Hot Brown Honey: Celebrating women of colour in Ireland with humour and ‘joyous rage’

The `Dublin chapter’ of the Australian music and dance troupe are performing in the Fringe Festival show Hive City Legacy

There are eight hot brown honeys making moves in the former church hall. “Liberate/ Power/ Empower” go the lyrics to the beat. “Take back our story/ in all its glory Reclaim/ unity, our aim/ joyous rage/ centre stage. Metamorph like lizard skin/F**k pretty privilege let’s begin/ Reset for the/ Right mind set/ No regret/ Time to be seen./ Make way for the matriarchy!”

It’s hopping (and some hip-hop) music, and it’s a helluva message.

In what was once a church hall in Clontarf (now usually CoisCéim Dance Theatre’s gorgeous home), we’re watching rehearsals for a Dublin Fringe Festival show in the making, Hive City Legacy: Dublin Chapter.

We found that there were all these amazing honeys doing all this amazing work on the fringes and not being centre stage

It’s buzzing, a hive of activity. A mix of sweet and sour and strong and sticky honey. Strictly speaking, the eight performers working through their numbers, moving makeshift “honeycombs” on wheels around to suit their routines, are not hot brown honeys themselves, but their proteges. What’s with the honey and hives?


Hot Brown Honey are an award-winning Australian multi-genre (song, dance, circus, comedy, spoken word) troupe of diverse women artists with global First Nations heritage, whose performances internationally are part concert, part social activism. Musical director Busty Beatz says: “We found that there were all these amazing honeys doing all this amazing work on the fringes and not being centre stage. So we started a club night [in Australia] and we just thought, we’re hot and brown and we’re honeys. It’s got a bit of a hip-hop ring as well.”

Director Lisa Fa’alafi says: “We were interested in sticky subjects. Now it’s a movement. We’re currently on our world pollination tour,” she grins.

As part of a sort of outreach — “responding to people going, how do we become a Honey?” says Fa’alafi — they’ve developed Hive City Legacy to share their pathway to spreading a message of representation, inclusion, diversity and decolonisation in fierce, and fiercely entertaining, shows.

Hot Brown Honey creators Fa’alafi and Beatz, along with hip-hop artist Yami “Rowdy” Löfvenberg, are in Dublin working with eight Irish women of colour who auditioned to be part of Dublin Fringe’s talent development programme for emerging and early career black artists and artists of colour in Ireland. Poet and dancer Tatiana Santos says: “I remember the [audition] call: singers be ready to dance, dancers be ready to sing.” They “want everybody to engage in all parts”, says Fa’alafi. Singer/songwriter/poet Jess Kav agrees. “Everybody’s had to go a bit multidisciplinary”. Over lockdown she started to write poetry. The others, she says, “write, they dance, they choreograph, they are designers, they’re artists. It’s a real mixed bag, which is amazing because every time you have an idea you put it out to a group of unbelievably talented, multidisciplinary artists, and it kind of takes life almost immediately.”

They’ve workshopped and written songs collectively, and worked on scenes and dance; just over two weeks into the process, the numbers they run through are already looking strong, and are infectiously empowering and energising, or beautiful and moving. They’re creating “a nice, tight, hard, fast 60-minute show”, says Fa’alafi. It expresses what they call a radical fierce love.

The eight women of colour in the Irish ensemble are diverse across age, background, appearance and skill set. Along with Santos and Kav, they are Afro-Brazilian dancer and Capoeira performer Alessandra Azevedo, Irish-Nigerian artist and activist Osaro Azams, singer and dancer Deborah Dickenson, artist/poet/performer Venus Patel, actor/dancer/singer Shauna Harris, and dancer/performer/visual artist Andrea Williams.

“We all identify as Irish but have different origins,” says Kav. “My origin would be Nigeria. The heritage discussion is important but, at the same time, in this show what we talk about is identity, and who we are as people living here. We all have really, really interesting, different journeys. We incorporate singing and dancing, and music, but also spoken word, poetry, movement, performance art.”

“And comedy,” adds Beatz. “We’ve really found the funny.”

Kav had seen Hot Brown Honey’s show in the Fringe in 2016, during the run-up to the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment. She recalls “tearful joy, joyous tears. There were moments of great emotional catharsis, from feeling seen, talking about race, about empowering yourself as a woman, things on the intersection of race and feminism.”

Kav, Santos, Fa’alafi and Beatz are chatting during a rehearsal break. There’s a lot of laughing and a lot of joy and fire. One thing they sing about is notions of home. “I have strength within me/ Power in my bones/ More powerful together/ As part of a home.”

Kav started with some lyrics, and “Busty and Lisa said can you maybe chat with Deborah, about putting something together. My mother, my family, has had involvement and history in mother and baby homes, which is obviously very common in Ireland. And Deborah has other history about what she perceives to be home. So to be able to come together is super healing. Different generations talking about our experiences of home, what home means to us. I think that will really echo for Irish people who historically have had to leave, have always been migrants, and are now at a kind of precipice. What is a home, how do I get a home, how do I pay for a home? Home is on our all of our minds right now.”

Santos says: “Loads of subjects come to the table. I’m from Brazil, we have a person who is from Cape Verde, but we also question ourselves who is missing in the room right now. We talked a lot about direct provision.”

In the song “we say, I used to be a lawyer, I used to be a doctor. How sometimes people have their own lives in their country of origin, and then when they come to Ireland, this history is erased.”

Fa’alafi says: “For us as well, First Nations people living on stolen land in Australia, there’s that idea of where to belong. What does place mean to you? How do you make home, wherever you’re from.” Kav adds that it’s important for Irish people to remember “we have more in common with people who have experienced post-colonialism and experienced their land being stolen or their language criminalised. First Nations people, African countries, having borders pulled through areas, causing wars and civil wars. That is stuff that the Irish people have experienced, and understand. We empathise culturally a lot with US and the UK. Why? We have so much more in common with people who originated in African countries, postcolonial countries, indigenous people, First Nations people. I hope that empathy is amplified with our show.”

Beatz, quoting Murri indigenous Australian artist and researcher Dr Lilla Watson saying “truth belongs to place”, observes: “We’ve found there are universal truths that really connect to the whole idea of decolonisation, and liberation.”

The thing about allowing people to shine for me is that sometimes we want to make the change but we don’t realise that we have to allow people to tell their own stories

Joy is also a running theme. “We just don’t get enough chances to celebrate each other,” says Fa’alafi. “That was the core of our little structure, to make a place for our stories, to be joyful. A lot of it can tap into the trauma which is in our bones, and we want to make space for that. But also we want to make space for the joy between us and the audience.” Santos echoes this: “I think that breaks lots of stereotypes, when we show people we have this joy, and we want to share it, that it’s not a bunch of angry...”

Fa’alafi describes creating a show with the team as “an organic, matriarchal process. We try to make a safe space that feels safe enough to talk about all these things, and to use our skills as multidisciplinary makers to hopefully give everyone a place to shine with whatever skill they have. I think we’ve got good over the years at identifying people’s skills and giving them space to do it.”

Santos is emotional about this. “The thing about allowing people to shine for me is that sometimes we want to make the change but we don’t realise that we have to allow people to tell their own stories. And what Hot Brown Honey is doing here is exactly this. Everybody has their contribution in the process and that’s beautiful. Coming from a dance background that can be very competitive, I am so delighted we are really co-operating and part of something.”

For Kav, too, the supportive, collaborative space has been great. Life “as an independent artist can start to feel quite disheartening, and also as a woman of colour who is mixed, growing up here in the ‘70s and ‘80s when it was quite rare and the community was quite small. It’s been really nice being around people of a much wider age group. I feel like there is a genuine mentorship and that’s been hugely healing. Also, I danced when I was younger, but I haven’t danced properly in 15 years, so I was coming in going ‘ooohh!’ And everybody’s just been so supportive. I felt very free.”

On the other hand, for dancer Santos, singing was new. Her mother is a great singer, but “it was never something that anybody in my family would dare to take professionally”. The Hive City process has been transformative, indirectly, for her mother in Brazil too; with Santos’s encouragement, she has started theatre classes aged 66. The honeys from Australia, in Ireland, indirectly impacting a woman in Brazil.

Fa’alafi says the show is “about transformation for our audience as well. Engaging together in the moment, to possibly walk out of the theatre and maybe don’t touch the black woman’s hair. There are some educational components, but it’s also, we can’t do this on our own. We need all of our allies to help shift” attitudes.

Though you’d assume people would know it by now, unwanted touching of hair is “still being brought up”, says Kav. “These things take a long time to unlearn. We’re literally coming back into society, back socialising again. Hey, remember this discussion, don’t forget it. Discussions around respect are still quite important.” Fa’alafi adds: “We still need our allies to push harder than ever before.”

Santos says: “I see this work as a call to action. We’ve been discussing things for a long time now. The word activism comes from action. We have to do something because solidarity goes beyond words.”

One action she’d like to see is people coming together in community groups and giving their time and attention and talent to causes they believe in, “instead of watching TV and reading the newspaper and feeling sorry, that’s life and there’s nothing you can do”. Beatz references American activist and philosopher Angela Davis, saying “you have to act as if it is possible to radically transform the world, and you have to do it all the time. This is our way of doing it, of going, okay, art does have the capacity to change culture, we’ve seen that historically. This is our way of saying, it’s time to decolonise, one stage at a time.”

For Fa’alafi the shift also involves “decolonising one’s mind, all those structures that lean towards white supremacy, having to, as a world, unlearn that”.

I would say tokenism has been so present in the Irish scene

Kav: “That’s why it’s important to talk about things that would be perceived as microaggressions, that we deal with every day, the death by a thousand cuts. To remember this is a structure we all live within and that we’re all suffering underneath and it stems from colonisation and cultural imperialism. It’s important for us all to remember and to begin that unconditioning and unlearning and decolonisation.”

They talk microaggressions and tensions. For Kav, after George Floyd’s murder, there was the “overwhelming need for people to learn, and going to friends of colour and asking a lot of questions. I remember feeling really raw and vulnerable and friends saying, Jess, tell us what to do. But I’m heartbroken and I feel like I’m going to vomit and I don’t have the space and time. That’s not necessarily a microaggression — it’s coming from people wanting to learn, but I think it’s important for that education journey not to lean on friends of colour.”

For Santos, “I would say tokenism has been so present in the Irish scene. Say, someone producing a show, wondering who is going to be the person of colour or the black person, that will shout to the world: I am not racist.”

There is more. Kav: “the not listening. As a society I believe we need to work more on listening to each other. I’ve seen it where the majority of people are white, and someone has experienced a moment of racism or othering. And the first thing is: are you sure? Don’t dismiss somebody’s reality. That is quite common. As a society, as a community, there’s still a lot of bristling over the idea of acting in a way that’s perceived as racist or othering or prejudiced. I think we have to allow, sometimes, you know: my attitude was kinda shit there, and put your hands up and not be, like, I’m not racist, I have loads of black friends. I am bulletproof.”

Beatz says “we are all human and fallible. Taking accountability is difficult, but when it’s done, and it’s done properly and quickly, you can move into a healing place.”

“It’s such a cruel structure,” says Santos. “Even ourselves as women of colour, it takes so much time to recognise our beauty. I’m from Brazil, where 54 per cent of the population are black, and it took ages for us to stop straightening our hair. I look back at some of my behaviour back then,” having absorbed racist structures. “Stop denying. Confront the reality,” to challenge and change it.

During rehearsals they’ve also discussed being of mixed race, Kav says, and “insensitive questions, asking about people looking like their parents”. But they’ve looked at this in a funny way. “We’ve a few skits about it. We’ve been able to transform it into comedy and that’s been a lot of fun.”

This is the key. Says Beatz: “We like to say joyous rage.” The phrase reflects how, though there are big themes and righteous anger, there’s also a lot of exhilaration and fun. For Fa’alafi, the entertainment value in the show can “break down some of the barriers. If you can laugh together, sometimes you can feel like one.”

Hive City Legacy: Dublin Chapter opens at Project Arts Centre on Sunday, September 11th (with previews on Friday, September 9th, and Saturday, September 10th), and runs until Saturday, September 17th as part of Dublin Fringe Festival

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey is a features and arts writer at The Irish Times