Kendrick Lamar opened the Grammy Awards ceremony last night with an incredible performance. Between the surprise skits from Dave Chappelle and a cameo from U2, people were also mesmerized by his collaboration with a black woman who banged on a taiko drum and danced with the Compton rapper.
The dancer, Charm La’Donna, has been performing with K-Dot for the past year, and contributed to the choreography for his 2017 Grammy performance in addition to joining him on the Damn Tour. She’s also the only woman on his dance crew.
But La’Donna didn’t arrive on one of the biggest stages in music overnight. Since the age of three, she’s been working with a dance company and honing her craft, which led her to land her first gig: Madonna’s Sticky & Sweet Tour, at the age of 17. The now 29-year-old has moved onward to work with major acts in the industry including Britney Spears, the Weeknd, and Meghan Trainor. But through it all, she’s like Kendrick’s single—humble.
La'Donna, who's already back home in Los Angeles, hopped on the phone with us to talk about how the performance came together.
First off, your performance yesterday was amazing.
Oh thank you.
Did you see any of the tweets? They were like, who was that drummer performing at the Grammys?
No, I haven't seen any of the tweets. My friends have been sending me things but I haven't wrapped my head around it yet. I saw one of the comments, someone said she looks like... you know that movie The Ring? I was cracking up. The funniest thing, one person was like she's drumming for every black woman in America! I see so many comments, like it's so great.
How was it to perform at the Grammys? Was this your first time?
It was my first time choreographing and performing [at the Grammys] because I choreographed a piece, and then I performed at the Grammys. For me, it was overwhelming in the best way. As I was walking on stage, I was like, is this happening? Is this happening right now? Am I performing at the Grammys? Like the 60th annual at Madison Square Garden with Kendrick Lamar? With like 40 guy dancers. I haven't really talked to anyone about it outside of a couple of my friends. The love that I received personally has been crazy.
Which performance did you choreograph at the Grammys before?
I choreographed the last Grammy performance he did as well.
How did the latest performance come about?
You know honestly it's Kendrick and Dave [Free] and his team coming up with the concept, and then we kind of just talk about where can we grow from there. And then I get the music and I listen to it and I go, OK, what can I bring to life to this? It's a collaborative thing. Dave Free and his whole team, it's definitely them. And I come in and I plug myself in once he elaborates on what the idea is and I just go in and help paint the picture.
It's like building a puzzle, right? 'Cause you have ideas, you have music, you have the dance, you have the lyrics, all of that is kind of like a melting pot, it builds and it comes out as a creation. Some of the stuff I was inspired by was something in the music. I heard the music and I was like, well, I think we should do this with the dancers. It just goes back and forth. I can't even explain it any other way. He'll look at it, he'll watch the videotape, he's like, "Yeah! But what about if we do this." It's literally a collab, which is what I love. For him to be hands-on and the entire team to be hands-on. TDE is an amazing, amazing team. And him trusting me with the vision.
I played [the drum] how my spirit told me to play it. I was literally just listening TO [Kendrick's] lyrics and just exerting that energy.
How special is it to be both from Compton and performing together?
The fact that my cousins and kids from the city could see two people from the city who have different careers in two different fields work together in a different platform, it's so powerful.
It's so special because it's genuine. The energy, the vibe. It's almost like an understanding, even on stage. It's so funny, a couple of friends of friends are like, "You guys' energy is just like... what is that?" I'm like, it's just two kids from the city, you know what I mean? We have an understanding.
Was this your first time performing on taiko drums? Have you studied it over the years?
That was my first time. [Laughs.] I played it how my spirit told me to play it. I was literally just listening to his lyrics and just exerting that energy. I was playing how my spirit told me to play it. Of course, I looked up taiko drumming. I saw what it was and I never trained classically in taiko drums, but for me, I was beating like a heartbeat.
Who styled you and created the iconic braids?
My braids were done by my friend. I have to give her a shout-out. It's a black-owned business, The Braid Bar, it's a really popular spot in L.A. She has like a place downtown, three girls and they braid my hair. Her name is Twy, she braids my hair. The styling was Dianne Garcia, the clothes. She does everything.
Other memorable moments from yesterday? Did you get to meet anybody?
I mean, U2. What? Got to work with them and speak to them and they were part of the performance. They were awesome. It was just a great experience. No gas. You know how people be trying to gas you? Let me tell you, it was a great experience. And it came together, I couldn't have asked for it to be any better.
And you've been on the Damn Tour for a while. How is that like as the only woman on the dance team, right?
Yeah. [Laughs.] It's great. I have no complaints. It's so chill. You know, it's like I'm everyone's little sister. So, everyone helps me with my bags, everyone makes sure I'm straight. I actually like it, I prefer it that way. It's like you're walking around with a bunch of dudes, brothers who are protective, and everybody's cool. It's that vibe.
How was it like joining Madonna's tour at 17?
That was my first gig. That job took me out of the country. I think before that I left California once to go to New York or something for a wedding. But, you know, that job at 17 broadened my horizons completely. It was a world tour. I turned 18 and right before we left and it was just... I still remember certain places and rehearsal days specifically just because I was doing homeschooling and trying to graduate school on time, and I left my school to do this.
You put in a lot of work, especially at a performing arts school, and then to kind of lose the last two months to graduation, to go homeschooling and get a teacher and get all the stuff and then next thing you know I'm on the road. With Madonna? What? What is life. But like I said, my journey, all the things I've been through, all my life experiences, I wouldn't be who I am today without it and that's one of the reasons why I am so grateful and I am just appreciative of any and every opportunity.
What's the most important thing you've learned from your mentor, the legendary Fatima Robinson?
To trust my instincts and to believe in myself in a way that no matter what, keep going. Not everything is going to turn out your way, there's gonna be ups, there's gonna be downs, you know what I'm saying? But keep going, keep pushing and stay true to yourself and what you believe in, your art. And be loyal. Loyalty. And don't jeopardize myself for anyone. And how to be a businesswoman because being a choreographer is just not always about steps.
What piece of advice would you share with aspiring dancers and performers?
I think it's really passing it down and paying it forward. So I would say stay true to who you are and what you believe in. If you have goals, if you have a vision, if you see yourself somewhere, continue to see yourself at that place and you will get there, trust.
And I always say this: just be kind. That has nothing to do with dance or choreography, just in life in general. Just be kind to people. And you can have all that but you cannot forget about hard work. I was an assistant for a long time before I even thought about calling myself a professional choreographer until I was about 25 and I'd been doing it since I was about 18. And that's just my journey, my path. Because I was really putting in the work and learning my craft.