In August, three young black female dancers unwittingly became the focus of an intensely nasty critical debate about race and culture.
Calling themselves L.A. Bakers, the trio performed with Miley Cyrus at MTV's Video Music Awards; you know, the one where Miley stuck out her tongue and twerked on Robin Thicke. When she wasn't doing that, she danced with a conga line of little people, a very tall burlesque dancer (whom she slapped on the butt) and the L.A. Bakers, who, outfitted in red pants, black crop tops and dark sunglasses, did some first-rate twerking themselves.
The Internet immediately erupted in disgust. A Huffington Post writer alleged that Cyrus employed her dancers as "props" to boost her own credibility, while music critic Jody Rosen called the performance a minstrel show. Rolling Stone put Cyrus on its cover and had her respond to accusations of racism. Yet none of the major outlets managed to seek out the names of the lead dancers, much less ask them how they felt about all of this.
Turns out Le'Ana "Levi" Hill, Champagne Jones and Brittany Stephenson — the L.A. Bakers — are entertainment-industry newcomers from L.A.'s Westside, swept up in all of this in the blink of an eye. And they're not exactly thrilled with how they were portrayed.
"What we had on was the prop," Hill says, referring to the giant teddy bears the girls wore on their backs. "I'm a human."
Jones adds: "I'm not a prop. Never been. We were not used as props. We had a costume on! What's the problem?"
They tell their stories on a crisp Sunday afternoon, hiking up the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, sporting bright, chunky sunglasses. They joke about how blacks consider the hiking spot to be in upscale Culver City, while whites refer to it as being in the mostly black neighboring community of Baldwin Hills. The message? It's a whole new world when it comes to race relations and culture jamming.
"It's weird that I'm becoming an idol for shaking my butt," says Stephenson, 23, an Olive Garden waitress who grew up in Westchester. Jones, 22, a marketing major at Cal State Long Beach, is the smallest yet loudest of the group. Hill, 24, an alumna of Hamilton High and Cal State L.A., makes a fanny pack and backward baseball cap look like high fashion.
Friends since elementary school, Stephenson and Jones played on basketball teams for rival high schools. As hip-hop dancers, they later competed for spots in music videos like Chris Brown's "Holler at Me" in 2010, where they were cast alongside Hill, one of Jones' childhood friends.
Stephenson's love for basketball was rivaled only by her passion for shaking what God gave her, and when the trio was chosen for the video for Inland Empire hip-hop group Audio Push's "Clap It Up" in early 2011, the rappers compared their matching outfits and coordination to a certain pro basketball team.
"They were, like, 'Y'all kind of like the L.A. Lakers. Like the L.A. twerk team. The L.A. Bakers,' " Jones recalls. The name is a double entendre: Bakes is West Coast rap slang for butt (as in, "Damn, she got all the bakes," Hill says) and the Bakers' integration of playful athleticism — push-ups, jumping jacks, defensive stances with knees bent and arms outstretched — made them stand out as dancers.
When they were invited to be part of Audio Push's next video, they made their debut as an official twerk team, clad in red and black jerseys scavenged from the Slauson Swap Meet and rhinestone bedazzled with "Bakers" on the back. There were five Bakers at the time — two of the dancers soon dropped out of the group to pursue modeling and acting.
Along the way, they began brazenly reinventing dance moves like the Cat Daddy and the Dougie. They have a knack for putting an L.A.-centric spin on moves that originate elsewhere; folks have been twerking in the South for decades, of course, but the Bakers' version is more stylized and less sexually suggestive.
Their reputation built quickly, through their popular YouTube channel and appearances in music videos for Chris Brown, The Rej3ctz and Calvin Harris. It was during the open audition for Harris' "Drinking From the Bottle" video that they met Chris Black, who cast them as the lead dancers in "We Can't Stop," the first single off Cyrus' latest album, Bangerz.
Black offered the trio $600 — each, not total, as they initially thought — which was substantially more than they'd ever gotten for a video. "That's when we knew it was hella legit," Hill says.
"They're super professional, even though they're young girls," Black tells the Weekly. "They had an attitude and their own style."
In the video, Hill dances butt to butt with Cyrus while Jones and Stephenson twerk around her. In another shot, the girls gather around Cyrus' shaking booty while Stephenson puts her hand over her mouth, feigning shock. "All my homegirls here with the big butts, shaking it like we're at a strip club," Cyrus sings.
The video was widely viewed, and Cyrus was criticized for racial appropriation, particularly after being quoted saying that she wanted a beat that felt "urban ... something that just feels black."
But the L.A. Bakers certainly aren't angry. They gush about how, for the VMAs' red carpet, Cyrus bought them all Adidas tracksuits with the word "Bangerz" on the back. Cyrus' own tracksuit had the word "Baby Bakes" embroidered on the front. "We're three girls from the inner city and we made it to New York, all expenses paid," Jones says. "No audition, no phone call."
It was at the VMAs that the dam broke. During the performance, they formed a circle around Cyrus, waving to the crowd like pageant queens. At one point, Cyrus spanked the butt of Amazon Ashley, the 6-foot-7-inch black dancer who also appeared in the music video for "We Can't Stop."
The reviews were almost universally negative: It seemed as if, for every new fan Cyrus developed that night — Bangerz would debut at No. 1 — twice as many critics emerged on Twitter. The Bakers found it baffling.
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"So it's cool for us to be black and wear white-people clothes but for [white people] to listen to rap it's not cool? Like, come on, are you serious? That's dumb," Jones says. "What we always say is, when we perform, we're performing. We're a character. We're entertaining. ... When [Cyrus] was onstage, of course she was Miley Cyrus, but she was a character," much like that of Beyoncé's alter ego, Sasha Fierce.
Around the same time, the girls were featured in another of director Diane Martel's music videos: Robin Thicke's "Give It to You," featuring Kendrick Lamar and 2 Chainz. The Bakers choreographed their part, dancing in football uniforms atop an "ass float" — literally a parade float designed to look like a shaking booty.
But they remain inextricably linked with Cyrus. When they go out to parties and dance clubs, people sometimes ask them to put them in contact with her. They're now in the midst of intense rehearsals for Cyrus' international arena tour, which kicks off in Vancouver on Valentine's Day and winds through the United States and then Western Europe.
They know, of course, that shaking one's butt isn't a long-term career move, and Stephenson dreams of opening her own boutique and designing clothes. For now? "I'm here," she says. "I'm loving it."