Seven time Grammy nominee Natalie Stewart –known to her fans as the Floacist- is returning to her Streatham roots to host a monthly spoken word event at the Hideaway Jazz club, writes Laura Burgoine…
“The Hideaway is minutes from my mother’s house; I was living in America when it was built and thought I’ve got to get in there,” Flo told the Weekender. Now based in Hastings, Flo is excited to come back to her old stomping ground. “Usually when I play, I’m carting my family across to West London. I’m loving the lay out at Hideaway; it’s a really nice spot,” she said.
Flo shot to fame as one half of the late ‘90s R&B duo Floetry, but her career actually started with spoken word. “I wanted to create a show I’d loved to have gone to as a younger poet,” she said.
The residency follows from a sold-out night at Hideaway in September. “After Floetry had moved on to do other things, and I made my first and second solo album, I felt myself ready to do other things, and get back on the road,” Flo said. “When you want something from the world, it’s good to go about an offering, rather than just taking. What’s been immeasurable in offerings are those open-mic spaces where I’ve been able to work on my craft,” she said. “I wanted to give something back for open-mic and particularly poetry.”
The events marries Flo’s two passions: music and poetry. “I wanted to invite as many people as possible to perform, so we’d have a varied blend and it could move the way our mind does,” she said. With 20 poets, split into two vortexes, the spoken word night attracts “the most incredible audience who come out to listen, and laugh and disagree.”
“We have poets from all different walks of life, different genders, and cultures. It’s not the same cadence of voice. What we’ve really created is a beautiful first Thursday of the month where we have poets coming from America, Italy, Ireland… It’s such a beautiful tribe.”
Flo has just celebrated the third year anniversary of the spoken word events. “We’ve hosted over 300 poets,” she said. “Now at Hideaway, once a month, we come and we kind of give a bit of protective layering to get through the next month,” she continued.
Flo does “blocks of travel” nowadays but it’s a far cry from the early years of her career. “I did ten years of just touring. That was perfectly set in my twenties,” she said. “Now there’s not so much tap dancing. It’s vigorous work.”
“I started traveling from birth. My father was in the army so I was an army brat. And for the performance aspect I went to the Brit school, for me it was heaven,” Flo recalled.
At 19 she became a performance poet, and by 21 she left for America with her Floetry bandmate Marsha Ambrosius. “Marsha, at the time, was singing and she produced really hot tracks. But I didn’t feel inspired to run to a record company in England and say I have this great idea; there didn’t seem to be an avenue and I knew there were stages elsewhere,” Flo said. “The idea of black people doing entertainment in a certain way: soul, gospel, hip hop, there’s actually an industry for that in America,” she continued. “Here, it would be very difficult for a black girl to get signed, pushed and supported singing something like Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black –which is a fantastic album, and very much a lover’s rock album in its feeling, sound and musicality.”
As a musician Flo has sold over 2 million records and worked with Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Earth, Wind and Fire, just to name a few. “It hasn’t stopped me but in terms of reality, I’m a seven time Grammy nominated artist and the fact does remain that I’m not signed by Island Records,” she said. “I’m a very proud British person, I’m a proud Windrush descendent.”
Flo convinced Marsha to accompany her to America: the land of opportunity. “I was led to where there was a thriving spoken word industry. The live circuit was there,” Flo said. Atlanta boasted really well established open mic jam sessions.
“We went on a two week trip and spent five days in Atlanta, and eight days in Philadelphia where there was the roots movement, neo soul, a touch of jazz. Big Narstie’s jam session was $5 to get in and you could see anyone from Jill Scott, to Jazmine Sullivan at 14 with her Mum bringing her. It was just a scene; a plethora of musicians of an exceptional quality,” she said.
Marsha and Flo went on to work with Michael Jackson to produce the 2002 single Butterflies. “Jazzy Jeff who owns Touch of Jazz made a bunch of songs, including Butterflies. He just happened to be one of Michael Jackson’s best friends,” Flo said. “Four months later we were in the studio with Michael; he insisted both of us be in the session. We spent two weeks with him in the Hit Factory in New York, and it was a beautiful period of time. He gave us so much advice on being an artist; it was a great honour and privilege.”
Anyone can apply to perform at the spoken word night: send an example of your work to firstname.lastname@example.org and request to be in a particular month’s Flo.
The Floacist presents FLO: Spoken Word Vortex is on Thursday 4 January at 8pm at Hideaway,2 Empire Mews, Stanthorpe Road, SW16 2BF. Admission: £5. Recommended to book tickets in advance.
Phone: 020 8835 7070.