a point of view as an artist that’s respected.

“There are many interpretations of what that word means. But I stick to how much of a privilege it’s been to been to work and thrive in a safe space… any negative connotation of that word isn’t a reality in my relation to the entire camp. Pharrell has never said ‘you are my muse’.

“Instead there’s an exchange of information in the creative space... when he’s in the studio and I’m dancing, we catch a vibe. There’s a sense of trust to be yourself, freestyle, laugh, raise concern for our world, that positivity makes an impact. I’m not the source, rather perhaps a humble contributor and conduit through which the music lives.”

Mette Towley [pictured front]: ‘I physically show up and protest via performance. I believe it’s through art that I can create and engage in resistance’

Fans may have noticed how Pharrell himself does not appear in the videos for “Lemon” or “1000”. He understands, Towley observes, that “his work is greater than himself”.

“He’s out to use music, film, fashion, to illuminate the human experience, and you can’t do that on your own. You’ve got to have people around you who have different points of view. You’ve got to be confident that when other people are involved, you don’t get lost, you become part of the community. And that’s how you speak to more people in the world.

“That’s exactly why he, Chad [Hugo] and Shay [Haley] aren’t in the videos. I think celebrity blinds us, and they’re more interested in the work becoming someone’s experience vs. them being the face of it. That’s brilliant to me, that’s a true artist – they take themselves out of the delivering of the album in a lot of ways so people can discover for themselves, without this luminous celebrity over it.”

Away from N.E.R.D and back in her home state of Minnesota, Towley continues to create her own art. Close friend John Mark and his younger brother Gabriel are “always filming videos together”; recently she enlisted them, along with dancer and social activist Saharla Vetsch, to create a short film of them dancing in a cornfield to the song “Woman Is A Word” by Empress Of. It’s a beautiful expression of joy; those exhilarating feelings of freedom and youth the two dancers are clearly experiencing are roused in the viewer as well.

“When I start to feel like I’m waiting to be a part of something, that’s when I push myself to make something,” Towley says. “I just wanted to dance at dawn. We didn’t choreograph anything, and I love it – feeling like a teenager when nothing is off limits, and not taking myself so seriously. That’s something that over the last few months I’ve really tried to retain with my friends. Just go out and make a video. We don’t have to share it with the world – it can live with us.

“If I go a couple of days without dancing or moving my body I start to feel a little outside of myself. I think performance is going to be one of my greatest contributions. I want to come from authentic places, to share, and to make people feel at ease and as though they can share. The coolest thing about ‘1000’ and ‘Lemon’ is that people are sharing their stories with me, and how it affects them, so I can understand the greater picture and the ways I can be of service.”

‘When I start to feel like I’m waiting to be a part of something, that’s when I push myself to make something’ (Mette Towley/Instagram)

She points out how she’s not a third party to the themes N.E.R.D portray in their work: “My personal narrative includes streaks of intolerance and racism. Throughout these episodes I remember my mother and grandmother helping me break through. They empowered me to be nothing but who I am, that I hold the power to be my own ally and an ally for others.

“‘1000’ displays this as well, it is a performance of dancing pride and smashing racism. It engages the conversation of protest... when injustice moves individuals to leave their homes and take the streets, to stand besides their neighbours and stand inside the possibility for a world without racism or white supremacy.”

Eveything in “1000” is intentional, she adds, from the footage of protests to the organised line of dancers, of people of colour.

“We’re harking to movements where people rallied themselves to dismantle racism. We must do that, because in order to combat, we have to show up in whatever way we can contribute. And we have to do it with a sense of organisation.”

N.E.R.D’s new album ‘No_One Ever Really Dies’ is out now

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